Separation of Church and Military
Lawyer wages war against evangelism in the armed forces
His Albuquerque home has become a bunker. Flood lights, attack dogs, loaded weapons. The evening before Father's Day, someone painted a swastika and a cross on Mikey Weinstein's Albuquerque home. The Weinsteins are Jewish.
It’s just one more threat in a deluge. They started when Weinstein began suing the military for violating the religious freedoms of its members. He says fundamentalist, evangelical Christian values are being imposed on military men and women, violating the First Amendment and the Bill of Rights.
It all started when Weinstein's three children in the Air Force Academy were pressured along with other cadets to see 2004's The Passion of the Christ, he says. The following year, he was riled by a New York Times article in which a high-up of the chaplains corps said the Air Force reserved the right to evangelize anyone it determined to be "unchurched," according to Weinstein.
The problem is that even when you're being gently evangelized by your military superior, "Get the motherfuck out of my face, sir or ma'am" is not an option for you.
This spurred his first lawsuit, which was dismissed on technicalities. In March 2006, he founded the Military Religious Freedom Foundation.
Weinstein comes across as extreme with his rapid-fire speeches and inclination toward extended metaphor. Still, his credentials are extensive. He's a former Air Force officer, and his family has a long history of military service. He served as a JAG for 10 years. He's a Republican and worked for three years as legal counsel in President Reagan's administration. He left his position as general counsel to Ross Perot to get the foundation off the ground.
In early October, he helped Pvt. Michael Handman, a Jewish soldier, pursue a case against the Army after Handman was beaten badly enough to go to the hospital. Weinstein is firm that this was a hate crime, as the beating came on the heels of longtime taunting of Handman’s religion. The trainee accused of beating Handman will face nonjudicial punishment, criminal charges, the military announced on Oct. 10.
Personnel call Weinstein every day with complaints about religious pressure from the military, he says. And to be clear, Weinstein is not fighting Christians. In fact, of the more than 9,000 phone calls he says he's taken, 96 percent of them are from Christians who are being treated as though they're "not Christian enough."
The Alibi spoke with Weinstein over the course of a couple hours in a conversation punctuated by the barks of German shepherds and a hotline cell phone that never stops ringing.
What does your organization do that other civil rights organizations don't or cannot?
Evangelical Christians want to proselytize, but they do agree and they understand that the Constitution will regulate how they can proselytize, by time, place and manner. Fundamentalists view the Constitution as flawed man's law.
I'll use my throat as an example. If you've got a little tickle in there and it won't go away, you might gargle or something. If it's persistent, you might take a throat lozenge. If it won't go away, you might go see the doctor or something, and they'll say you need to take an antibiotic. If it really gets bad, you need to go see a surgeon, and they'll take your tonsils out: That's what we do. Because it's gotten this bad.
Being a political activist is not fun. I knew this when I started this. This wasn't going to be riding a unicorn through a cotton candy forest handing out lollipops to little English-speaking animals. I knew that. It is lonely. It is dangerous, and it is expensive.
How many active cases do you have against the U.S. military?
We currently have two, but the one we just filed [Sept. 25] is the mother of all lawsuits. We're asking for an injunction so that never again can a sectarian prayer, a prayer where they invoke Jesus' name (or Buddha's name or Vishnu's name or Satan's name, but they don't do those--they only do one, and that's Jesus), never again can a military at a staff meeting, at a battle-planning session, at a change-of-command ceremony, at a promotion ceremony, never again can they use a prayer that is sectarian as opposed to secular.
Now, of course, the military's version of a secular prayer is "Dear Lord, we ask you to bring your sweet blessings upon the troops gathered here today, in your holy name, which we can't say because of that evil Mikey Weinstein of the Military Religious Freedom Foundation, but it rhymes with bezus."
But the lawsuit itself allows us to bring every issue in. It's the Trojan horse.
Is it daunting for a member of the military or a student to participate in one of these cases? Do they experience backlash?
My youngest is still in the Air Force now as an Air Force lieutenant. They're laying off of him. Both my son and my daughter-in-law felt the heat at Wright Patterson Air Force Base.
Why do you think there was such a strong reaction to the Michael Handman story?
When there's blood, when someone gets beaten, people go, "Oh, that's different." But the problem is that even when you're being gently evangelized by your military superior, "Get the motherfuck out of my face, sir or ma'am" is not an option for you. So they come to us, and we do it.
Do you think these cases will make it to the Supreme Court?
Oh, they'll go. We know they're going to go.
When did religion start sneaking into the modern U.S. military?
We think it started in 1972 at the end of the draft. When we had a draft, people were coming into the military fairly evenly from what we now refer to as blue and red states. When the draft ended, we saw a huge demographic shift to mostly red states, where there is this fusing of this massive so-called patriotism with this fundamentalist, evangelical Christian worldview.
There's a difference. We have a number of evangelical Christian clients and supporters. Evangelical Christians want to proselytize, but they do agree and they understand that the Constitution will regulate how they can proselytize, by time, place and manner. Fundamentalists view the Constitution as flawed man's law.
You've spent a lot of your own personal money. You have night-vision cameras and attack dogs. Is this really challenging for your family?
Yeah. I haven't told you one thing, and that's that my wife suffers from multiple sclerosis. Thank God she has the remitting, relapsing type as opposed to progressive.
When the threats increase, when they call her up and say they're going to change the color of her hair from dirty blond to red with her own blood, or blow her head off and bury her on the West Mesa where no one is going to find her—they sometimes seem to be worse with her. She's not even a public person. I'm the public person. My daughter goes to UNM. She's got calls saying they're going to kill her.
But what I think about is that we made this decision as a family.
You don't have another job. Is this all-consuming? Is this all you do?
It's 1,440 minutes in every day. That's what we have to work with. I try to get four hours of sleep every day and an hour and a half to work out. I've worked out cardiovascularly to the full point of physical exhaustion every day without missing a day since May 22, 1999. If I get my workout in today, and I believe that I will, it'll be consecutive workout day 3,427.
How does your organization function financially? You're a nonprofit, right? So you take donations. Have you ever had to finance it out of your own pocket?
A lot of it, yeah. We had a lot of money before we began, and now we have a lot of debt. My wife and I go out to the money tree in the backyard, which is pretty bare at this point. And I never thought I'd say this, but I've actually found something that is worthwhile going bankrupt over.
Weinstein is a co-author of With God on Our Side: One Man's War Against an Evangelical Coup in America's Military. He's also featured in the documentary Constantine's Sword . Read up on Weinstein's Military Religious Freedom Foundation at militaryreligiousfreedom.org.