"These people should be court-martialed"

Former Air Force officer Mikey Weinstein says evangelicals are trying to turn his beloved military into a "frickin' faith-based initiative."

Published December 13, 2006 12:43PM (EST)

When a Christian group shot a video inside the Pentagon that featured uniformed senior military officers talking about their evangelical faith, Mikey Weinstein went on the attack. Himself a former Air Force lawyer and Air Force Academy grad, Weinstein, who is Jewish, is the founder and president of the Military Religious Freedom Foundation. He founded the MRFF earlier this year to oppose the spread of religious intimidation in a military increasingly dominated by evangelical Christians.

On Monday, Weinstein held a press conference in Washington, D.C., to announce that he was asking the Department of Defense's inspector general to look into the video, and determine whether the people who appeared in it -- Air Force Maj. Gen. Jack J. Catton Jr.; Army Brig. Gen. Vince Brooks, the former public affairs director of the Army; and Undersecretary of the Army Pete Geren -- had violated military regulations. He also filed a Freedom of Information Act request with the government to find out who, if anyone, had approved the video shoot.

Bob Varney, the executive director of Christian Embassy, the group that made the video, tells Salon he believes no regulations were violated, and he says Weinstein's allegations about increased evangelical influence within the military are wrong.

"I don't understand how one could come to that kind of conclusion," Varney says. "The military believes in religious freedom, it offers religious freedom, it therefore offers people of different religions to express them, and we're one among a number of different religions that are working in the Armed Services."

Weinstein spoke with Salon Tuesday afternoon.

The Christian Embassy is now saying it had permission to film this inside the Pentagon. Were you surprised to hear that?

Not at all. They're damned if they do, they're damned if they don't. If they said they didn't have permission, they would have been blown away. Having permission, to me, just shows the complicity. We have a systemic problem. You sound like you're too young to remember Robert Redford in "Three Days of the Condor," but the premise of that movie was that there was a CIA within the CIA. We have a virulently dominionist, fundamentalist evangelical Christian element within the Pentagon. They would prefer this to be the "Pentecostalgon," not the Pentagon. That's what they would prefer. They're trying to turn the Pentagon into a frickin' faith-based initiative, and that is not what our military is about.

These are the people who, when I talk to senior members of the military at the flag-level rank -- I don't know if you're familiar with what that means, that means admiral or general -- that have looked at me and said, "Come on, Mikey, what's your problem? We have the cure to cancer. If you had the cure to cancer, wouldn't you want to spread the word?" They don't realize when they say it, they don't have the mental wherewithal to understand that to a person who isn't an evangelical Christian, you're calling our faith a cancer.

What's wrong with this video?

I'm trying to think where to start. It is absolutely violative of a mountain of Department of Defense internal regulations, guidelines, core values, instructions, making it very clear that members of the military can not endorse any one particular political position, partisan religious view, they can't hold up a tube of toothpaste like Colgate and push it. Irrespective of that, it's also blatantly violative of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment of the Bill of Rights, and at least as important it's violative of Clause 3, Article 6 of the Constitution -- you don't even have to get into the Bill of Rights -- which states that we will never have a religion test for any position in the federal government, which was brilliantly prescient of our Founding Fathers.

This, to me, constitutes as much of a national security threat to this country as al-Qaida. In fact, the video itself, to me, would be the No. 1 recruiting tool that I would expect bin Laden, the followers of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, although he's dead, Ayman al Zawahiri, Hezbollah with Sheik Hassan Nasrallah, Hamas, the al-Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades, to get angry young Islamic men and women in Iran, Syria and Lebanon to join the insurrection and jihadi terrorist activities. This would be a perfect accelerant to create even further conflagration.

Now, I was a JAG [judge advocate general, the lawyers who act as prosecutors and defense attorneys within the military] in the Air Force. I spent three and a half years as a lawyer for President Ronald Reagan in the West Wing, I've been Ross Perot's general counsel. I know the religious right would love to vilify me as a tree-hugging Northern California Sierra Club membership chardonnay-sipping liberal -- not that there'd be anything wrong with that, to wax Seinfeldian -- but I'm not. I'm a Republican. And my family has a very, very long and distinguished military history. We have three consecutive generations of military academy graduates, and my youngest son, who's at the Air Force Academy now, he's a senior, what's called a first classman, is the sixth member of my family to attend the academy. We have 115 years of combined active-duty military service to this country in my immediate family from every combat engagement from World War I to the current one, and this is a pernicious torturing of what our military is supposed to be about.

Of course, I realize people have religious rights. We only have about 2,200 chaplains in each of the military branches; every base has multiple chapels, and these people can pray all they want to themselves, like kids in school can pray to themselves, but when you're in the military, and you're coming in like that one person, Catton, whom I knew when I was a kid at the [Air Force] Academy, and he goes, "I share my faith, that's who I am, and let me tell you right now, the hierarchy as an old-fashioned American is that your first duty is to the Lord, second to your family and your third is to your country." That is the exact opposite of what is taught, and for anyone who understands anything about the military, it is always the country first. When you're told, "Troopers, we're going to go take that hill," you can't stop, fall to your knees and see what your particular version of Moses, Vishnu, Satan, Jesus, Mohammed, Allah, whatever they're going to say, and then quickly make a cellphone call to your family. So it is beyond-the-pale egregious, it is a national security threat every bit as bad as al-Qaida, and these people should be court-martialed.

