"Good morning Mikey, you f*** Jew. Let me be the first to call you a f*** Jew today."
Michael L. "Mikey" Weinstein shares his hate mail with both friends and strangers the way elderly people show off photos of their grandkids. He has plenty of it to share. For the past four years, the founder of the Military Religious Freedom Foundation (MRFF) has been doing battle with a Christian subculture that, he believes, is trying to Christianize the U.S. armed forces with the help of a complicit Pentagon brass. He calls it the "fundamentalist Christian parachurch-military-corporate-proselytizing complex," a mouthful by which he means holy warriors in contempt of the constitutional barrier between church and state.
"The scary thing about all this," Weinstein says, "is it's going on not with the blind eye of the Pentagon but with its full and totally enthusiastic support. And those who are not directly involved are passive about it. As the Talmud says, 'silence is consent.'"
You may recall the headlines in January, when a company called Trijicon, the lead supplier of rifle scopes to the U.S. military, was found to have inscribed them with coded references to passages in the New Testament. That was Weinstein -- his organization threatened to sue Trijicon, which eventually agreed to discontinue the practice and distribute kits that would enable troops to retroactively secularize their scopes. Weinstein grabbed headlines again last month by pressuring the Pentagon to withdraw an invitation to the Rev. Franklin Graham, known for his Islamophobic oratory, to speak at a National Day of Prayer Task Force service. That provoked a stiff rebuke of Weinstein and his group from Shirley Dobson, wife of conservative Christian leader James Dobson and the task force chairwoman.
Built like a cinder block, with a bare cranium shaped like a howitzer round, Weinstein -- a former Air Force judge advocate general -- has the air of a born fighter. This battle is personal for him: Nearly 30 years ago, as a Jewish cadet at the Air Force Academy in Colorado, he was twice beaten unconscious in anti-Semitic attacks. (There wouldn't have been much of a choice of targets -- only 0.3 percent of the members of the U.S. military identify themselves as Jewish. Ninety-four percent are Christian.) Visiting his son, Curtis, on the eve of his own second year at the academy in the summer of 2004, Weinstein was stunned to learn little had changed; over lunch at McDonald's, Curtis told his father that he had been verbally abused eight or nine times by officers and fellow cadets on account of his religion. Weinstein filed a complaint, in response to which the Air Force launched an investigation that revealed a top-down, invasive evangelicalism in the academy. Among other things, it revealed that the commandant of cadets taught the entire incoming class a "J for Jesus" hand signal, that the football coach had draped a "Team Jesus" banner across the academy locker room, and that more than 250 faculty members and senior officers signed a campus newspaper advertisement that proclaimed: "We believe that Jesus Christ is the only real hope for the world." Weinstein has been a First Amendment vigilante ever since.
Although he is frequently attacked for waging a war on Christianity, all but a fraction of Weinstein's clients are practicing Catholics and Protestants of mainline denominations who claim to be targeted by proselytizing evangelical superiors. The root of the problem, Weinstein believes, is a cluster of well-funded groups dedicated to Christianizing the military and proselytizing abroad. They include the Navigators, which, according to their website, command "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." There is Campus Crusade for Christ's Military Ministry, which has a permanent staff presence at U.S. military academies and whose directors have referred publicly to U.S. soldiers and Marines as "government-paid missionaries." Such groups, Weinstein argues, "are the flip side of the Taliban. They're like Islamic officers exercising Quranic leadership to raise a jihadi army." (A spokesman for the Navigators said the group had had no interaction with Weinstein and no comment on his activities. Military Ministry representatives didn't immediately respond to inquiries on the subject.)
Although Weinstein's past lawsuits have garnered plenty of attention, they were just a warm-up for his next battle. Last week, he announced his group was preparing a lawsuit on behalf of Zachari Klawonn, a Muslim U.S. Army specialist at Fort Hood, Texas, who claims he was harassed and threatened after a Muslim psychiatrist's deadly shooting spree there last fall claimed the lives of 13 people on the base. "The way [Klawonn's] commanders have dealt with this is either incompetence or it's intentional," Weinstein told the Washington Post. "But either way, it's just wrong." The subtext to Klawonn's case -- that the November assault by Maj. Nidal M. Hasan may have been provoked by an entrenched Islamophobia in the ranks, rather than the product of an isolated pathology or a terrorist conspiracy -- makes this among Weinstein's most controversial legal adventures.
Klawonn says he turned to MRFF for the same reason thousands (by Weinstein's count) of other service members have contacted the organization: It was the only group that was willing to help him. "I reach out today in a desperate and final last ditch attempt in search of answers, guidance and quite frankly, justice," Klawonn emailed Weinstein on May 8. He detailed how, since he joined the U.S. Army two years ago -- before Hasan's massacre -- he had been exposed to "a constant blast of the most degrading, humiliating and dehumanizing religious and cultural discrimination." Klawonn has accused his superiors of fostering a "blatantly false, propagandized" idea of Islam that conflates its minority radical elements with the Islamic faith generally. "This is outright bigotry," Klawonn wrote in his email, "officially sanctioned and taught by the U.S. Army itself."
Commanders at Fort Hood rejected Klawonn's allegations, insisting they had responded swiftly to claims of anti-Islamic bigotry since the killings. "This base takes the concerns of its Muslim soldiers and all its soldiers very seriously," spokesman Christopher Haug told the Washington Post. "His commanders are really trying to help him."
Is Weinstein mad? To his enemies, he is demonic and hell-bound. "The joy I get when i realize you are put away for eternity in the Red Hot Hotel and the rest of the Muslims [sic]...keeps me going," reads one of the many digital turds in Weinstein's in-box. Others take a more proactive approach to Weinstein's soul. "Lots of people prayed to Jesus for Mikey today," says another email Weinstein received on May 6, the National Day of Prayer. "Spiritual struggle going on my friend - Praise God."
Barack Obama's administration, Weinstein says, is apparently less interested in his work than some Christians are in his spiritual well-being. He has made several requests for a meeting at the White House to plead his case for presidential action, just as he did during the Bush years, but to no avail. Asked about Weinstein's work, Pentagon spokeswoman Cynthia Smith declined via email to comment on it directly but said that the Defense Department "places a high value on the rights of military members to observe the tenets of their respective religions. [It] does not endorse any one religion or religious organization, and provides free access of religion for all members of the military services." In fiscal year 2009, she said, the Pentagon fielded just 15 formal complaints from its 1.4 million active-duty members relating to religious matters.
Weinstein, however, is not inclined to accept such assurances. "Fundamentalist Christianity in the military is like magma," he says, "and every hour or so it bursts up like a little volcano and you have to beat it down."