Backward, Christian Soldiers
Late last summer, Mikey Weinstein broke up a fight between Crystal and Ginger, the guard dogs trained to protect him and his family from a violent reckoning with Christian zealots. For the 55-year-old civil rights activist committed to ridding the US military of religious intolerance, it was a refreshingly secular and evenly matched bout. Weinstein is, after all, famously combative, both pugnacious and profane, with the bearing and sensibility of a mastiff. In the end he prevailed and peace was restored, though at the price of some bad scratches on his arms and a hole in his right hand where a well-aimed canine had struck.
Only wags and heretics would suggest that such a stigmata-like wound places Weinstein in the company of another Jewish prophet who spoke truth to the legions of an imperial power. At the very least, however, his journey from corporate lawyer to patriarch of a tribe of persecuted minorities is worthy of an Old Testament morality play. For the past half-decade, the Air Force Academy alum has labored to reverse the currents of Pentecostalism that course through the US military in general and the Air Force in particular.
It is an asymmetrical struggle, an endless round of Whac-a-Mole with a network of fundamentalist groups that would otherwise level the wall separating church and state with the help of supine, if not complicit, Pentagon top brass. In the battle over the meaning and implications of the First Amendment, Weinstein has staked himself at the fault line between the free-exercise clause and the establishment clause, which simultaneously preclude Congress from legislating a state religion and guarantee freedom of worship.
“The free-exercise clause does not trump the establishment clause,” Weinstein says from the living room of his home, a tastefully designed adobe ranch house in Albuquerque. “Our Bill of Rights was specifically created not for the convenience of the majority but to protect the minority from the tyranny of the majority. From that perspective it is absolutely imperative.”
Since he established his watchdog group, Military Religious Freedom Foundation (MRFF), in 2005, Weinstein has built a client base of more than 20,000 mostly Catholic and Protestant—as well as Jewish, Muslim, Wiccan, atheist, and gay and lesbian—members of the military. For them, Weinstein and MRFF are the only recourse for servicemen and -women who have been either punished for their faith or subjected to fundamentalist proselytizing in violation of military guidelines.
Consider, for example, the ferocity with which Weinstein and his undermanned crew of mostly volunteer staff reacted to the Air Force Academy’s recent invitation to Marine Lt. Clebe McClary, a controversial evangelical Christian, to speak at a prayer luncheon. In a January 22 letter to the academy, MRFF argued that McClary’s “intense, unreasoned and psychotic demonstration of unilateral and distorted Christian doctrine” would define the luncheon as “a revival meeting with the purpose of proselytizing and achieving Christian supremacy.” Weinstein then worked the media, landing notices about MRFF’s complaints in the Washington Post, The Raw Story and DailyKos. He urged groups such as the ACLU and Veterans for Common Sense to pile on and, on January 31, after the academy refused to budge, he filed a formal complaint in federal court demanding that the academy cancel its luncheon “on the grounds that it is a blatant violation of the plaintiffs’ Constitutional rights as guaranteed by the First Amendment.” (As The Nation went to press, a federal district court was set to hear MRFF’s request.)
A similar MRFF onslaught in October compelled its superintendent to release the classified results of a survey that revealed only partial success in its efforts to enhance religious tolerance. It was an important, albeit tactical, concession in what the Pentagon clearly regards as a war of attrition. One of Weinstein’s most recent cases concerns a Christian group at the Colorado Springs–based Air Force Academy that allegedly promotes fealty to God over temporal authority, disempowers women and encourages its members to intermarry. The academy leadership, Weinstein insists, has all but ignored the group and has stonewalled his demands for an investigation.
“They let Mikey throw blows, and they hope one day he’ll get tired and go away, but someone’s gotta be out there,” says Joe Wilson, the former US ambassador and an MRFF board director who famously confronted the national security establishment himself during the Iraq War. “There’s a need to take it to them, knock them back on their heels. Otherwise you lose.”
Asked for comment, a Pentagon spokesman said the Defense Department “places a high value on the rights of military members to observe the tenets of their respective religions and does not endorse any one religion or religious organization.” Under its equal opportunity policy, the spokesman said, of 1.4 million active-duty members of the US military, only fifteen filed formal complaints related to religious harassment and proselytizing in 2009.