Forty percent of active-duty military personnel consider themselves evangelical Christians. Is your position popular in the military?

We have 702 U.S. military installations scattered in 132 countries around the world, and I get calls 24/7 from the soldiers, Marines and airmen. Unlike cops, they don't have a union, they have my foundation, that's it. They're being tormented. And 96 percent of those who come flooding in, on fire with torment, are Christians, three-fourths of whom would be traditional Protestants: Lutherans, Methodists, Episcopalians, Presbyterians. The other one-fourth are Roman Catholics. These are Christians being preyed upon by evangelical Christians -- pray and prey -- and being told that you're not Christian enough, therefore you're going to burn in a hell of fire.

Many [evangelical Christians] tell me, "Mikey, OK, Anne Frank, Dr. Seuss, Jack Benny, Gandhi, they're all burning eternally in the fires of hell." And here's the distinction they just don't fucking get, these cocksuckers do not get this: I would give my last drop of blood and my last breath, and I would commend my three children in the Air Force -- one of whom's going to be heading to Iraq in a few months -- to give their last drop of blood and their last breath to support the rights of these people to believe that Anne Frank is burning eternally in hell  If they want to believe that their version of Jesus has her burning eternally in hell, I'd give my life for that. But I will not do that if my government tells me who are the children of the greater God and who are the children of the lesser God or no God at all. And that's what these monsters are doing.

Is there pressure on the non-evangelicals in the military to convert or keep quiet because some of their superiors have these views and are talking about these views?

Oh, absolutely. Like I said, in the military, many of your constitutional rights are gone, because it's necessary. Look, let's make sure your readers understand something, OK, put it in perspective: The U.S. military, which I consider a noble and honorable institution, is technologically the most lethal organization ever created by Homo sapiens. When you have the leadership believing that to be a good soldier, good Marine, good airman or sailor you have to be not just a Christian but the right type of Christian, we're no better than al-Qaida. And it's hideous, beyond belief. My kids were called "fucking Jews" and accused of total complicity, they and their people, in the execution of Jesus Christ, by superiors up and down the chain of command at the Air Force Academy.

But like I've said before, most of the people who've come to me are Christians. That's been the big sea change here. Look, Sinclair Lewis said it best, in [the 1930s]. He came back from Germany, he was observing it for a number of months ... and he [said] that he had now seen fascism up close and personal, and he knew that when it came to America it would be wrapped in the American flag, carrying a cross. And you know what? He's right.

It's one thing to be pushing evangelical Christianity on prisoners in a penitentiary and to be pushing intelligent design in public schools. That's bad enough, but that's not our fight. My foundation focuses, with laserlike precision, on the Marine Corps, Army, Navy and Air Force, because if we lose them, we lose everything.

Your youngest son is at the Air Force Academy, which has been the focus of a lot of the allegations about evangelical proselytizing. With you being so out-front on this, has he been the target of any reprisals?

No. I think that they realize if they touch a hair on his head, I will open up the skies and bring down a hammer and tongs like they've never seen before. There have been some snide remarks, but in the main it's steady cruising.

Now, my older son and his wife have had a few things. They're both first lieutenants. In the military, you wear a name tag, and their name is Weinstein. My daughter-in-law has had senior officers walk up to her and say, "I know who you are, and I know what your family is all about." She's a junior officer, so she just looks at them. In the main, it's been fairly calm, because they're not that stupid to think that my kids wouldn't make a phone call, and then I'm going to do what I have to do.

But I can tell you that I get -- I don't think I'm in double digits, but it started at about 10 o'clock last night; after the press conference in the morning, I've had nine death threats since about 10 o'clock last night. I usually get about two or three a week. They're very grotesque, everything from wanting to gas all the Jews in America and send the corpses back to Israel to threatening to blow me up, threatening my house will be blown up, raping my wife, blowing up my house. We've had our tires slashed, we've had feces and beer bottles thrown at the house, we've had dead animals placed on the front door of the house.

I was in Topeka, on a book tour, and the local Episcopal priest came out to support me and five hours later his church was burned down. And the local synagogue in Topeka, where I was to speak that night, was desecrated with spray paint saying, "Fuck you, Jews" and "KKK," all that stuff.

So if this is a nice, Christian response, my response is take a number, pack a picnic lunch and stand in line, because we're not going to stop, we're not going to ever stop, we're going to lay down a withering field of fire and leave sucking chest wounds on these people that are trying to destroy our Constitution. This is not a Christian-Jewish issue, and it's also not a political spectrum, left or right issue, it's a Constitutional right and wrong issue. These officers, and what's happening in that video, simply by appearing in a video that is blatantly and vociferously sectarian, by simply doing three things in that video, they should be court-martialed. That would be circulating blood, reflecting light and breathing. That's all they had to do and that alone would have been enough. You're not Jewish, are you?

I am, actually.

You understand the word "dayenu"? Well, it's dayenu -- the dayenu factor is simply by letting the light reflect off you, circulating blood and breathing in that video. Everything else beyond that is extra. Dayenu's my favorite song at Passover, that's why I use it.

My response is I've given the new secretary of defense 20 days to answer the Freedom of Information Act request, which the law gives him, and at the end we intend to get as much information as we can, fashion it into a dagger and then stab at the heart of this unconstitutional, wretched, vile, darkness at the Pentagon. This unconstitutional darkness, we will stab at it with our dagger until we kill it.

By Alex Koppelman

Alex Koppelman is a staff writer for Salon.

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