praying-guy

Much hubbub is being made of Col. Erik Shafa’s misguided mass email nudging his 42d Airbase Wing subordinates to attend a [Christian] “prayer breakfast” event later this month. The debacle has triggered some negative press for the service and re-enlivened a whisper campaign among Congressional staffers who say their principals are concerned the Air Force has fallen into the embrace of clericalism.

Leading anti-AF charge is Mikey Weinstein’s Military Religious Freedom Foundation (MRFF), which has an enduring point about excessive religious influence over Air Force organizational culture, but too often overstates the point and stretches the facts. In this case, Weinstein is right. But for the wrong reasons.

It’s not that Shafa’s email stands in violation of AFI 1-1. This is par for the course. Air Force senior officers exist to approve regulations, not to obey them. 

The legal question is whether the Establishment Clause is implicated, and it isn’t. There’s nothing coercive about Shafa using his organizational email box to send the invitation. We can’t, on the one hand, expect maturity and moral courage from airmen while on the other hand pretending their will is so fragile as to be broken with the force of a thumb pushing down on a blade of grass. Sure, Shafa could have included a “no pressure” disclaimer … but if we’re saying that would make a difference, we’re also admitting it shouldn’t. Those claiming their will was overborne by an email are spineless weasels who are in the wrong profession.

Weinstein is also not right because of religious hypocrisy, though that does exist in this case. We know it exists because it would be national news if Shafa were a devout Muslim and had used his email account to nudge his airmen to fast at Ramadan or assemble at Wing Headquarters with rolled rugs for sunrise prayer. This sort of hypocrisy is baked into the social contours of the USA, and until that changes it will remain an empty exercise to expect anything different from the Air Force.

No, the real reason Weinstein is accidentally correct is that no wing commander in the USAF should be wasting time on trivialities like this. If your duty title contains the word “commander” you have a solitary, solemn responsibility, and that is to guarantee the mission of your unit. This carries with it an implied duty to take care of the people who conduct that mission. These two activities, when accurately summed, occupy the full expanse of a commander’s time, energy, and ability. Any gain in speed, conservation of energy, or increase in ability only serves to marginally expand capacity that is immediately filled with additional duties to mission and people. 

Encouraging attendance at niche community activities isn’t part of this core of duty. Commanders with time to send prayer breakfast emails are doing something wrong. 

They’re also, as I baited in the opening salvo, misguided. The advent of email has permitted wing commanders to make two classic mistakes in addition to the ones already stated or implied. 

First, to overuse their voices. If you’re running a wing, you want the messages you consider important enough to deliver personally rather than relay them through subordinate commanders to hit hard. You want them to find open eyes, minds, and hearts. But the more you say, the more these avenues close to your messages. The more your people absorb, the less they can still absorb. Save your voice for when it really matters. A prayer breakfast is not that moment. Or if it is, maybe Weinstein has a point about intent.

Second, wing commanders are too present in Air Force squadrons. A typical airman’s focal point for organizational messaging should be his squadron commander, who should be the predominant representative for the Air Force in its street-level units. Over the years, the power and influence of the squadron commander has been burglarized, and wing commanders have the dirtiest hands of all. Whether motivated by the realization they’ve become bureaucrats and can only feel instrumental via inappropriate dabbling … by the numbskull notion that being in touch requires (or will be aided by) literal involvement … or by general distrust of their subordinate commanders … wing commanders have been stealing touch points for nigh on a decade. They’ve sought to bolster their own stature and celebrity while reducing squadron commanders — once the giants of the service — to caretaker status.

Gen. Goldfein says he wants to flip this script, placing squadron commanders at the top and the CSAF at the bottom of the command ladder. He seems earnest about it. He can get a good start by repudiating idiocy like this prayer breakfast email. Not because, as Weinstein argues, it shows a wing commander being criminal. But because it shows a wing commander being clueless.