The Christianizing of the armed forces, Weinstein believes, has implications for national security as well as for civil rights. In addition to ingrained anti-Semitism, his work reveals a simmering Islamophobia in the ranks that, when flushed to the surface by media exposure, has been leveraged by jihadi groups overseas for propaganda purposes.
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Leading the Pentecostalist charge is a constellation of different groups, none more prominent than Military Ministry, an affiliate of Campus Crusade for Christ, a global outreach network with an estimated annual budget of nearly $500 million, raised largely from individual donors and congregations, according to the Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability. Military Ministry maintains branch offices at the nation’s main Army bases, as well as overseas initiatives like Bible-study programs globally. The group’s mission statement, according to its website, is “To Win, Build, and Send in the power of the Holy Spirit and to establish movements of spiritual multiplication in the worldwide military community.” In a 2005 newsletter, Military Ministry’s executive director, retired Army Maj. Gen. Bob Dees, said the group “must pursue our…means for transforming the nation—through the military. And the military may be the most influential way to affect that spiritual superstructure.”
Military Ministry is particularly well represented at basic training installations like Fort Jackson in South Carolina, the Army’s largest boot camp. According to MRFF researcher Chris Rodda, the group instructs recruits through Bible-study programs that “when you join the military, you’ve joined the ministry,” and it ardently associates conquest on the battlefield with religious conversion. In a 2007 report, MRFF provides links to photos of Fort Jackson troops posing with rifles in one hand and Bibles—some with camouflage covers—in the other. A Bible-study outline distributed by Military Ministry cites Scripture to sanction killing in combat by “God’s servant, an angel of wrath,” to “punish those who do evil.”
Other groups affiliated with Military Ministry include Valor, which targets future officers on ROTC campuses and labors to “help them become disciple makers around the world at their future duty assignments.” There is also Military Gateways, which concentrates on training agencies like the Defense Language Institute, and through its own array of subdivisions like Sailors for Christ, institutions like the Great Lakes Recruit Training Command and Naval Service Training Command.
Another prominent group, The Navigators, commands “thousands of courageous men and women passionately following Christ, representing Him in advancing the Gospel through relationships where they live, work, train for war, and deploy.” It has a permanent staff presence at military academies and its directors, like their counterparts at Military Ministry, frequently refer publicly to US servicemen and -women as “Government-Paid Missionaries for Christ.” (Pastor Ted Haggard, whose New Life Church was located a few miles from the Air Force Academy, was a familiar figure on campus until 2006, when it was revealed that he had had relations with a male escort and used illegal drugs.) The Navigators was founded in 1933 by Dawson Trotman, a mentor of Doug Coe, himself a prominent if low-key spiritual counselor to political elites in Washington. Coe is closely associated with C Street, an evangelical enclave for politicians and power brokers.
The revivalist subculture within the armed forces is as overt as Washington is loath to confront it. In late September Weinstein sent a letter to Defense Secretary Robert Gates on behalf of more than 100 Air Force Academy cadets who said they were obliged to falsely assume fundamentalist identities—leaving Bibles and Christian literature and music CDs on their bunks, for example—lest they be singled out for harassment by their commanding officers. Weinstein’s letter, like his previous appeals to the defense secretary, was ignored. Congress is equally reluctant to take on the issue, and even Democratic lawmakers have distanced themselves from MRFF. Board director Wilson said he tried to persuade senior aides to Carl Levin, chair of the Senate Armed Services Committee, to open hearings on some of the outrages Weinstein has unearthed, but to no avail. “What Mikey needs is a political ally, someone to champion his fight on the Hill,” said Wilson from his office in Santa Fe. “But the Christian right is very powerful, and no one wants to wage that war.”
(A source from the Senate Armed Services Committee says there is no recollection among committee members of such a discussion with Wilson, adding that the committee serves in an oversight role when it comes to reports of discrimination and proselytizing in the military. “The way we work is, we ensure the Department of Defense is investigating these allegations as they come up,” the source says.)