Skip to content Skip to footer

Good Riddance to the Air Force’s Religious Intolerance Enabler in Chief

Air Force Joint Chief Gen. Norton A. Schwartz addresses the National Guard Association of the United States conference in Nashville, Tennessee, September 12, 2009. (Photo: Tech. Sgt. Nick Choy / National Guard)

In his last agonizing days, the now-disgraced former Penn State football coach Joe Paterno lamented publicly, “I wish I had done more.” Indeed, we all wish he had. As we’ve now come to learn, the debacle of pedophilia revealed at Penn State would not have occurred if not for the clear complicity of coach Joe Paterno, who helped to orchestrate a careful cover-up of Jerry Sandusky’s reprehensible pattern of serial sexual molestation. Paterno’s concealment of Sandusky’s vile misdeeds ruined his own legacy as coach and forever stained the reputation of Penn State’s athletics program.

A similar drama has played out within the ranks of the United States Air Force (USAF). Rather than the odious offense of covering up sexual abuse, we have seen the vast coverup of an unlawful epidemic whereby many thousands of men and women within the ranks of the USAF have been subject to serial religious abuse and molestation. The national security repercussions of this ongoing crisis are all too dire, and as was the case at Penn State, the responsibility for this scandal ultimately lies with the most senior leadership.

On August 10, 2012, the current chief of staff (the commander) of the USAF, General Norton A. “Norty” Schwartz, will saunter off into a plush and comfortable retirement. Schwartz has spent 39 years on active duty, with the last four of these years being spent as the singular leader in charge of the USAF. I know this man well, and he knows me well too – all too well. We first met in his lavish Pentagon office nearly three and a half years ago. The purpose of this meeting was to discuss the civil rights activism of the Military Religious Freedom Foundation (MRFF), the organization that I founded in 2005. Then, as now, MRFF had been in a state of perpetual conflict not only with the USAF, but the whole of the Department of Defense (DoD), regarding the out-of-control, command-influenced proselytizing by fundamentalist Christians throughout the ranks of our armed forces. In fact, the initial meeting between Schwartz and myself was covered in an article by New York Times Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Eric Lichtblau in late February of 2009. Norty said some things in that meeting that gave me some hope that maybe (just maybe) we had finally found a senior Pentagon military official who would stand up to this tidal wave of predatory religious bigotry. The most important advice he gave me was to never lose my “vitriol” lest the Pentagon stop listening to MRFF’s constitutional civil rights battle Well, Norty, this op-ed is a testament to how seriously I took your counsel. In careful retrospect, it is likely the only truth you have ever spoken to me.

As months passed and turned into years, Norty and I spoke frequently. Sometimes we spoke numerous times each month, and occasionally we spoke numerous times per week. Indeed, I still have a plethora of voice mails left by him from when I was unable to answer his calls. When we did speak, he was always superficially courteous and disingenuously engaging. He would often prattle on about Air Force football and an array of other matters inconsequential to the epidemic of religious supremacy metastasizing at light speed throughout the Air Force under his command. When we would finally get down to brass tacks, he supposedly took attentive notes, promising to expeditiously tackle the dire matters of religious bigotry that were the subjects of our continual years of discussions.

At my urging, Schwartz and I had organized a protocol that was supposed to address, in a timely manner, the mounting, desperate calls for help that MRFF received from thousands of terribly aggrieved USAF members. Without going into specifics, let me say that in the fullness of time, it became bitterly apparent that Norty never meant to embrace, support or endorse this plan to fight the brutal religious intolerance flourishing under his command. Sure, he would commiserate with me through the course of countless phone calls, complaining that he only had “so much institutional influence” over the USAF. When I described the real-world consequences wrought upon the USAF by this maelstrom of fundamentalist Christian tyranny and provided him incontrovertible proof of same, including eyewitnesses, he would tell me that he “could not be everyone’s Wing Commander.” After years of continuously promising me the opportunity to address his most senior subordinate commanders, he lamented that the “white hairs” (read: senior USAF four-star generals underneath him) were “too far gone” to change. He suggested that I instead speak to those junior officers who would be in a position to affect institutional change in, say, just a decade or two. Seriously? Right, Norty.

On September 13, 2011, I called Norty to thank him for releasing an extremely brief memo mildly promoting the virtues of religious neutrality. I remember with crystal clarity that he somehow seemed startled as to how that memo ever got out of his office. Shockingly, I came to the realization that I was the first to have informed him of the public dissemination that day of this memo.

My statement to the press made clear that this command missive ought to have been released years earlier, but what the hell – better late than never, right? Additionally, I said that while Norty’s memo wasn’t a “grand slam,” it was at least a solid single into center field. Furthermore, I noted that this memo indicated that Schwartz could “talk the talk,” but that time would test whether he was capable of concomitantly “walking the walk.” Time has most certainly told the tale – he didn’t walk the walk, and he can’t, because he won’t. That one memo, which simply underscored the most glaringly obvious constitutional mandates against conflating one’s personal religious convictions with one’s USAF command authority, received almost zero visibility within the rank and file of the USAF under Schwartz’s command. And it is the members of this very same rank and file who most often constitute the helpless victims of pernicious, predatory religious persecution in Schwartz’s USAF.

