May 17, 2007
A force of nature named Michael Weinstein swept into my office and set about trying to convince me this country is in much bigger trouble than I can imagine.|
According to Weinstein, the U.S. military "has just been completely infused by premillennial, dispensational, reconstructionist, dominionist, evangelical, fundamentalist Christians who want to spread a weaponized version of the gospel of Jesus Christ."
Instead of using the might of the most powerful war machine in the history of the world to defend all Americans, these evangelical Christians seek to spread democracy and the gospel, to be crusaders for Christ, at any cost to America and to treat American military personnel as "the lowest hanging fruit" in their drive to evangelize. "There's a serious threat out there that we view to be as much a national security threat internally to this country as that presented externally by Al Qaeda," he said.
Weinstein is 54 years old, with a shaved, round head and the physique of a store vault. He was in Los Angeles speaking and plugging his new book, "With God on Our Side: One Man's War Against an Evangelical Coup in America's Military" (St Martins Press, 2007), which he co-authored with Davin Seay.
Weinstein is not crazy. He's an Air Force Academy graduate himself, a Republican who spent 10 years as a judge advocate for the Air Force and served three as legal counsel in the Reagan White House.
He's the guy, you might have heard, who sued the U.S. Air Force in Federal Court in 2005, demanding a permanent injunction against alleged religious favoritism and proselytizing in the service.
A federal judge threw the lawsuit out, saying Weinstein had no standing -- a "technicality," Weinstein said -- but he will be back with an even more sweeping suit, prepared with the pro bono help of the powerful Washington law firm, WilmerHale.
Weinstein founded the nonprofit Military Religious Freedom Foundation to fight what he says is an evangelical Christian mission to co-opt the U.S. military.
And Weinstein likes a good fight.
"The goal of our foundation," he tells me, "is to litigate and educate, to lay down a withering field of fire, kick ass, take aim and leave sucking chest wounds."
When Ted Haggard, the now-defrocked pastor of the 14,000-member New Life Church in Colorado Springs and president of the National Association of Evangelicals, accused Weinstein of denying evangelicals their religious freedoms, Weinstein, a former boxer, offered to go 10 rounds with Haggard in a ring behind the junior high school.
Even Abe Foxman, the taurine head of the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), doesn't talk to Weinstein any more. "He said to me, 'Why do you have to be so nasty? You'll just make them madder.'"
When Abe Foxman finds you abrasive, imagine what the non-Jews think.
Weinstein's go-away-from-Jesus started with Mel Gibson's "The Passion of the Christ." When the movie was released, cadets at the Air Force Academy marched into the huge dining hall to find flyers promoting a screening: "For three straight days a flyer on every plate said, 'Do not discard this flyer. Go see this movie.'"
By July, Weinstein's son, Curtis, then a 22-year-old cadet at the academy, could no longer abide the pressure. He called his dad. "I'm going to beat the s--- out of the next guy that calls me 'a f---- -- Jew,'" he told Weinstein.
So Weinstein, son of a Navy captain, who has two sons and a daughter-in-law who are Air Force Academy graduates, began to ask questions.
What he found, he said, was a concerted effort by evangelicals to missionize cadets in the academies and in the field.
"We now have 737 U.S. military installations in 132 countries around the world," said Weinstein, "and in every one of them there is a presence of the Officers Christian Fellowship for the officers and Christian Military Fellowship for the enlisted. The first goal of these organizations is to see a spiritually transformed U.S. military with ambassadors for Christ in uniform empowered by the holy spirit. My problem is the 'in uniform' part.
Those of us outside the military have seen the attitude spill over into the news. In 2005, Brig. Gen. Johnny Weida, the commander of cadets, sent an e-mail in which he told cadets to "ask the Lord to give us the wisdom to discover the right.... He has a plan for each and every one of us."
The ADL fought against Weida's promotion, and the Air Force launched an investigation. Brig. Gen. Cecil R. Richardson, the Air Force deputy chief of chaplains, told The New York Times in 2005, "We will not proselytize, but we reserve the right to evangelize the unchurched."
In February, the Air Force issued interim guidelines governing the free exercise of religion by its personnel and its chaplain corps. Weinstein said they don't go far enough.
"Up to 70 percent of Air Force chaplains are now evangelical," he told me. "We're not at a tipping point; we've tipped. The wall separating church and state in the military is nothing but smoke and debris We don't have a Pentagon anymore. It's the Pentacostal-gon."
Evangelicals, of course, see it differently. They accuse Weinstein of censoring them and denying them the right to practice their religion.
While The New York Times found that the number of evangelical chaplains has in some cases grown tenfold, it also found greater religious complexity than ever before in the Air Force. Some 3,500 service personnel "say they are either Hindus, Buddhists, Muslims, pagans, druids or shamans."
But Weinstein is on mission. He's not against evangelicals practicing their faith, he's against them practicing their faith on others, on duty.
"If you want to think Anne Frank is burning eternally in hell, I'll defend your right to my last drop of blood to do so, but I will not do it when my government wants to tell me who are the children of the greater god and who are the children of the lesser god, because we've been there, done that." Jewish groups have generally not warmed to Weinstein's rhetoric or techniques. The evangelical community makes up a large and dependable source of support for Israel -- thousands of evangelicals are due to rally for Israel in Los Angeles this week -- and there's a general reluctance to antagonize it. Even the Rev. Jerry Falwell, who died this past Tuesday, got a pass from Jews for some of his more outrageous remarks in light of his stalwart support of Israel.
But Weinstein -- surprise -- won't be silenced.
"Eli Weisel told me his definition of anti-Semitism: Jewish inaction in the face of oppression," Weinstein said. "Jews have a moral responsibility to accept the fact that we are the miner's canary for the community we live in."
During our conversation, Weinstein's cellphone beeped constantly. There were calls from Jewish and non-Jewish military personnel complaining about proselytizing. And there was a hate-filled e-mail attacking Weinstein as a "whining Jew."
I watched him scroll his messages and realized that to be a Jew today is to stand between twin fanaticisms.
On the one side are some Muslims who want to kill all those who don't doesn't share their exact beliefs.
On the other side are some Christians who want to force their exact beliefs on others. And there is no doubt that some of those same Christians are our friends and, in uniform, our protectors.
But Weinstein would argue that our true protector is the U.S. Constitution. And he doesn't care how many enemies he makes in his fight to defend it.
"I'll e-mail that guy back," Weinstein said of the hate-mailer. "I'll say, 'Motherf-----, why don't you pack a picnic lunch and stand in line?'"