War against soldiers of Christ | AspenTimes.com

War against soldiers of Christ

John Colson
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado
Mikey Weinstein recently was invited by a Nebraska pastor to speak in the town where the pastor lives and the pastor's church caught fire within hours after Weinstein's appearance. He has no proof the fire was connected to his appearance, but he finds it suspicious. (Contributed photo)

ASPEN ” Mikey Weinstein is not likely to get an invitation to attend services at a fundamentalist religious “megachurch” any time soon.

But, he said during a recent visit to Aspen, he has been invited to debate the pros and cons of religious tolerance, or the lack of it, in the U.S. Armed Forces.

The event next will take place month at the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, which also happens to the be home town of dozens of evangelical Christian organizations and churches.

At the event, Weinstein, former U.S. Ambassador Joseph Wilson (husband of outed CIA agent Valerie Plame) and Reza Aslan, internationally acclaimed scholar of religions will refute claims made earlier this year by three supposed former Muslim terrorists who have converted to fundamentalist Christianity. Critics have said the three “terrorists” are frauds brought to the Academy to evangelize the cadets.

Weinstein is an attorney, a Jewish Republican and a 1977 Honor Graduate of the Air Force Academy, as well as father of three children in the military. He has created an organization, the Military Religious Freedom Foundation, that has been locked in mortal combat with Fundamentalist Christians for about three years.

The most immediate, specific issue, Weinstein says, is a takeover of the U.S. armed forces by the religious right, at bases throughout the U.S. and other parts of the world as well as in the war zones of Iraq and Afghanistan. In general, he said, growing intolerance in the military for “minority religions” is seen as a threat to freedom of and from religion, as guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution.

The foundation’s mission, according to a prepared background statement issued to journalists by the MRFF, is “to restore the obliterated wall separating church and state in the most technologically lethal organization ever created …; the United States Armed Forces.” One of the MRFF’s fights is to eliminate the decades-old practice of “dipping” the U.S. and Navy flags during religious services, which Weinstein says is a violation of military codes and U.S. law.

The foundation’s latest salvo in its campaign is a lawsuit filed on March 5, in U.S. District Court in Kansas City, Kansas, over allegations of improper pressure on a soldier, Spec. 4 Jeremy Hall, to participate in prayer vigils and other religious activities while on active military duty in Iraq.

Hall, an atheist, argues that the pressure to convert, and the denial of a promised promotion when he declined, is a violation of his rights and an example of the intolerance that pervades the military.

This intolerance, which Weinstein said goes hand in hand with intensive “evangelizing” of what Christian Fundamentalists call “the unchurched,” which means anyone professing belief in any form of religion other than Fundamentalist Christianity.

As a result of his campaign to expose and reverse these trends, he said in an interview this week in Aspen, he has received numerous death threats and has been vilified with nicknames and hate speech.

Recently, Weinstein said, when he was invited by a Kansas pastor to speak in the town where the pastor lives, the pastor’s church caught fire within hours after Weinstein’s appearance. He has no proof the fire was connected to his appearance, but he finds it suspicious.

The MRFF’s website this week announced that the FBI has arrested a man believed to have called in a bomb threat to a Beverly Hills home where Weinstein was invited to speak.

Weinstein was in Aspen to meet with a small local foundation to discuss a potential grant for the MRFF. The man who invited him here asked that he be permitted to remain anonymous, to avoid any violent retaliatory action from Weinstein’s enemies. Weinstein said he received telephone threats while on his way here.

While here, he was interviewed by GrassRoots Television, Aspen’s community access station, and the interview will be cablecast repeatedly in the coming weeks.

Spokespersons for the religious right have refuted Weinstein’s claims and accusations, saying they are doing nothing wrong and are merely encouraging military installations and officials to make accommodations for the religious leanings of military personnel.

The MRFF’s campaign has made national news, both in print and broadcast media. It also is featured in a documentary film set for release next month, entitled “Constantine’s Sword,” based on a book of the same title by former Catholic priest James Carroll. And the foundation’s work will be the subject of major news stories in The New York Times and a nationally distributed magazine that Weinstein declined to identify.

Pastor Ted Haggard, founder of the New Life Church in Colorado Springs, is quoted in the documentary as claiming that Weinstein is the one who is interfering with peoples’ rights to worship as they wish.

Also quoted is former U.S. Senator and presidential candidate Gary Hart, who says of the influence of evangelical fundamentalists in the military, “This is bordering on theocracy.”

In a two-hour conversation with The Aspen Times, Weinstein listed a number of examples of incidents in which, according to his view, the military is trying to force a certain type of religion on its personnel, including the chaplains who are expected to provide faith-based counseling to people with diverse religious backgrounds.

He tells stories of soldiers in the field, in Iraq and Afghanistan, and cadets and midshipmen at the Air Force and Naval academies at home, who are pressured to convert to evangelical Christianity and told that if they do not they face eternal damnation in the fires of Hell.

He speaks of a Rabbi who, after being accepted into the chaplaincy, one day was confronted with images of Naziism in a base common room.

Weinstein’s own son, who is Jewish and was an Air Force cadet, told his father in 2003 of being reviled as a “Christ-killer” and worse at the Academy, to the point where the son has promised to fight back physically the next time he is the victim of verbal taunts.

Weinstein’s complaints led to an official investigation, which found no overt discrimination in the ranks, but which did find, according to a 2005 story in The New York Times, that “officers and faculty members periodically used their positions to promote their Christian beliefs and failed to accommodate the religious needs of non-Christian cadets,” The Times quoted Brig. Gen. Cecil R. Richardson, the Air Force deputy chief of chaplains, saying, “We will not proselytize, but we reserve the right to evangelize the unchurched.”

Among the accusations that figure in the investigation are charges that cadets who declined to attend chapel after dinner were marched back to their dormitories in a procession called the “heathen flight;” that a history professor ordered students to pray before their final exam; that two weeks after a religious sensitivity program was announced, the football coach placed a banner in the locker room that said, “I am a member of Team Jesus Christ;” and that an atheist student who was forbidden to organize a club for ”Freethinkers.”

“This is the worst systemic series of religiously discriminatory acts I’ve ever seen in any federal government context,” the Rev. Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, told reporter David Belden of The New Humanist magazine. Lynn called the situation at the Academy “a clear pattern of misconduct that was overlooked for years.”

A subsequent lawsuit, filed by Weinstein, was dismissed “on a technicality,” he recalled, but he believes the new lawsuit will do better.

“This is not a case of Jew versus Christian, or right versus left,” he said. “It is a case of fundamentalist Christians versus the Constitution.”

He said that, while the fundamentalist community numbers around 38 million U.S. citizens, or about 12 percent of the population, Hitler had a far smaller percentage of the German population in the Nazi party prior to World War II.

He referred to fundamentalists as “homophobic, misogenistic, anti-Semitic and Islamophobic,” who as a group have “a virulent desire to subordinate the Constitution … to…the weaponized gospel of Jesus Christ.”

The situation at the Air Force Academy, he said, is “the first spot on the lung” of the U.S. body politic, and a sign that a cancer is spreading through the armed forces.

The country, he said, “is a two-inch Tiger Woods putt from being changed to the United Fundamentalist States of America.”

For more information on Weinstein’s foundation, go to the website at militaryreligiousfreedom.org.