In my last column I discussed the historic roots of freedom of religion in the United States. In this one I will focus on one less-well-known organization that is doing critical work to protect a specialized group within our country – those who serve in our armed forces. First a bit of explanation is in order.
Because the military is rigidly structured and highly controlled, and because trust and cohesion within units is essential to the safety of service people, some forms of religious expression that would be perfectly acceptable among a civilian population must be curtailed during military service. For example, service personnel of higher rank are not permitted to proselytize among those of lower rank. The reason is simple. Obedience to the commands of those of higher rank is mandatory and absolute. Within such a power structure, for an officer to “suggest” to enlisted personnel that they attend a particular religious event or engage in a specific religious activity is inevitably coercive.
There are also restrictions on when and where religious symbols may be displayed. The U.S. military is, of course, a department of the federal government and thus is bound by the same rules of strict neutrality in regards to religion that apply to other governmental entities. And for those stationed outside the borders of the U.S., especially in areas where religious and ethnic differences fuel conflict, the safety of our troops must be the overriding consideration. Nothing may be displayed that could make them a target of hostility.
Unfortunately, in recent decades, such common-sense restrictions have been violated more and more frequently, and harassment both of mainline Christians and of non-Christians has escalated. Enter Michael L. “Mikey” Weinstein. Son of an Air Force lieutenant colonel, Weinstein graduated from the Air Force Academy in 1977 and served as a judge advocate general for over a decade. After three years serving as legal counsel for the Reagan White House, he worked in several prominent law firms in New York City and Washington, D.C. More recently he was employed as First General Council by Texas billionaire and two-time independent presidential candidate H. Ross Perot. That’s hardly the background one would expect to produce someone who has become the nation’s leading defender of religious rights for military personnel and a thorn in the side of Pentagon officials, but that’s what Weinstein is today.
What set Weinstein on his present course was a visit that he paid to his son Curtis, then a rising second-year student at the Air Force Academy, in 2004. During the visit Curtis told his father of several occasions on which he had been the recipient of anti-Jewish abuse from both officers and cadets. Weinstein immediately responded by filing a complaint. When an Air Force investigation revealed a pervasive climate of inappropriate proselytizing, harassment, and abuse at the Academy, Weinstein and his wife Bonnie left their comfortable up-scale life and founded the Military Religious Freedom Foundation (MRFF).
In the decade since its founding, MRFF has advocated for more than 40,000 service members, roughly 96% of whom are Christian but subject to unwanted proselytizing or worse because they are deemed not the “right sort” of Christian by those who push a very conservative, evangelical faith. The other 4% of their client base includes a variety of non-Christian faiths, among them Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, and Wiccan, as well as those who adhere to no religious belief. Reports to MRFF have exposed misconduct by uniformed Pentagon officials participating in the filming of a “Christian Embassy” video inside the Pentagon, punishment of soldiers who declined to attend a “Christian Rock” concert at Fort Eustis, inclusion of a “spiritual fitness” component in Army fitness testing which inquired about soldiers’ religious beliefs and marked down as deficient those who did not indicate a belief in God, and the use by U.S. Marines serving in Afghanistan of Nazi SS flag and symbols.
Weinstein applies a fierce and dogged determination to his advocacy work, receiving in turn the gratitude of the thousands who benefit from his exceptional lawyerly skills. He and his family also receive, however, an unending stream of vitriol and threats, including regular death threats. Most of these come in the form of anonymous email messages, usually from persons identifying themselves as Christian. As one way of indicating that they will not be intimidated, MRFF and Weinstein regularly publish excerpts from these messages. Following are a few examples, reprinted exactly as written.
“Now for our prayer, we pray that the women who work in your MFRR and the women in your family will befall fast moving breast cancer which can not everbe cured.”
“Mr. Mickey Wienstien, my church and its fine pastors, our congregation and my family and I all wonder how you and your MRFF helpers sleep at night? …. You have singlehandidly disgraced America and its Christian faith and culture and its Christian military. Whether you and your fellow evildoers accept it or not, America IS a CHRISTIAN NATION as it was always the ONLY plan of the founding fathers to be just that. Of course America's military MUST be a Christian military because America was always meant to be a CHRISTIAN nation. .… In Jesus' name, we will pray for you and your family and MRFF to stop or be stopped.”
“listen up, fuck you jew-boy Mikey trayter; you and your Jesus hating band of anti American MFRR scum can try all you want to keep our lord and savioyer's love of christyan power out of our USA Army but you will fail as you all are of the evil demon devil and always have been you try to stop us from bringing His grace and love to the rest of the world with the USA armd forces …. you will all burn in hell anyways for your evilness to fight Jesus in the USA Army”
The collection from which I copied these brief quotes extends to 117 pages, much of it in similar language or worse. And I have to ask, how can any of these obscenities be called Christian? How dare the writers claim to speak in Jesus’ name? Is this kind of blatant hatred one reason why increasing numbers of young people are turning away from organized religion? What would be the international repercussions if the world’s most powerful fighting force were to represent itself as a “Christian army”? Is all of this symptomatic of the creeping Christofascism about which German theologian Dorothee Sölle warned more than twenty years ago?
These and other questions may be the subject of later columns. For now, I have already exceeded my allotted space and will simply conclude with great gratitude that folks like Mikey and Bonnie Weinstein are willing to risk their lives and livelihood protecting the religious rights of all those who serve in our nation’s armed forces.