By Josh Harkinson
Tuesday 20 November 2007
Mikey Weinstein fights those who push evangelical Christianity in the military - and draws decidedly unchristian responses.
At Mikey Weinstein's home in the suburbs of Albuquerque, the picture window in the living room has been twice shot out. Sometimes Weinstein opens his front door to find dead animals on his porch, feces smeared on his walls, or slashes in his tires. Men have called to threaten his daughter, women to chant rhymes about shooting him in the head, small children to inform him that he will burn in hell. To his critics, he says, "Take a number, pack a picnic lunch, and stand in line." He's not going anywhere, and neither is his 5'6" ex-Marine security guard, Shorty.
Weinstein is the middle rung in three generations of soldiers. A former Air Force JAG and White House attorney for Ronald Reagan, he has adopted a shock-and-awe approach to battling efforts by the military to impress Christianity upon American soldiers. "We have the Christian Taliban and the Christian Al Qaeda inside our military," says Weinstein, the founder of the Military Religious Freedom Foundation, "and they really have WMD, unlike Saddam."
An amateur pugilist with shoulders like a butcher block and a head like a cannonball, he several times challenged evangelical minister Ted Haggard to a boxing match. (Haggard declined.) His adversaries call him, to his great delight, "The Field General of the Godless Armies of Satan," though his friends prefer nicknames like "Ticktock" and "Motor Mouth." During one of his trademark rapid-fire, profanity-laced diatribes, he proclaimed, "Our job here is to kick ass, take names, and leave sucking chest wounds on the people who are trying to engage the machinery of the state to push their biblical worldview." To allies who suggest that perhaps Weinstein should appoint someone more diplomatic to lead the foundation, he offers, "First they will have to prove to me that what we are engaged in is a polite exchange of views" with right-wing Christians, "instead of a bloody battle that only ends with the last person standing."
Weinstein is certain that fundamentalists will stop at nothing to transform the United States military into an army of God. He notes that Officers Christian Fellowship, with chapters in every major U.S. military installation in the world, envisions-and here he quotes its mission statement-a "spiritually transformed military, with ambassadors for Christ in uniform, empowered by the Holy Spirit." The group has helped boost fundamentalist Christianity among the armed forces from a negligible presence 20 years ago to a faith currently held by 30 percent of U.S. soldiers, according to Weinstein. He adds that many of those soldiers-hardcore end-timers and Dominionists-desperately want America to invade Iran, thereby triggering the biblical prophecy of the Rapture.
This summer he uncovered plans by the Pentagon to ship "freedom packages" to soldiers in Iraq that were to contain Bibles, proselytizing material in English and Arabic, and Left Behind: Eternal Forces, a video game inspired by post-Rapture novels in which "soldiers for Christ" hunt enemies who look suspiciously like U.N. peacekeepers. Partly due to Weinstein's efforts, the packages were never sent. "It's not just the Holocaust or the inquisition or the pogroms or the nine-count 'em: nine-crusades," Weinstein cautions. "It's everything that's happened since then. Whenever a virulent form of any faith has engaged the machinery of the state, in the words of the U.S. Supreme Court, we have ended up with tidal waves of blood."
And so Weinstein is laying sand bags. He has fielded more than 6,000 complaints from soldiers who claim to have been persecuted by Christian evangelicals; 95 percent of the complaints come from mainstream Christians. Tipsters helped him catch uniformed military officers publicly endorsing an evangelical group and ferret out an anti-Semitic Bible study guide on an army base website. In September, he shunted many of the complaints into a massive lawsuit against the Department of Defense. His lead plaintiff, U.S. Army Specialist Jeremy Hall, alleges that a major at Iraq's Speicher base threatened to block his reenlistment in the Army in retaliation for organizing a meeting of atheists.
A then-Democrat, now-Republican who represented Reagan during the Iran-contra affair, Weinstein criticizes the former president for creating an opening for evangelical Christians in the military, but excoriates George W. Bush for dropping the floodgates. Bush, he says, is a "suboptimal human being." The Military Religious Freedom Foundation's supporters include refugees of the Bush years such as David Iglesias (one of the U.S. attorneys dismissed this year) and Ambassador Joe Wilson (husband of outed CIA operative Valerie Plame). "A lot of the anecdotal evidence that Mikey told me I found very troubling from a constitutional perspective," said Iglesias, who is an evangelical Christian. Wilson cites security implications: "They are proselytizing not on behalf of the Constitution of the United States and the national security interests of our country," he said, "but rather on behalf of some sort of fanatical view of end times. And they are using our army to affect that."
For Weinstein, the battle has been personal from the start. In 1973, during his freshman year at the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, he repeatedly found anonymous anti-Semitic notes in his dorm room. He had nearly forgotten the experience when his son, Curtis, entered the Air Force Academy in 2003 and discovered that strains of anti-Semitism had metastasized. (By then Colorado Springs had come to be known as the "Vatican of the Religious Right" for its concentration of evangelicals.) Cadets and officers targeted Curtis Weinstein on eight or nine separate occasions during his freshman year with anti-Jewish remarks. During a football game, an upperclassman reportedly asked, "How does it make you feel to know that you killed Jesus Christ?"
That year Mikey Weinstein tried to work with the academy's leadership to reform its religious culture, but he faced disinterest from high-ranking Generals. That's when he gave up on diplomacy and launched the foundation. It began as a two-person operation in 2005 run out of his home. (He currently employs the equivalent of 25 full-time workers.) Due to his agitating that year, the air force investigated the Colorado Springs academy and substantiated many of the foundation's early findings: Football coach Fisher DeBerry had hung a "Team Jesus" banner in a locker room; Brigadier General Johnny Weida had taught a class a "J for Jesus" hand signal; and 250 faculty members and officers had signed a campus newspaper advertisement declaring, "We believe that Jesus Christ is the only real hope in the world."
Since then, the academy has created a mandatory training session on religious sensitivity, a cadet interfaith council, and a religious pamphlet for commanders. Still, Weinstein says, it has spawned a generation or more of evangelical Christians who promote their faith with impunity in the Air Force at large. Take the Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio, which he claims makes the academy look like the ACLU. Reportedly, at a mandatory retirement ceremony, a lieutenant colonel opened a Bible at the podium and used the occasion to conduct a sermon. (A spokesperson for the base did not respond to a request for comment.)
Weinstein continues his aggressive fight. In October, he returned to the Air Force Academy and delivered the invocation at his 30th class reunion. As he began speaking, a classmate stood up and screamed, "Jesus Christ!" Weinstein just kept talking. This month his foes discovered that he'd held a fundraiser for the foundation at the Los Angeles home of activist Jodie Evans. A few days after, Evans received a bomb threat in the mail. Weinstein long ago stopped believing that evangelicals in the military will grow more tolerant or less militant when faced with calm talk and logical reasoning. The Constitution is the only weapon there is against them, he says, and he has faith that it's a powerful one. "If you don't agree with me," he often scoffs, "then tell it to the judge."
Josh Harkinson is a reporter for Mother Jones.