Over the past few years, America has been divided by religion. The culture wars have heated up with secularists on one side and God-fearing Americans on the other, and to understate things: They disagree. But does that mean we hate one another? If the animosity is so intense, what kind of outrage goes too far? Bonnie Weinstein has tackled this issue in an important but very troubling book out Dec. 2, titled "To the Far Right Christian Hater ... You Can Be a Good Speller or a Hater, But You Can't Be Both: Official Hate Mail, Threats, and Criticism From the Archives of the Military Religious Freedom Foundation."
Married to Mikey Weinstein, founder of the Military Religious Freedom Foundation (MRFF), the author has collected and annotated a sampling of the hate mail the foundation has received over the past few years. This hate mail is not trolling or anonymous “Internet comments.” The letters are specific and threatening and most often include a return address or email. The Weinsteins' home has been vandalized — many times — and the family has had to take serious and expensive security measures. It’s no joke. As I read the book, curled up on my couch, my wife kept asking if I was OK. My face was fixed in an expression of horror and disbelief as I read the rage, hate and cruelty cataloged on every page. Bonnie has uncovered a shocking reality: Self-professed Christians deny the fundamental humanity of other people they don’t even know.
As hard as it was to read in places, it's important to read and understand. It offers an unflinching examination of a subset of American fundamentalism, created by a segment of our society that is whiter, more conservative and a lot angrier than the rest of America. For some people the future of their faith and of the nation are in danger, threatened by secular forces controlled by Satan himself. This existential threat to Christian supremacy justifies the most offensive, vulgar and cruel letters I’ve ever read. Think I'm overstating it? Read the book.
I've interviewed Mikey before. He's a lawyer and an enthusiastic warrior ready to take on the haters and assholes. He’s not in the atheist movement (he considers himself agnostic), but he comes from a long tradition of tough secularists who aren’t afraid of personal insults or an ugly fight. You can’t help sensing that Mikey loves the game. When I interviewed Bonnie about her book, I found her nothing like that. She believes in and supports the work of the MRFF but is shaken — to her core — by the people who sling the vilest filth at her and her family. She is an often silent witness to the worst humanity and religion have to offer. She exudes a sense of profound sadness, and in only a few minutes chatting with her, she became my hero and my heart broke for her.
The word “hate” is important, even valuable, and we must not let those who preach hate misappropriate the word itself. Today, in America, people who stand up for LGBT rights are sometimes called “haters,” by Christians. Atheists who want equal rights are accused of “hating god.” This is a specific attempt to take a word, a weapon, from the people who are most afraid of it. I asked Bonnie if the word was too strong to describe the letters she shared in her book, and she said it was far too mild. "We should come up with a new word that really describes this stuff. It's beyond hate," she said.
It’s also important to differentiate between this book and so-called nut-picking, that timeless practice of finding the most extreme, agitated and stupid of your opponents and treating them as the norm. Bonnie’s book is too exhaustive to be dismissed. The MRFF gets at least 10 of the very worst type of letter every week, totaling many more than 500 a year. The book offers only the smallest glimpse of the avalanche of hate mail.
“A lot of people will say these letter writers are not true Christians, but they are acting as if this is what their lord wants them to do. This is how they behave and they justify it through Jesus. It's insidious and understated,” Bonnie said.
I will spare you, dear reader, actual excerpts from the book. Instead I will summarize almost every letter: The MRFF hates America, Weinstein is a dirty Jew who deserves to be raped / murdered / skull-fucked, some truly awful sexual filth directed at Bonnie, fuck-shit-fuck, cocksucker, and Jesus is Lord. Frankly, I'm downplaying it a lot. Bonnie adds commentary and worked with an artist to create some fun illustrations to give the book structure, and the letters get worse as toward the end of a book, reflecting real life. As the MRFF has racked up success pushing back against the creation of a Christian army — also outlined at the very end of the book — the letters the MRFF receives have gotten angrier and meaner.
The saving grace of the book is Bonnie's charm and humor as she annotates the entries, making light when she can and rhetorically rolling her eyes throughout. She manages grace while the vilest insults are hurled at her personally, her children and her husband. I was most surprised by the strong anti-Semitism exposed throughout almost all the letters. Bonnie said she could have written an entire book just on this one issue.
I also chatted with Tyson Cornell, publisher at Rare Bird Books, who published the book. "This is not a fringe issue. It’s a core civil rights issue that’s on par with women’s right to vote, segregation rights, LGBTQ rights," he told me. He respects what the MRFF does, and, like anyone who spends time reading the nonstop hate mail, is disgusted by it.
One of the reasons this book is important is that the hate is so common. Many other secular, First Amendment and civil liberties groups have published examples of hate mail for years. The Freedom From Religion Foundation (the FFRF is no relation to the MRFF) publishes a newspaper, Freethought Today, that features a random sample of hate mail in every issue, yet it's much too easy to ignore the filth in small doses. When reading Bonnie's book, the scope of the problem in the fundamentalist, dominion theology is obvious.
The sad thing is that everyone knows one of these letter writers. You do and I do. Perhaps it's an uncle who yells about “the communists” or won't stop demanding “Obama's real birth certificate.” This person holds the view that the American military is a Christian army out to tame the heathens (most often Muslims) in a latter day crusade. The person may have not even been to church in 10 years, but he uses Christianity as a shield to spew hate.
Hate as a political weapon has gone mainstream in America, but this isn't the first time. We've seen it during the awful red-baiting of the '50s, during the civil rights era and segregation and earlier than that during the American Civil War. But in my lifetime, I don't remember seeing such naked hate as we do today. I had a hard time sleeping after I finished the book.
Despite the condemnation these letter writers deserve, I would argue many of them have been goaded into their ugly views. There is a systemic, manufactured religious war going on in America. It’s passed down through families and churches. It’s exploited by “family values” spouting politicians. It has been created to line the pockets of the most ignorant and vile flimflam artists who dare call themselves “reverend.” It’s used to fill pews and collection plates and to generate votes for the self-proclaimed party of God, the GOP.
Todd Starnes is a frequent critic of the MRFF and Bonnie’s husband, Mikey, in particular. He wrote a book last year himself outlining his view of the war on Christianity. It was filled with mistakes, bad research and straight-out fabrication, but it still does tremendous damage to America. Though you would never hear Starnes use vulgarity and hate speech, he (and many like him) is directly responsible for much of the pain and hate inflected on people like Bonnie.
“People keep saying, ‘It can't get any worse,’” said Bonnie. “We've stopped saying that because every day it does get worse. As long as there are parents and mothers and preachers teaching this hate, it’s not going to end.”
The MRFF, American Civil Liberties Union, American Humanists Association and many other civil rights groups are not out to promote atheism. They don’t even dislike Christianity. Bonnie and her family are not members of the New Atheist movement, and in fact, most of the people represented by the MRFF are self-described Christians who simply object to military-imposed religious services and worship. They often don’t like the fundamentalist, dominionist flavor of Christianity so common in the military. These men and women who serve their country deserve to have their religious freedom protected. The military could fix itself in months or even weeks with some strongly worded policies and even the smallest amount of political backbone. Sadly, our toughest generals lack the guts to stand up to the religious right.
When I finished the book, I was struck more than anything with an overwhelming sense of sadness. I was sad that people would write such awful things about a family they don’t even know. I was also sad that so many people spew so much hate in the guise of religion and freedom, and I was the most troubled that I don’t think it will change, at least not any time soon. As long as there is money to be made and votes to be mined, people in the far-right wing of American religion will vilify this family and anyone else who dares to stand up to them.