From darling to outcast: Mikey Weinstein’s crusade against religious coercion in military

Mikey Weinstein drew national attention to the problem of religious coercion on the military. Now Congress and other critics are pushing back against his abrasive style.(Military Religious Freedom Foundation)

Mikey Weinstein drew national attention to the problem of religious coercion in the military. Now Congress and other critics are pushing back. (Military Religious Freedom Foundation)

WASHINGTON (JTA) — Mikey Weinstein couldn’t be happier to have an amendment in his honor approved by the U.S. House of Representatives.

Yes, the amendment, passed June 13 and aimed at keeping Weinstein and his Military Religious Freedom Foundation as far away from the Pentagon as possible, is more in his “dishonor.” But Weinstein is the kind of guy who revels in the dislike of his adversaries.

“How terrified are these little pu***es in Congress that they have to pass an amendment about me?” he shouted in a phone interview from the foundation’s headquarters in Albuquerque, N.M., using a putdown associated with a woman’s genitalia.

Weinstein and his opponents claim a common cause: freedom of religion. But while Weinstein wants troops free from coercive evangelizing by their superiors, a number of conservative lawmakers and activists see Weinstein as the threat to religious freedom.

Inspired by a report that Weinstein had met with Pentagon brass, U.S. Rep. Tim Huelskamp (R-Kan.) introduced the amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act in a statement that called Weinstein a “notorious anti-Christian zealot.”

In his House speech the same day, Huelskamp complained, “It seems that secretive meetings continue with individuals actually opposed to religious liberties.”

Weinstein welcomed the amendment, which requires the Pentagon to notify Congress of any meeting it holds with civilians to discuss military policy with respect to religious liberty. The language of the amendment, he notes, also would cover meetings between the Pentagon and Christian conservatives.

Still, the amendment reflects growing concern in certain quarters that the gruff and foul-mouthed persona Weinstein likes to represent is an anti-Christian crusader in disguise.

Rep. Michele Bachmann fundraised off what she said was a Pentagon meeting with “left-wing, anti-Christian activists.” Rep. John Fleming (R-La.) in May asked the Pentagon for further information about a meeting between its officials and “anti-Christian extremist Mikey Weinstein.”

The core of Weinstein’s threat, as depicted by his conservative opponents, is that he is at the vanguard of a bid to squelch religious expression in the military.

In fact, Weinstein does not target Christian expression as long as there is no evidence of coercion. His problem is with commanders who intimidate subordinates by permitting proselytizing — or engaging in it themselves.

“The military is indescribably tribal, adversarial, communal, ritualistic,” Weinstein said. “If you are being even gently evangelized by your military superior, ‘Get the f*** out of my face, sir’ is not an option.”

Weinstein has been lobbing bombs at the religious establishment since the mid-2000s, when two of his sons told him of coercive efforts by their superiors at his alma mater, the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs. He established his foundation in late 2005.

Weinstein says he does not target any particular faith. One of his recent victories involved getting a commander to remove atheist bumper stickers from his car. Most of his organization’s clients have been Protestant.

But his rhetoric gleefully takes on what he says are the extremes of Protestant observance, and he barely notes the distinction he makes in practice between observance and coercion.

Weinstein has attacked what he calls “Dominionist” Christians seeking to advance the United States toward theocracy. And he has referred to fundamentalist Christians as “monsters who terrorize their fellow Americans by forcing their weaponized and twisted version of Christianity upon their helpless subordinates in our nation’s armed forces.”

It is that tone that has alienated some of Weinstein’s one-time allies.

The Anti-Defamation League, the Reform movement’s Religious Action Center and Rep. Steve Israel (D-N.Y.), all of whom publicly supported Weinstein in the past, will say little about him now.

The RAC and Israel both declined multiple requests for comment, while the ADL’s civil rights director, Deborah Lauter, would only say, “We don’t like the lack of civility on either side. ADL’s approach has always been if we see a problem, find a constructive way to fix it.”

Former Jewish community associates of Weinstein would not speak on the record but delivered tortured accounts of their relationships with him, which essentially boil down to this: Weinstein is wacky and impolitic — and right.

“It’s not that he’s not correct, it’s that he’s not political” is how one put it.

Weinstein says he has no interest in such allies and has choice epithets for those that especially annoy him; he calls the ADL the “Apologist Defense League.”

He says his mission — keeping the most powerful military on the planet out of the control of theocrats — is too important for niceties. He likens himself to bygone activists who have chosen more moderate paths than their ideological allies.

“Martin Luther King said, ‘We shall overcome’; Malcolm X said, ‘We’re coming over,’ ” Weinstein said. “And we’re coming over.”

Lost in the mutual expressions of outrage are efforts by the military to address the abuses Weinstein helped expose at the Air Force Academy in the mid-2000s.

The academy now requires cadets to undergo two hours of training in their first and fourth years, and one each in their second and third, to help sensitize them to religious differences. The ADL helped develop the curriculum.

It is the mission of the military to ensure that troops “observe the tenets of their respective religions and respects the rights of others to their own religious beliefs, including the right to hold no beliefs,” said Col. Robert Bruno, the academy’s senior chaplain.

Weinstein is dismissive of such assurances, saying that any actions taken through the hierarchy are bound to invite career-ending retribution. The only way to protect cadets is to keep complaints anonymous.

“I’ll call a commander and say, ‘You have an hour to make this go away,’ ” Weinstein said.

Rabbi Joshua Narrowe, until earlier this month the Jewish chaplain at the Air Force Academy, said he never saw any evidence of coercion. And while he would not count out the claims of Weinstein’s clients, he takes issue with his approach.

“As long as they are anonymous, we can’t fix anything,” Narrowe said.

Weinstein, hearing this account, returned to combative form, noting the account on his website of a recent commissioning ceremony in which a speaker allegedly urged the graduates to “help return this country to the Christian values it was founded on.”

According to the foundation, Weinstein quickly received a pledge from a senior Academy official to review pre-ceremony briefings for speakers.

As to Narrowe’s claim of not witnessing coercion, Weinstein sputtered.

“Rabbi Narrowe, huh,” he laughed. “Rabbi Narrowe-minded.”

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