Profile

Mikey Weinstein's Crusade

Meet the man who's trying to purge evangelical Christianity from the Pentagon.

"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."

DAVID FURST/AFP/Getty Images

Profile

President Spandex?

The man who once mooned an auditorium of students, dressed up as a superhero to teach civics lessons, and cleaned up Bogotá while he was at it just might become Colombia's next president. 

Colombian politician Antanas Mockus has, as Oxford historian Malcolm Deas put it, "a gift for cheering people up." And apparently Colombia is looking for exactly that. Just a few months ago, the odds were slim at best that Mockus, a tough-minded and disciplined former math professor with an unconventional approach to politics, would be elected president of Latin America's third-most populous country. Juan Manuel Santos, the former defense minister and a close associate of highly popular President Álvaro Uribe, seemed the obvious front-runner.

But then Mockus's campaign exploded, using mostly social media such as Facebook and word of mouth. He has run a fiscally austere campaign, turning down half the state money he was entitled to because he thinks public funds are "sacred" and should be reserved for more worthy projects. All this has generated enormous excitement in a campaign that most expected to be a nonevent. Today, just weeks before the May 30 election, it's hard to find a smart political analyst who would bet against him. Polls point to a tight two-way race between Mockus and Santos, with a high possibility of a second-round face off on June 20 (though given his dazzling surge in support, Mockus might just score an upset in the first round).

Why the dramatic shift? Many Colombians, it appears, are simply tired of the high tensions and sporadic confrontations that have accompanied the Uribe government in recent years. And Mockus represents a change -- without stepping too far from the Uribe administration's "democratic security" policies that many Colombians credit with quieting the country's violence.

A Green Party candidate and the son of Lithuanian immigrants, Mockus is best known for his eccentricities and a penchant for symbolic gestures -- many of which have garnered him much free publicity over the years. Around the time that I met him in 1991, he was rector of the National University in Bogotá, a role in which he gained notoriety for dropping his pants to silence an auditorium of rowdy students. (It worked.)

Later, during his two three-year terms as Bogotá's mayor, Mockus taught civic values by getting mimes to mock motorists who broke driving laws. He dressed up as the "Super Citizen" -- a character that required a spandex suit -- and took a televised shower with his wife to promote water conservation. He thrived on such "teachable moments" that made the city better without new regulations. And he became what he is today: a national phenomenon.

Despite these unconventional tactics, however, Mockus is far from a novice politician. The "outsider" label should be applied with care. True, he is fiercely independent and promises a real break with "politics as usual" in Colombia. His reputation for probity, for example, is deserved: He is truly allergic to the wheeling and dealing that has dominated the country's politics for many years. Unlike with the traditional Liberal and Conservative parties, as well as Santos's "U" party, no one in a hypothetical Mockus government would be waiting in the wings for key posts. But Mockus is politically savvy and intensely ambitious. This is his third run for the presidency, and being mayor of Bogotá is no small feat. The office is the second-most important and demanding elected seat in the country.

Mockus can rightly boast of his achievements as mayor. His imaginative pedagogy to foster civic responsibility and encourage "convivencia" (fellowship) yielded tangible results, including a marked drop in crime and improvements in infrastructure and public order. He did this even while remaining notably austere; no one could justly accuse him of fiscal irresponsibility. (In fact, some on Colombia's left have accused him of being "neoliberal.") He managed to assemble sound, competent teams that worked very hard. So though Mockus's quirks stood out in Bogotá's traditional political culture, his performance earned him considerable praise.

That brings us to Mockus's remarkable rise on the national stage. He has moved from just 1 percent in the polls in February to nearly 10 percent at the end of the March, 20 percent by mid-April, and almost 40 percent today.

How did Mockus do it? The key was tapping into a broad fatigue with political infighting and polarization, something Colombians might not have realized they were feeling until Mockus came along. Colombians, it turned out, were eager for a more relaxed, calmer style of leadership than Uribe's frequently confrontational approach. To be sure, Colombians widely credit Uribe with helping to subdue the FARC insurgency and paramilitary forces and bring greater security to the country. Uribe's take-charge political style was reassuring at the time. But after nearly eight years, that quality -- though still valued, as evidenced by opinion polls -- seems to be wearing thin.

Shrewdly, Mockus has refused to define himself as either pro- or anti-Uribe. He has claimed, instead, to be "post Uribe." That largely sums up popular opinion (in favor of Uribe, but also ready for the next phase) and was in sharp contrast to the other candidates, Santos included, who mostly claimed the mantle either of "uribismo" or "anti-uribismo." While those politicians weren't watching, however, the debate had moved on.

Mockus has already made good on his promise to usher in a new era of political harmony, in the conduct of the newly created Green Party's first primary. Running in an extremely cordial race in March against two other popular former Bogotá mayors, Enrique Peñalosa and Luis Garzón, Mockus won the contest and was able to show, at the same time, that he could pull off a nondivisive political campaign.

Mockus's next good move was naming Sergio Fajardo, a highly regarded former mayor of Colombia's second-largest city, Medellín, as his vice presidential candidate. Fajardo, also a former math professor, had begun his own presidential campaign, which quickly fizzled. When he accepted Mockus's offer, it proved, as the Colombian newsmagazine Semana noted, that "two mathematicians do not add but multiply." Mockus even got a political bounce after acknowledging that he had been diagnosed with Parkinson's disease. The public admission reinforced his forthright image.

Although Mockus is playing off Uribe's weakness, he's also benefiting greatly from the current president's successes, something that would be even truer for a President Mockus. Thanks to Uribe, Colombia's security situation has substantially improved (despite some recent backsliding), and Mockus would be able to concentrate on of the issues that interest him more: education, anti-corruption efforts, and good governance.

Yet Mockus is hardly a dove when it comes to security, which remains a crucial concern for many Colombians. The drug trade continues largely unabated, fueling the FARC insurgency and many criminal gangs. Although untested at the national level, Mockus's record in Bogotá gives him credibility. His position on FARC is also clear: Mockus long ago ruled out any negotiations so long as the leftist rebels continue to kidnap.

Hugo Chávez is the other ubiquitous foreign-policy issue, and here, the split between Mockus and Santos cuts both ways. Santos's tougher stance against the Venezuelan president calms fears of an arms buildup next door, which most believe is already underway. But Mockus’s pragmatism also wins points for those who worry about an escalation, particularly if that meant further border closings of the sort that have already hit Colombian exports hard. Some hope a Mockus presidency would have a tranquilizing effect.

Of course, Santos has the party machine on his side, and he was seen as an effective defense minister, no small matter in a country still confronting an internal war. But at this point, Mockus has the momentum, and polls show that Santos might have reached a ceiling.

Whatever happens, the uncertainties and effervescence of the current political moment are salutary for Colombia's democracy. The Mockus phenomenon has refreshed the land that inspired Gabriel García Márquez's magical realism. Sometimes truth is a better read than fiction.

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