Ladies and Gentlemen,
Thank you for your concerns regarding the 10th Air Base Wing's invite to retired Marine Corps Lieutenant Clebe McClary to be the guest speaker for the 2011 National Prayer Luncheon on Feb. 10. I'd like to take a moment to give you the 'ground truth' on some of the issues surrounding this event to ensure you have the entire picture.
Each February, the President, Members of Congress, the Supreme Court, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and other invited guests, customarily attend the Presidential Prayer Breakfast in Washington, DC. This gathering is a national tradition that dates back to the Eisenhower Administration. Its observance on military installations and in communities across the nation is an extension of this event. The event's purpose has consistently been: "to bring together the leadership of the United States in recognition of the spiritual values upon which our Nation is founded."
USAFA's Prayer Luncheon is a completely voluntary event; invites were only sent to permanent party members and staff (not cadets). There is absolutely no pressure for anyone to attend.
This year's program is very inclusive of many different beliefs. There will be readings by an Islamic Airman, a Jewish Airman, an African-American Christian Airman, a Jewish chaplain (rabbi), a Buddhist sensei and a Catholic chaplain (priest). By design, this expresses some of the rich religious diversity that makes up America's Air Force and your United States Air Force Academy.
We asked Lt McClary to speak because he is a highly-decorated Vietnam combat veteran (Silver Star and Bronze Star) and nationally recognized motivational speaker. He presents a tremendously inspirational message as he describes the loss of an eye and arm in combat, and how he overcame tough odds to succeed in his endeavors. His message is one of facing challenges and overcoming adversity and he has the credibility to support that message.
USAFA's luncheon is not funded by taxpayer dollars. Expenses are covered , in part, by the Chapel Tithes and Offerings Fund (to include Lt McClary's lodging, travel expenses, or honorarium). Those wishing to attend pay $7 for their meals.
And again, I appreciate your concerns and thoughts. I hope this helps you better understand the history of the National Prayer Luncheon and its importance to your US Air Force Academy , dozens of other military installations, and countless citizens across our nation.
David K. Cannon
Director of Communication
U. S. Air Force Academy, Colorado Springs, Colorado
I'd like to take a moment to give you the "ground truth" on the issues surrounding this event to ensure that you have the entire picture. Our "ground truth" comes from service members who have actually heard Lt. McClary speak at previous events, both at USAFA and at other military installations.
But first, Mr. Cannon, I'd like to address the distractions and straw men in your email.
You really need not explain the history of the National Prayer Breakfast to a group of religious freedom advocates. You see, Mr. Cannon, we are all quite familiar with the history of this "tradition," as the Prayer Breakfast movement was started by "The Family," the secretive Christian organization exposed by New York Times bestselling author Jeff Sharlet in his book The Family. In fact, over the past few years, I have frequently assisted Mr. Sharlet with research on this group, both during its slew of scandals and for his new book C Street, which has a fascinating section on the military that I think you might find quite enlightening.
Given The Family's connection to the Prayer Breakfast movement, I found it extremely ironic that you actually quote a Family website in your altogether unnecessary and irrelevant history of Prayer Breakfasts. You were probably not even aware that this is what you were quoting, so allow me to fill you in. The head of Leadership Development Seminars, the organization whose website you quote, is Doug Burleigh, a key member of the Family and the brother-in-law of Family leader Doug Coe. Does this make the history on this website wrong? No. On the contrary, the history from Leadership Development Seminars is absolutely correct. It is you, Mr. Cannon, who cherry-picked a quote from this website to suit your purposes.
You quote the Prayer Breakfast movement's purpose "to bring together the leadership of the United States in recognition of the spiritual values upon which our Nation is founded," but conveniently ignore all the other quotes on the same page that make it clear that this is a Christian movement, such as: "The idea of these prayer breakfast groups, which were non-denominational, was to bring together civic and business leaders informally to share a meal, study the Bible, develop relationships of trust & support, and to promote the principles of Jesus." And, what does it say right at the top of this webpage that you quoted from? "A place where state and community leaders can come together with emerging leaders around the person of Jesus." Did you miss this clearly stated mission, Mr. Cannon? Or did you just think that no one who received your email would check to see what you were quoting?
Then there's your straw man that the Academy's Prayer Luncheon is for permanent party and staff members, and not for cadets. We know this, Mr. Cannon. The complaints received by MRFF over your selection of Lt. McClary to speak at this event have been from permanent party and staff members. Nowhere have we claimed otherwise. But, let me ask you a question here. Do you think this makes a difference? Do permanent party and staff members at the Academy have any less rights regarding religious coercion than cadets?
