Mikey Weinstein won the Linda K. Estes Giraffe Award, given to honor those who stick their necks out for their beliefs. Born and raised in Albuquerque, Weinstein was thrilled to receive the local prize, named for the former UNM coach who fought for women's equality. On Sept. 17, he attended a gala reception to accept his Giraffe.
Four days later, he got a phone call about another award. "I almost thought it was a joke," he says. A prestigious human rights institute in D.C.—that Weinstein says prefers to remain anonymous—was calling to say it was nominating his organization, the Military Religious Freedom Foundation, for the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize. Receiving that call was “kind of like being Tased with a really good Taser,” he says.
It's a significant honor, considering there aren’t thousands of nominations pouring in from around the world every year. Last year’s Peace Prize nominations tallied only 172 individuals and 33 organizations, and that's the largest number ever nominated.
Unlike other Nobel prizes that are awarded in Stockholm, Sweden, the Peace Prize comes out of Oslo, Norway. Letters are sent from Oslo to qualified nominators: members of national governments, prestigious professors, people who’ve won the prize, etc. People can’t nominate themselves or their organizations for the prize.
Weinstein got the official notice of his nomination on Oct. 15. "We're deeply honored," he says. "We hope it massively buttresses the credibility of our cause."
Weinstein is a former Air Force officer who spent three years as legal counsel in President Reagan's administration and later was general counsel to Ross Perot. The Weinsteins are Jewish, and his three children were enrolled in the Air Force Academy when, in 2004, they were pressured to see The Passion of the Christ. This spurred Weinstein’s years-long fight against the imposition of fundamentalist, evangelical Christian values on members of the U.S. military [" Separation of Church and Military," Oct. 30-Nov.5, 2008]. Most of his clients—96 percent, he says—are themselves Christians, just not Christian enough for their superior officers. "I started off as a pissed-off parent," he says. "It took me a while to realize what I'd become."
Weinstein runs MRFF, a task that requires a security force, attack-trained German shepherds, motion cameras and loaded weapons stashed all over his Albuquerque home. He takes calls from military men and women who feel religious pressure in the military. MRFF has been involved in lawsuits on their behalf and become a mouthpiece decrying unconstitutional coupling of religion and military. The Weinsteins receive a steady flow of death threats, he says. He’s had his windows shot out, and the night before Father’s Day in 2008, someone painted a swastika on his home.
When he speaks with the Alibi, he's in Annapolis, Md., for his cousin's Bat Mitzvah. And it's been a good while since the always-on Weinstein's had a break.
“We're not only trying to protect members of the military from their chain of command, the military is also mercilessly proselytizing to the Iraqis, Afghanis and Pakistanis.”
Mikey Weinstein, founder of the Military Religious Freedom Foundation
It didn't seem like you get a chance to take many vacations when we last we spoke. How long's it been since you could relax at a family event like this?
I try to take micro-vacations, like sometimes driving down Tramway, or driving my car through the Big-I. You know, look, this is a situation where for us, a week is like three months for a normal human. We've got more than 15,000 active-duty marines, soldiers, sailors and airman that are our clients, and we get more each month.
Did you ever imagine, when you started, that this would be able to go as far as it has and garner the kind of attention that a Nobel Peace Prize nomination indicates?
If someone told me I was going to become a civil rights fighter and activist—mostly for American Protestants and Catholics against the U.S. military—I would have said I had a better chance of finding out I was actually born in the Andromeda Galaxy and dropped off here by Scientologists.
Civil rights activism is lonely, it's dangerous and it's very expensive. If you want to do this, you'd better be prepared to lose a lot of friends and family who think you're out of your mind. You gain lots of other friends, though.
You consider yourself a Republican, right?
The party left me. I didn't leave it. Barry Goldwater is rolling over in his grave right now. The Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, and Ann Coulter and Sarah Palin America is on one side, and the sane side of America, the 20 percent of it that's left, is on the other. I never remember this country being as polarized as this.
But we were very pleased that three senior-ranking military generals called us when word of the nomination got around. That meant a lot to me.
We're on both sides of this coin. The Peace Prize is supposed to be awarded to people and entities that are trying to increase fraternity between nations. We're not only trying to protect members of the military from their chain of command, the military is also mercilessly proselytizing to the Iraqis, Afghanis and Pakistanis. We're actually fighting a fundamentalist Christian, parachurch, military, corporate, proselytizing complex.
With the change in the presidency, do you feel any of the religious pressure in the military has decreased?
No. It's gotten worse. I'm terribly embarrassed to tell you the seamless continuity between the person I consider to be the worst president in American history—George W. Bush—and Obama's administration. I understand the economy and health care are very complex. But with a flick of his pen, Obama could get rid of Don't Ask, Don't Tell. The people we're fighting have four particular stenches about them: They're virulently homophobic, virulently misogynistic, virulently anti-Semitic and Islamophobic.
Do you think you have a real shot at winning the prize?
I think we have as good a shot as anyone, and I'll tell you why. We are trying to stop the technologically most lethal organization ever created in human history, the U.S. military, from appearing to be crusaders to the countries we are occupying and fighting in.
Should we be fighting the Taliban? Of course we should. But we defeated Hitler, Tojo and Mussolini in WWII. They were all fascists. We defeated them in 44 months. And we didn't have to become fascists.
Ultimately, I don't care if we win [the Prize]. We received a nomination. I hope for the best, but if this is all that we get, it's far more than half a loaf. It's like 10 bakeries.
Do you think the wars we're in are religious wars?
Absolutely. I know that the people we are fighting view it that way. While some of them need to be fought, we should not be giving them extra fodder. This is not a Christian nation. Or, on the other side, we are a Christian nation in the same way that we are a Satanist, Scientologist, Jewish, Islamic, Buddhist, Hindu nation. In this country, all religions are allowed to comprehensively enjoy every protection and be as fruitful as they want to be, but they cannot engage the machinery of our state—in particular, the laser-guided, nuclear and conventional weapons—to push their religious agenda. That's not allowed here.
In this country we have a document called the U.S. Constitution, which represents the first time in human history that any nation created a document that did not invoke the name of somebody's particular deity.
Listen, we've been nominated for the world's highest civil rights honor, and that's great, but it's only great if it makes people realize this is real, and we have to do something about it.