UPDATE: Air Force Not Persecuting Christians After All

Just under a month ago, I reported on the fishy story making the rounds on right wing news outlets that a Christian had been fired from the Army simply for defending his beliefs to his commander (who, as all these outlets were careful to note, is an “open lesbian”). Now, an internal investigation by the Air Force, released Wednesday, confirms that the story told by “fired” Master Sergeant Phillip Monk and mudslinging Fox News reporter Todd Starnes was “unsubstantiated.” 

For those who missed the original, here is the story as Starnes and Monk told it:

  1. An Air Force instructor publicly noted his opposition to gay marriage, generating multiple complaints. This instructor’s superior (the infamous openly lesbian commander) “wanted to severely punish” him. In Monk’s words, she wanted to “lop off the head of this guy.”
  2. Monk, having “quickly determined the instructor meant no harm by his public comments,” voices his disapproval with the commander’s decision to punish the instructor.
  3. Monk’s continued disputes with his commander cause him to be “let go” because of his “deep religious conviction and belief,” or rather, pressured into going on leave and then transferred to another position. Monk, naturally, tells a far-right journalist about this.
  4. Monk is then disciplined for having made “false statements,” mirandized, and must live in fear of being fired.

This story generated a firestorm in the Christian blogosphere: so much so that a Family Research Council petition asking Air Force Secretary Eric Fanning to personally intervene on Monk’s behalf received over 52,000 signatures.

As I noted, there are holes in Monk’s story that would be apparent to anybody who bothered to look into it. Simply by calling the Air Force base’s Public Relations department, I was easily able to ascertain a few crucial facts. 

Among these: Monk was never fired, and his position transfer was pre-scheduled. Although we don’t know the identity of the commander, the extent to which she was even aware that Monk was upset about this is debatable. The instructor who made the homophobic remarks was not “severely disciplined,” rather, a “letter of counseling” was put in his file – a punishment that is “not all that significant,” and certainly doesn’t amount to a “decapitation.” 

Ironically, Monk was only investigated for making false statements because he exaggerated or falsified these very claims. And, as it turns out, Monk’s commander was being investigated as well: after all, the Air Force wanted to make sure she hadn’t actually done anything wrong.

The Air Force’s Wednesday press release utterly demolishes what little remained of Monk’s story. According to the Air Force, Monk’s claims, as a whole, were false. In fact, Monk never “voiced a religious or moral objection” about gay marriage to his commander at all. The report concludes that Monk and his commander never discussed his religious views in any capacity.

The investigator also profoundly disagreed with Monk that the original Air Force trainer’s remarks were simple free speech. “Based on his training as a first sergeant, Senior Master Sgt. Monk should have known that discriminatory remarks on the basis of sexual orientation are against Air Force Policy. He should also have known, while Air Force members do have the right to speech and religion, that right does not mean airmen can say whatever they want, whenever they want.”

Ouch.

However, the military determined neither Monk nor his commander would be punished, which is kind given Monk’s very public, very willful attempt to tarnish their reputation. 

Perhaps they simply were trying to avoid generating more controversy, which would have been a savvy PR move on the part of the Air Force. Indeed, the right-wing media will likely lose interest in Monk’s story now that it no longer fits the narrative: after all, even the punishment they feared never came. Starnes, who has stretched the truth on this particular issue before, has still made no corrective changes to his original article on Monk, and probably never will. The far-right blogosphere will move on to the next story that seems to make credible their continued fixation on Christian persecution in the military, as they have before. And when that story turns out to be untrue or half-true, they’ll already be moving on to the next one.

robshry@gmail.com'

Rob Shryock is an author, journalist and editor of the Religion blog "God Is Sometimes Great." He holds a Bachelor's Degree in Religion from Reed College, where he wrote his thesis on Christian Worship Music.