E-mail ran afoul of rules, not religion
By Jim Spencer, The Denver Post, May 10, 2006
"I'm quite sure," said retired Air Force Gen. Bentley Rayburn, "that absent one word, no one would ever know anything about this."
The word is "Christian."
Rayburn was talking about a political endorsement sent last week via military e-mail to hundreds of recipients around the country. The e-mail's author was Maj. Gen. Jack Catton of the Air Force's Air Combat Command in Virginia. He asked recipients to support Rayburn to replace retiring U.S. Rep. Joel Hefley in Colorado's 5th Congressional District.
"We are certainly in need of Christian men with integrity and military experience in Congress," Catton wrote. "Please read Bentley's note below and join me in supporting his bid to continue serving our country."
Rayburn is probably right that Catton's invocation of Christianity, as well as Rayburn's own admonition that "those of us who are Christians" recognize "that we need more Christian influence in Congress," captured attention.
Catton sent a second e-mail saying he "would like to recall the message, 'Rayburn Runnisng (sic) For Congress."' It was too late. Within hours of delivery, Mikey Weinstein, an Air Force Academy grad who is suing over evangelical Christian proselytizing in the Air Force, had a copy of the first e-mail. Now, the Air Force Inspector General is investigating.
Weinstein "will be happy," Rayburn said, "when you erase any notion of religion from the public square. I think he's a pretty lone voice out there, because I think that's not the proper interpretation of the Constitution. … Obviously, he's on a crusade."
Weinstein had a five-word reply: "Tell it to the judge."
Weinstein, a lawyer in the Reagan administration, said he wants people in uniform - especially commanders - to stop stumping for any special faith in a supposedly nonsectarian military. "When you put on the uniform," he said, "you can't push a particular religion. As Patton said, 'You're always on parade."'
Defense Department rules say active- duty military members "shall not" use "official authority or influence for interfering with an election or … soliciting votes for a particular candidate." Catton violated that rule - and would have even if Rayburn had been a Buddhist conscientious objector.
Because of the Inspector General's investigation, Catton can't talk about his e-mail. Rayburn, who retired from the Air Force on April 1, can. He says Catton's only mistake was endorsing Rayburn's candidacy using military e-mail. Otherwise, Rayburn said, his "close, personal friend" communicated privately with other friends, something the rules allow.
"Weinstein's only concern was this constitutional question about Christians and the separation of church and state," Rayburn said.
Weinstein is not alone in that concern. The Air Force says an internal complaint, not Weinstein, led to the investigation of Catton. That takes the steam out of Rayburn's "lone voice" theory.
So do recent Air Force investigations of alleged evangelical proselytizing and discrimination against non-Christians. On Thursday, the ACLU's director of Freedom of Religion and Belief speaks at the Air Force Academy.
Still, Catton's actions don't deserve censure merely because his e-mail included the word "Christian." Catton would have stepped over a line endorsing any political candidate of any faith as he endorsed Rayburn, even via personal e-mail.
As surely as civilians suck up to their bosses, a two-star general's request matters. And with Rayburn asking Catton to talk to Air Force Academy classmates and "ultimately enlist their support and encourage them to seek out the support of their family, friends, neighbors and colleagues," it's easy to see how people might feel pressure. So this isn't about the word "Christian." But it is about faith.
Faith that the folks who send you into battle know that you're fighting for the same side they are - whether or not you think ex-generals make good congressmen, and whether you worship Jesus, Yahweh, Allah or Satan.
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