Christian-Bashing Air Force Officer Story is Just That

It seemed a dream story for the Christian right. A Fox News article titled “Airmen Punished for Objecting to Gay Marriage,” tells the story of Lackland Air Force Base’s Phillip Monk, who, according to his own testimony, stood up for a military trainer who had publicly announced his disapproval of gay marriage. His superior, who Monk notes is “openly a lesbian,” wanted the trainer punished, which led to a rift that eventually caused Monk to be “relieved of his position.”

The story had everything: gay people oppressing Christians, as well as a man fired for simply, reasonably, defending his faith. It got enough notice that a Family Research Council petition to Air Force Secretary Eric Fanning to personally intercede on Monk’s behalf gathered over 45,000 signatures in the last five days.

But there’s a problem with Monk’s story: it relies on a generous interpretation of—some might say disregard for—the facts. Monk was never “relieved of his position” or “essentially fired,” as he claimed. Anybody who bothered to reach out to Colleen McGee, the military public relations contact on this issue, would have figured this out. But when I called her, I learned that I was only the fourth reporter to do so. “Normally, for a story like this, I’d expect about forty calls,” said McGee.

McGee cleared up some basic facts: first of all, Phillip Monk was not “officially fired”; rather, he was transferred back to his field (medicine), a transfer he had been aware of since May. He was never removed from duty. 

What’s more, it seems that Monk’s superior wasn’t even that upset about the whole issue, but simply thought that they had “agreed to disagree.”

Ironically, what finally got Monk in actual trouble was this very public misstatement of what happened to him (although, I use “in actual trouble” loosely here, as Monk has not been punished in any way, and the inquiry into his actions is only at the fact-gathering stage). Even the trainer he defended only received a “letter of counseling,” which is known to be a punishment that’s “not all that significant.”

Monk claimed last week that he had been Mirandized in connection with this inquiry, something that McGee neither confirmed nor denied, but implied would not be something out of the ordinary in an investigation such as this.

Still, the inquiry into Monk’s actions gave his story new life, and led to a series of articles full of innuendo masquerading as fact. “Air Force Cracking Down on Christians,” a Fox News piece by the same author as the Fox article mentioned previously, shows that he’s more upset than ever about the Air Force’s investigation into Monk, an investigation that, ironically, his own poor reporting directly contributed to. As of September 10th, the original article stands without correction.

With stories like these it can be difficult to tell whether the religious right’s persecution narrative creates a distorted lens or, more cynically, whether cases that have the potential to play on the persecution narrative are seized upon and promoted as a means to an end… discuss.