MRFF subsequently received multiple thousands of desperate pleas from affected USAF members begging Norty to give the order to disseminate the memo throughout all levels of the USAF. Schwartz refused these pleas. Through the course of even more phone conversations with him, I expressed in ever-louder demands that he disseminate the memo. MRFF was eventually forced to spend thousands of precious dollars to place the memo he now seemed so ashamed of on a giant billboard erected in Colorado Springs near Norty’s and my mutual alma mater, the United States Air Force Academy (USAFA). Why? Because the fundamentalist Christian superintendent of USAFA, Lt. Gen. Mike Gould, abjectly refused to order that Schwartz’s memo be individually sent to the entirety of the USAFA personnel under his direct command. When I told Norty that I was planning on putting up more billboards at USAF bases all over the country, he pleaded with me not to do so because it would “put (him) in a dangerous and precarious position,” whatever that meant.

Excuse me, Norty? Were you afraid of receiving a few complaints from the rabid fundamentalist lobby, or a vile, lying stooge such as the evangelical minister David Barton? Could it be that you were afraid of a few constitutionally derelict lawmakers from Congress writing to Defense Secretary Leon Panetta (your boss) – as was the case with me on two separate occasions, in June and July of this year respectively, when Secretary Panetta was notified regarding the supposed “undue influence” of MRFF? Of course you were.

Martin Luther King Jr. once opined: “In the end we remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends. And there comes a time when silence becomes betrayal.” Your time came and passed, Norty. I could easily present a literal plethora of thousands of other blatant outrages of fundamentalist Christian religious supremacy within the USAF. These were born directly from the unconscionable malfeasance and misfeasance of Schwartz’s pitiful acts of betrayal, both by omission and commission. Like myself, Norty is Jewish. Did this fact contribute, to any meaningful degree, to his tepid timidity to stand up to these religious extremist bullies in any material or substantial way, shape or form? Was Norty daunted by the prospect of being called a “Jesus-basher”? Maybe. I don’t know. Ask him. Perhaps one day, Schwartz, like Paterno, will also stare endlessly into an abyss of unbridled public outrage and woefully lament that he wishes he “had done more.”

The brilliant and courageous abolitionist Frederick Douglass once rightfully asserted, “Power concedes nothing without a demand.” How very true. I demanded that Norty live up to his oath, in which he swore to support and defend the United States Constitution. Given the imperative of the obvious national security implications, this sworn oath especially includes enforcing the separation of church and state in the USAF. I was far from alone in this demand. Amidst such stomach-turning outrages as the “Jesus Loves Nukes” speech and other mandatory training programs of a decidedly unlawful, sectarian nature, several thousands of Norty’s fellow airmen and women who are MRFF clients also demanded the same thing, as did the American people. He ignored us all, and took us for chumps by mouthing and lip-syncing the words he thought were needed to placate us, rather than lending his actual command voice to our wholly legitimate demands. Mere pretty words are only whimsical, gossamer echoes when recognizably solid deeds fail to back them up. Pathetically, in this case, there were none. The situation is far worse now that Schwartz has issued that one little memo and failed to manifestly stand behind it. Indeed, the memo means nothing without an accompanying directive ordering its comprehensive transmission to every Air Force member at every “hill and dale” location in the USAF. Schwartz’s term of service as USAF chief of staff has epitomized a tortured, gutless legacy that’s now being left behind for the rest of us to wretchedly wallow in.

In an interview given to the press a few days ago, Schwartz was asked about the religious intolerance scandals within the USAF that plagued his time as chief of staff. Schwartz, brazenly lying through his teeth, answered with those same pretty words he thought we all so badly wanted to hear. He told the reporter that he thought that the Air Force has “sensitized our commanders to their obligations in this regard.” Alfred Tennyson said, “A lie that is a half-truth is the darkest of all lies.” Norty, you’re not just a liar. You’re a damned liar.

Norty Schwartz, you were the Air Force, just as Joe Paterno was Penn State. It was your solemn duty to protect the men and women under your command from unconstitutional religious bigotry, denigration, marginalization, dehumanization, hectoring proselytization and spiritual molestation at the hands of the myriad Jerry Sanduskys among your hundreds of thousands of compliant subordinates. Enjoy your retirement in the full knowledge that, having failed to protect countless USAF men and women from the fundamentalist religious predators within USAF ranks, they will forever remember you as their very own Joe Paterno. Your lack of any cognizable semblance of empathy for the innocent victims of this ubiquitous, unconstitutional scourge of old-school prejudice enabled and empowered this conflagration of scandals to occur. Your wanton attempts to whitewash these civil rights crimes have trumpeted a clear message that the USAF will abide, aid and abet these systemic violations of the precious constitutional rights of its personnel.

We trusted you. You betrayed that trust. Et tu, Norty?

Join us in defending the truth before it’s too late

The future of independent journalism is uncertain, and the consequences of losing it are too grave to ignore. To ensure Truthout remains safe, strong, and free, we need to raise $46,000 in the next 7 days. Every dollar raised goes directly toward the costs of producing news you can trust.

Please give what you can — because by supporting us with a tax-deductible donation, you’re not just preserving a source of news, you’re helping to safeguard what’s left of our democracy.