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E-mail zeal

In public life there's a reason good recruits are hard to find

Issue: "The Da Vinci craze," May 20, 2006

This is the account of a news item that moved last week, in a most unexpected manner, from WORLD's list of "not-quite-ready" stories to the "must-tell" category.

What prompted us to hold back is that in WORLD's 20-year history or the 65-year history of our company, no one on our board of directors had decided to run for a seat in Congress. We wanted to be careful to keep our journalistic objectivity, not to be caught wrongly playing favorites, and to make sure we were covering the whole political picture.

The person in view was Bentley B. Rayburn, a two-star general in the United States Air Force. I had not only known this fellow all his life-but had shared living quarters with him when he was still in kindergarten and I was a college freshman rooming in his parents' home. We knew each other pretty well.

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Finishing high school in St. Louis, Bentley went on to the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs-where he headed the 4,000-cadet student body and launched a noteworthy military career. He piloted F-16s and became commanding officer at Nellis Air Force Base in Nevada where some of the best pilots in America train. When it came time for the military to find out what had gone wrong in the bombing of the Khobar Towers in Saudi Arabia, it was Bentley Rayburn who was assigned the task of heading the investigation. By 1997, he had been promoted to brigadier general and in 2000 received his second star to become a major general. His last assignment was as commandant of the Air War College at Maxwell Air Force Base.

Earlier this spring, however, Gen. Rayburn and his wife Debbi decided that life might have some other fascinating assignments as well. Resigning after more than 30 years with the Air Force (and resigning also from the board of WORLD magazine), he began exploring those options. That was when word came that the veteran U.S. congressman from the district surrounding Colorado Springs was unexpectedly retiring and leaving an open seat. Political activists in the area got in touch with Gen. Rayburn to see if he might be available. Available he was-and announced to the voters on April 20 that he would seek the office. He's been campaigning energetically since then, heading for an Aug. 8 primary when he'll learn whether his future in politics is as bright as his past in the military.

That's the part of the story I wanted to tell you, but thought maybe it was a little early and a little too personal.

Then came the other part.

Just a few days ago, one of Gen. Rayburn's friends, Jack Catton Jr.-a fellow cadet from Air Force Academy days who is also now a two-star general with a command at Langley Air Force Base in Virginia-took it on himself to send an e-mail memo to several hundred mutual friends, asking them to support the Rayburn campaign and arguing explicitly that "we are certainly in need of Christian men with integrity and military experience in Congress." In his late-night zeal, Gen. Rayburn's friend ignored the fact that he was working from a government computer, and that his e-mail was going out with an official return address.

By the next morning, he realized how wrong he had been. The Washington Post had also been alerted, and 24 hours later featured a story about the matter. The Post noted both issues: that the memo had been sent from an official computer, but especially the damnable fact that someone might be so bold as to assert that America would benefit by having a few more Christians in Congress. "This is not just a small thing," said Michael Weinstein of the Military Religious Freedom Foundation. "It's evidence of a continuing attack on separation of church and state." Mr. Weinstein had been a central figure in recent controversies over the influence of evangelical Christians at the Air Force Academy.

A former Air Force lawyer told the Post that the essence of the issue was not the use of the official computer, but the reference to the need for more Christians. "I'd be surprised if there's not some sort of disciplinary or administrative action," he said.

All of which we might want to keep in mind the next time we hear how hard it is to recruit good people to serve in government posts.

Joel Belz
Joel Belz

Joel, WORLD's founder, writes a regular column for the magazine and contributes commentaries for The World and Everything in It. He is also the author of Consider These Things.


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