When Michael “Mikey” Weinstein went to the Air Force Academy in the 1970s, he was harassed and badly beaten for being Jewish. But over the years, things seemed to get better for Jews in the American military — there was dialogue with Christians, where before there’d been confrontation. So it was especially traumatic when Weinstein was told in 2004 by his son, Curtis, who was then a cadet at the Air Force Academy, that non-Christians were again being targeted. This time the goal wasn’t only to harass them. Now the goal was forced conversion to Christianity.
Mikey — who insists on using his nickname — went into advocacy overdrive. He founded a nonprofit called the Military Religious Freedom Foundation, dedicated to exposing unconstitutional proselytizing against junior officers and enlisted personnel. The MRFF uncovered a network of Christian extremists, with powerful friends in the Pentagon, who seek to forcibly convert people in the armed services. Then they want to use the armed services to forcibly convert everybody else.
The groups include Christian Embassy, Officers’ Christian Fellowship and Operation Straight Up. (Until pressure from MRFF caused it to be canceled, Operation Straight Up planned to send the convert-or-kill video game “Left Behind” to all troops in Iraq as part of a so-called “Military Crusade.”) The fanatical beliefs of these rightwing evangelicals (often called Dominionists) have deeply influenced Pat Robertson, James Dobson, John Hagee and much of the Religious Right. Many are working to create a kind of evangelical fascism within the U.S. military; in foreign policy they want all-out religious war.
But the Pentagon isn’t in any hurry to move against them. In fact, the No. 2 ranking chaplain in the Air Force, Brig. Gen. Cecil R. Richardson, told the New York Times that the chaplaincy “reserved the right to evangelize the unchurched.” Christian Embassy was allowed to make a recruiting film in the Pentagon itself. According to an op-ed in the Los Angeles Times co-authored by Mikey Weinstein and Reza Aslan, an Iranian-American author who writes on Islam, one Air Force official at the Pentagon said he assumed that Christian Embassy was a “quasi-federal entity.”
Most Religious Right leaders assert that proselytizing in the military is an exercise of free speech. But when commissioned officers try to impose a religious point of view on junior officers or enlisted personnel, it is an outrageous, coercive misuse of power.
Let’s say an officer at the Air Force Academy tells a Muslim cadet that he’ll burn in hell if he doesn’t become a Christian. Is that protected speech under the Free Speech Clause of the First Amendment? No, because the officer is violating the Establishment Clause of that same Amendment. Therefore, his speech isn’t protected — and is, in fact, unconstitutional. Weinstein knows this better than most, having been an Air Force judge advocate general for many years.
Mikey is critical of some established Jewish leaders for not forcefully denouncing Christian proselytizing in the military, which he sees as an outcome of their increasingly cozy relationship with extremist evangelicals. But he is quick to make allies among activist Jews, Muslims and mainline Christians who support freedom of conscience in religion. The activist Web site “Jews on First” has given strong support to the MRFF.
“I’ve received over 5,000 complaints from active service people,” Weinstein told InFocus. “Most are mainline Christians who resent seeing their religion hijacked by extremists.” Muslims and Roman Catholics are special targets for evangelization, he said. “There’s no doubt whatsoever that they’re getting political cover from government.”
Mikey Weinstein is a force of nature. He engages in outrageous hyperbole, he is irredeemably colorful, and he cusses like — well, like a retired military man. He reports that his living room window has been shot out twice in the last two months, and he receives death threats daily. But he’s a man on a mission — to protect the U.S. Constitution and religious pluralism against the gathering forces of theocracy.
Lawrence Swaim is the Executive Director of the Interfaith Freedom Foundation. He taught for eight years at Pacific Union College, and his academic specialties are American Studies and American literature. His column addresses current affairs from an American Christian and Interfaith perspective.