It actually was a dark and stormy night when Michael “Mikey” Weinstein launched his book tour at Lake Forest Park’s Third Place Books. Despite the Monday night storm, about 20 people came to hear the founder of the Military Religious Freedom Foundation (MRFF) explain why he has been called “the conscience of the U.S. military” and to tout his new book, “No Snowflake in an Avalanche,” which takes its title from Voltaire’s statement “No snowflake in an avalanche ever feels responsible.”
A member of a three-generation military family, a former Air Force JAG who worked for the Reagan White House, and a registered Republican (although clearly displeased with the current political climate), Weinstein explained that he started his organization in the wake of anti-Semitic incidents his sons endured at the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colo., of which Weinstein is also an alum.
The school’s mandatory viewing of Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ” unleashed long-simmering anti-Semitic sentiments, and Jewish students were subjected to comments such as “How does it feel to have killed Jesus?” and other hateful remarks that went undisciplined, Weinstein explained.
Stressing that he gave up a successful career in law and business, as well as personal wealth to start the foundation, Weinstein warned, “the book is R rated,” referring to the often disturbing nature of his clients’ stories. Much MRFF funding goes to “routinely polygraph clients,” as so many of the accounts seem implausible, he said. Using one example, a Jewish military chaplain had his Yom HaShoah service interrupted by some Christian chaplains wearing Nazi uniforms.
After starting MRFF, Weinstein learned that Christians can be divided into two groups: Mainstream Protestants and Catholics are one, and extreme fundamentalists are the other. He estimates the latter make up 20 to 30 percent of the military and bring “fanatical religiosity” to their work, and refers to them as “the Christian Taliban.” Though he started his organization because of the incidents against Jews, Weinstein said 86 percent of MRFF’s clients are mainstream Christians, many of whom have been accused of “not being religious enough.” The remainder range from Muslim to “the Jedi faith,” and 4 percent are Jewish. The organization’s board members are mostly mainstream Christian as well.
These extreme fundamentalist Christians — whom he calls Dominionists — take the New Testament instruction to “go and make disciples of all nations” literally. They believe their military duty and religious duty are tied together and oppose separation of church and state.
“I’m not going to attack faith,” Weinstein said. MRFF exists to restore what he called that “obliterated wall separating church and state.”
Other civil rights organizations such as the Anti-Defamation League are ill-equipped to handle these cases because, Weinstein said, “they don’t understand the military,” which allows supervisors to proselytize employees without legal penalty. Dominionist officers have been known to make subordinates attend religious instruction or bring religion into military training.
The occasional Washington Post contributor said he broke the recent story in which a group of Marines in Afghanistan were photographed in May 2011 holding a banner displaying the logo of the Nazi SS under an American flag. The Pentagon claimed the historical significance of the banner was misunderstood by the Scout Sniper group depicted, but Weinstein told his audience “there’s only one place on the Internet to buy those flags,” which is a white supremacist website.
Although Weinstein makes no bones about being Jewish himself — “I pray three times a day,” he said — he did explain that his Jewish last name makes him more of a target of hostility from the extreme Christians he is fighting. He shared that he and his family are frequently threatened — he’d received six death threats since arriving in Seattle — and he has been labeled “Satan’s lawyer” and “Field general for the Godless armies of Satan” by extreme Christian groups.
Weinstein, a blunt and passionate speaker, held the audience’s attention for an hour and spent another hour answering their questions, many about religious extremism in general, not just in the military.
“I will not be happy until I leave you unhappy,” he said.
He exhorted those in attendance to speak up about the problem, and said he has had trouble getting anyone in Congress or the White House to pay attention to these problems.