During the first two weeks of February, military bases and schools across the country will join dozens of other organizations is holding annual “prayer breakfasts” and luncheons in coordination with the controversial National Prayer Breakfast in Washington, DC.
While military chaplains are expected to provide non-denominational options to those in uniform, critics charge that prayer breakfasts sometimes favor conservative and evangelical brands of Christianity that are intolerant of other faiths and perspectives.
Consider professional motivational speaker Lt. Clebe McClary, a veteran from South Carolina whose web site features praise from right-wing Christian leaders like Jerry Falwell and Billy Graham. McClary is a retired Marine, who was wounded in Vietnam and now serves the “Lord’s Army,” and believes that USMC (US Marine Corps) will always stand for “US Marines for Christ,” according to his web site.
McClary will be speaking at the National Prayer Luncheon at the US Air Force Academy on February 10, one week after the National Prayer Breakfast.
McClary joined the Marines after witnessing Vietnam War protesters burning an American flag on a college campus, and he was seriously wounded during hand-to-hand combat in Vietnam. He now travels the world speaking on veteran’s issues, teamwork and born-again Christian values.
Chris Rodda, a researcher with the Military Religious Freedom Foundation (MRFF), is concerned that the Air Force Academy’s decision to hire McClary as the main speaker at its National Prayer Luncheon is another example of how the Air Force and the military favors evangelical Christianity over other forms of faith.
“It’s like they’re flaunting it,” Rodda said of the Air Force’s support of evangelical Christianity. “They’re not even trying to hide it.”
Rodda pointed to the academy chaplain’s web site*, where the only regularly scheduled Protestant services offered at the academy chapel are “evangelical” and “gospel” services.
Catholic masses are also offered at the academy, and information on Buddhist and Wiccan services are available upon request.
The Air Force Academy’s National Prayer Luncheon was inspired by the National Prayer Breakfast, a controversial annual event in Washington that brings more than 3,000 international power brokers, lawmakers and politicians together for a day of prayer and reflection.
The National Prayer Breakfast is sponsored by The Fellowship, a foundation associated with The Family, a secretive group of influential Christian lawmakers and politicians whose mission is to advance the evangelical Christian agenda in Washington and across the world.
An anonymous MRFF client and spokesperson attending the Air Force Academy issued a statement on Tuesday claiming that an email sent to everyone at the academy made it clear that the attendance at the luncheon, although technically optional, is strongly encouraged:
.. when the base-wide e-Mail begins with a highlighted statement:
it’s not hard for so many of us here at USAFA [US Air Force Academy] to conclude that the senior leadership is STRONGLY encouraging attendance. The attached flyer goes on to say that you can purchase his book at the BX and that he’ll be available to sign it, too. A visit to his web site, though, and one gets the impression that, while everyone on base is invited to attend, this isn’t going to be the most inclusionary event of the year.
The first paragraph reads “Clebe is what he likes to call a complete Marine. To him, USMC will always mean a U.S. Marine for Christ.” I can only conclude that anyone that doesn’t share his particular religious view must be an “incomplete Marine,” (or soldier, or [sailor], or airman) unworthy of the uniform. And shouldn’t it be USMC as in “US Marine for the Constitution?” That’s the document he swore to defend when he was commissioned.
It’s a National Prayer Luncheon, but the message [couldn’t] be clearer to those who may pray to a different deity or those that have a more ecumenical interpretation of their god – if you’re not an evangelical, fundamentalist Christian, this event isn’t for you. Yet senior academy leadership seems to want us there anyway.
The Air Force Academy and the MRFF have been butting heads over the evangelical influence at the academy for some time now. The MRFF charges that academy cadets are pressured into joining evangelical groups and attending Bible studies, while the academy has made public attempts to promote religious diversity by offering more types of religious services at its chapel and assessing the spiritual “climate” at the academy.
Last September, Air Force Academy graduate and MRFF founder Mikey Weinstein told Truthout that an anonymous Air Force cadet contacted him and claimed to be part of a “underground” group of about 100 cadets, who came together because they could not rely on legitimate channels to address pressure from evangelicals in the academy.
Weinstein’s source said that some cadets pretended to be evangelical and attended services and Bible studies in order to maintain standing among their peers and superiors.
Weinstein said that he doesn’t have any problems with McClary as a person or believer, but Air Force cadets should not be expected to attend a prayer service featuring a soldier who once wrote that he “almost went to hell with high morals” because “I never invited Jesus Christ into my heart as Savior or let Him become the Lord of my life.”
“Obviously, this isn’t [McClary’s] fault, it’s the USAF Academy’s stinking disgrace,” Weinstein said. “He’s a war hero and my hat is off to him. He’s entitled to his own religious views and others are just as entitled to consider his views as disgusting.”
“But in this instance, look, this is a national day of prayer that is supposed to be formidably and ecumenically inclusive. Thus, yes, it is actually supposed to be S-E-C-U-L-A-R to include all USAF Academy personnel. But instead they are bringing in Rambo Jesus’ acolyte; a notoriously sectarian and rapacious, professional, fundamentalist Christian missionary who’s basic proselytizing mantra is that, even if you have pristine and peerless personal morals, integrity, character and leadership, guess what; you’re still going to burn eternally in hell unless you surrender to this guy’s personal version of weaponized Jesus.”
*This statement refers to the chaplain’s website for the 10th Air Base Wing, the Wing that is hosting this Prayer Luncheon, and not the Academy’s main chaplain’s website.
(This story was written by Mike Ludwig, and originally published at Truthout.org. It has been reprinted with permission)