Soldiers pray during a deployment ceremony for the 86th Infantry Brigade Combat Team of the Vermont National Guard in Burlington, Vermont in 2010. (Photo: Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Chad J. McNeeley / DoD)
Talk to Mikey Weinstein for even a few minutes, and you get the definite sense that the man must have gills. It is the only explanation for how he can say so much, so quickly, without pausing to take a breath. This should come as no surprise, as Mr. Weinstein has a great deal to say on a topic that affects us all, and threatens the constitutional fabric of the nation: a frontal assault by elements within the active military on the separation of church and state, and a crusade by those elements to transform the Armed Services into a fundamentalist Christian entity.
For Weinstein - founder of the Military Religious Freedom Foundation (MRFF) - and his family, along with the members of his organization and the service members they represent, that threat is vividly personal. Weinstein and his wife both hold licenses to carry concealed weapons, and have every reason to believe they may someday need them. The windows of their home have been shot out, dead animals have been left on their steps, and - certainly worst of all - the lives of their children have been threatened. One such threat came in the guise of a promise that Weinstein would be murdered, and his children would be bathed in his blood before they themselves were murdered.
Where are these vile threats coming from?
Wait, that is not accurate. Let me try again.
Self-proclaimed "Christians." Fundamentalist evangelical frauds who cloak themselves in the words of Jesus and the uniform of the American military while lashing out violently against anyone who does not toe the line of their "true faith." The hypocrisy of their activities is beyond appalling, and flies in the face of the Scripture they pervert with every breath they take.
Weinstein and the MRFF have been working to call attention to a deeply ominous trend that has been spreading through the ranks of the U.S. military, one that exists at the highest levels of power: a push to turn the Armed Forces into a fundamentalist evangelical Christian army, to the exclusion of all other faiths - even mainstream Protestants and Catholics - and even more severely to the exclusion of those in the service who are atheist or agnostic. Because Weinstein has pointed out the absolute necessity of the separation of church and state, especially within the military, he and his wife have to go around strapped at all times, their children live under the threat of death, and their e-mail boxes are always filled with letters and pleas from active-duty service members - almost all of whom are practicing Christians themselves - looking for a way to escape this pervasive and corrosive phenomenon.
The most recent example of this collision within the military of church and state centers around the upcoming Prayer Luncheon at the Air Force Academy. The luncheon is modeled after the National Prayer Breakfast which takes place in Washington DC, and is - according to that standard - supposed to be a coming-together of all faiths in a celebration of America's religious diversity. At the Air Force Academy, however, the prayer luncheon is going to take on a decidedly fundamentalist bent. As Truthout reporter Mike Ludwig explains:
While military chaplains are expected to provide non-denominational options to those in uniform, critics charge that prayer breakfasts sometimes favor conservative and evangelical brands of Christianity that are intolerant of other faiths and perspectives.
Consider professional motivational speaker Lt. Clebe McClary, a veteran from South Carolina whose web site features praise from right-wing Christian leaders like Jerry Falwell and Billy Graham. McClary is a retired Marine, who was wounded in Vietnam and now serves the "Lord's Army," and believes that USMC (US Marine Corps) will always stand for "US Marines for Christ," according to his web site.
While attendance at the Air Force Prayer Luncheon is allegedly voluntary, the truth is that anyone who does not attend - who does not, in fact, bend a knee to the fundamentalist evangelical imperatives being shoved down the throats of cadets and officers alike - will become like "a tarantula on a wedding cake," in the words of Mr. Weinstein, i.e. unwelcome and not likely to last long.
A letter from an Air Force Academy officer to the MRFF describes the situation and the atmosphere surrounding the luncheon in chilling detail:
We cannot breathe one word of protest against the "serious committed Christian" bias that exists here at the Air Force Academy everywhere. I have run this e-mail message by another dozen or so officers here at USAFA to make sure that I can speak for them as well. And I can. One word or even one tiny action against "them" and you and your career are labeled as an "outsider." Lt. Gen. Mike Gould says he wants us all to have "fanatical institutional pride" in the Air Force Academy. He tells all of us that. The way it is here, no one understands unless they're here and tuned in enough to be aware of it all.
Well, that "fanatical pride" is not considered proper unless it includes the right kind of "fanatical Christianity." What kind is that? Just the kind that is handed out by USMC Lt. McClary. I've heard him speak before and I know what he says and what he does to his audience. It made me sick then and will again when he speaks on Feb. 10 at the Falcon Club here at USAFA. Unless MRFF and your allies stop it from happening. If anyone of us beg to differ we're going to be hurt by the system here which is the people who are the "Christian" Christians. If that happens it's all over.
I am also an Air Force Academy graduate and pilot. I am married with kids and my wife and I are Protestants but try to keep it very on the down low because we know we'd be judged poorly for not being "energetic Christians" as my boss likes to say. Like the time my boss asked me if Jesus was in control of my life or if I felt that I was the one in control and then gave me some literature from Focus on the Family as a "gift."
It is also been made very clear that we are expected to support USAFA by personally attending this "National Prayer Luncheon." I saw in the news that the Academy is trying to downplay this whole mess which the MRFF brought to the public by saying that it's "voluntary" to go to it and that this USMC Lt. is a just "motivational speaker" and that "nobody will be taking names." LIES! My USAFA boss and even his boss left it very clear that if we didn't go to this "patriotic Christian" event we'd be "letting him down." Seriously, "patriotic Christian" event? That says it all.
