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.)