And, that brings me to my next point. Coersion. You claim in your email that "There is absolutely no pressure for anyone to attend." Really? I urge you to take a few minutes to read what one of the permanent party officers who was "invited" to this event wrote on behalf of himself and about a dozen of his fellow officers.
"I saw in the news that the Academy is trying to downplay this whole mess which the MRFF brought to the public by saying that it's 'voluntary' to go to it and that this USMC Lt. is a just 'motivational speaker' and that 'nobody will be taking names.' LIES! My USAFA boss and even his boss left it very clear that if we didn't go to this 'patriotic Christian' event we'd be 'letting him down.' Seriously, 'patriotic Christian' event? That says it all. Believe me please MRFF when I say that the names of the absent will very certainly be remembered. Am I going? In a word, hell yes. I have kids and need my job. I have been afraid to say anything to them for a very long time now. I've gotten good at hiding my hatred of it all. I'm used to it now. The feeling I have of being down for not standing up to the 'energetic Christians' here is not as bad now as the feeling I would have of having my Air Force career derailed by a bad performance eval. You do not need to tell me what that makes me. I know what that makes me and I'm not proud of it. Thank you MRFF for fighting for those of us who have lost the will to fight. And in doing so lost a lot of our own dignity."
Yes, Mr. Cannon, officers like the one who wrote the above will "voluntarily" attend the Prayer Luncheon, and will feel sick about doing so. Quite a morale booster, huh?
Moving on to your next straw man, that this luncheon is not funded by taxpayer dollars, nobody has even raised this issue, and, frankly, it makes no difference who's paying for this event. This is about the impropriety of bringing a speaker to the Academy who likes to think that a "complete" Marine is one who thinks that U.S.M.C stands for "U.S. Marine for Christ," and is well known to make statements at military events telling his audience that to be a "real" Christian, one must be a "born again" Christian. Lt. McClary's views exclude not only members of non-Christian religions, but also the many Christians who do not subscribe to this fundamentalist and highly sectarian view of Christianity. While Lt. McClary's "inspirational" message might inspire those of his own religious ilk, it is a slap in the face to all members of the military who see their mission as defending our country and the Constitution, and not as being part of "the Lord's Army," as Lt. McClary says he is. No amount of lip service to other religions by so graciously allowing them a few minutes at the beginning of the event to read prayers from their religious traditions can counter the clear message of fundamentalist Christian supremacy imparted by the Academy in making Lt. McClary the keynote speaker.
Sure, you can say that the event is inclusive because you've got your token Muslim, Jew, and Buddhist to read a few words, but do you really think that anyone sees this as equal recognition of all religions when these non-Christian readings are followed by a speaker whose military prayer breakfast and luncheon speeches include statements like: "There are two kinds of fools in this world. A fool for Christ and a fool for others. What kind of fool are you?" Do you not think that McClary's message will be taken by your Muslim, Jew, and Buddhist readers as being called "fools."
Now, back to that "ground truth." Many of the service members who have contacted MRFF in opposition to allowing Lt. McClary to speak at the Academy's Prayer Luncheon, and others who have written comments on articles about the issue, are current and former service members who have previously heard this man speak at other military events, and know from first-hand experience what his message is. It is a message of fundamentalist Christian supremacy. Mr. Cannon, no matter how many times you or anyone else at the Academy attempt to convince people that Lt. McClary is simply a "motivational" or "inspirational" speaker, it will not equal the number of first-hand accounts to the contrary, such as these:
"When I saw him speak, it was to a group of young officers (fresh 2Lt's), and he was billed as a 'motivational speaker.' It soon became very clear that he was high on the Jesus juice." (comment from an Air Force Academy graduate)
"I've heard him speak before and I know what he says and what he does to his audience. It made me sick then and will again when he speaks on Feb. 10 at the Falcon Club here at USAFA." (email from current officer at USAFA who identifies himself as a Protestant)
In closing, I'd just like to add that your attempt to dissuade MRFF's allies by sending your email to all of the organizations that wrote letters in support of MRFF's demand to rescind McClary's invitation and choose a more inclusive speaker, but neglecting to copy MRFF on that email, has been duly noted. As you can see by the cc's on this email, my response has been sent to all of these same organizations. I'm sure you'll be hearing from them soon.
Senior Research Director
Military Religious Freedom Foundation