Believe me please MRFF when I say that the names of the absent will very certainly be remembered. Am I going? In a word, hell yes. I have kids and need my job. I have been afraid too say anything to them for a very long time now. I've gotten good at hiding my hatred of it all. I'm used to it now. The feeling I have of being down for not standing up to the "energetic Christians" here is not as bad now as the feeling I would have of having my Air Force career derailed by a bad performance eval. You do not need to tell me what that makes me. I know what that makes me and I'm not proud of it.
This officer and his allies at the MRFF are not the only voices being raised against the presence of a hard-core fundamentalist evangelical like Clebe McClary at the Air Force Prayer Luncheon, against the overwhelming pressure being put on cadets and serving members of the Armed Forces to swallow a version of the Christian faith they want no part of, and against the attack on the separation of church and state this phenomenon represents. McClary is not the only decorated, wounded Marine veteran of the Vietnam War. Bobby Muller, founder of Vietnam Veterans of America, had his own piece to say on the matter:
As a former Marine lieutenant who, like Lt. Clebe McClary, was severely wounded while leading a mission in Vietnam, I am appalled by my fellow Marine's statement that a "complete" Marine is one who likes to think that U.S.M.C. stands for "U.S. Marine for Christ." I am even more appalled that the United States Air Force Academy has invited someone with such a religiously divisive and sectarian message to speak at its upcoming National Prayer Luncheon, an event that should be inclusive of Airmen of all faiths.
Lt. McClary lost an eye and an arm; I lost the ability to walk. Countless other Marines, of all religions and no religion, have also suffered life-changing and permanent injuries in the service of our country. Lt. McClary dishonorably, not to mention illegally, appears in the uniform of a Marine before both military and civilian audiences, not with the message of "Once a Marine, Always a Marine," but a message of "Once a Marine, now `a member of the Lord's Army.'"
Proselytizing and Christian supremacy have no place in the United States military, and I urge the Air Force Academy to reconsider its choice of Lt. McClary as the speaker for its Prayer Luncheon, and to replace him with a speaker who can deliver a message that is inclusive of members of all faiths.
The Air Force Prayer Luncheon is but the latest front in a struggle that has been going on for years. The MRFF's active-duty membership roll tops 21,000 service members from every corner of the Armed Forces, most of whom are either Protestant or Catholic. 212 Air Force Academy cadets and officers are likewise members, and are all mostly Protestant or Catholic. More than 90% of the MRFF's staff is either Catholic or Protestant, and more than 95% of their donors are similarly affiliated with one sect of the Christian faith or the other.
And yet that is not good enough for these "Lord's Army" charlatans. The hypocrisy is startling, and deadly dangerous. The MRFF gets between eight and twelve death threats a week. Mikey Weinstein is an Air Force Academy honors graduate whose family lays claim to 130 years of military service, and yet he has trained attack dogs at his home to defend himself and his family from these "Christian" threats. At the Air Force Academy, some 100 cadets have formed an underground group to support each other in the face of the overwhelming pressure they endure to conform to the extreme religious views of their superiors.
And then there are the voices outside military circles that attack Weinstein and his organization for being "anti-Christian," just because they defend the separation of church and state. Take this recent editorial by Wayne Laugesen in the Colorado Springs Gazette:
McClary offends Weinstein, along with the American Civil Liberties Union, because he is Christian. Weinstein complains that Billy Graham respects him. He doesn't like that this retired Marine, living with permanent combat disabilities, calls himself a member of the "Lord's Army."
For McClary's religious beliefs, Weinstein and the ACLU want him effectively censored by punishing the person who invited him. They want prior restraint of a speech. They want to trample on academic freedom. They want Gen. Gould's head because he would dare invite a speaker who loves Jesus.
Talking about loading the rhetorical dice, Mr. Laugesen. Had this writer bothered to look into the MRFF's legitimate constitutional concerns with the Air Force Prayer Luncheon's invited speaker - and the pervasive attempts to turn the Academy into a fundamentalist factory churning out warriors for Christ, no matter how the cadets themselves feel on the matter - the above column would not have been written...or would it? The poll question that came with the column (since removed) offered three choices:
Is war hero Clebe McClary an appropriate speaker for the Air Force Academy?
1. Yes, McClary is an appropriate speaker
2. No, McClary should not speak because he is a devout Christian
3. Don't care
Gad zooks. "Because he is a devout Christian"? Because he "loves Jesus"? No, because this trend within the military - and the attacks upon those who try to argue against it and thwart it - are a clear and present danger to the United States. But to fellows like Mr. Laugesen, facts and legitimate argument do not matter when an opportunity arises to nail themselves to a cross in the name of "true Christianity," and in the ever-popular pursuit of self-martyrdom so common in such fundamentalist circles.
And make no mistake: this movement to turn the Armed Forces into a bastion of hard-core fundamentalist Christianity is as dangerous as any threat posed to the country by any outside force or enemy. There is a word for a military force whose core principles are centered around the absolute requirement to adhere to a strict fundamentalist religious view.
The word is Pashto for "student of Islam," and is a mirror example of the kind of "student of Christianity" they're trying to turn out at the Air Force Academy and elsewhere within the military.
The "students of Islam" that became the Taliban were formed and shaped by Afghani and Pakistani madrassas, which were and remain fundamentalist religious schools.
Is this what we as Americans think the Air Force Academy should become? A Christian fundamentalist madrassa bent on turning out Christian versions of Taliban soldiers?
Is that what we as Americans want to see our Armed Forces become? A Christian carbon-copy of the virulent fundamentalist militaries that behead people in the town square for failing to live up to the requirements of the "true faith"?
For Taliban soldiers, the war never ends. When our Taliban soldiers come home, will simple Christian devotion be satisfactory? Will their war ever be over? Is this even a question we should ever be asking in the United States of America?
I think most Americans, and indeed most Christians in America, would find the whole idea to be just about as un-American as you can get.