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Readers may be aware of the firestorm that erupted last week over reports that the US Department of Defense (DOD) had hired an anti-Christian crusader to draft new policies that would result in Christian service members who share their faith with others being court martialed. Most of what was reported simply wasn’t true. In fact, it appears that the entire affair is a cautionary tale of what can happen when fear and ideology are injected into a self-confirming “news” loop among like-minded media outlets.
Here’s the rundown. On April 24, The Washington Post ran a column by religion writer Sally Quinn titled, “US Military should put religious freedom at the front.” In the piece, Quinn revealed that Michael “Mikey” Weinstein, founder and president of the Military Religious Freedom Foundation (MRFF), had recently participated in a meeting at the Pentagon with a group of Air Force officers. The story soon caromed through the conservative echo chamber, becoming progressively more distorted as it bounced from place to place. The politically conservative news site Breitbart reported that the Pentagon had “tapped” Weinstein, implying that he had been selected by military leaders to craft new policy. The author of the Breitbart piece, Ken Klukowski, a senior fellow at the Family Research Council and a faculty member at Liberty University School of Law, claimed that the Pentagon meeting amounted to “a disturbing new alliance between fanatical secularists and leaders in the Pentagon appointed by President Barack Obama and Secretary Chuck Hagel.” The Christian Post, an online Evangelical Protestant publication, then ran a story with the headline, “Pentagon Hires Anti-Conservative Activist Who Branded Fundamentalists as 'Christian Monsters.’”
But none of that was true, according to Lt. Col. Laurel Tingley, an Air Force spokeswoman. “At Mr. Weinstein’s request, several Air Force officials met with him and two other members of the Military Religious Freedom Foundation to discuss his concerns,” Tingley said. “He’s not a consultant for the Air Force, nor did we consult with him on Air Force policy on religious tolerance.” In fact, Tingley noted that a revision to the Air Force “blue book” – a collection of Air Force regulations covering appearance, conduct and work environment – had already been completed, with no change to policy on religious tolerance. Moreover, “there is no new regulation in the works,” she said.
In the meantime, Fox News asked the Pentagon for a clarification of its policy on proselytization, which Merriam-Webster defines as “inducing someone to convert to one’s faith.” DOD spokesman, Lieutenant Commander Nate Christensen, responded with the following statement: “Religious proselytization is not permitted within the Department of Defense … Court martials and non-judicial punishments are decided on a case-by-case basis and it would be inappropriate to speculate on the outcome in specific cases.” Not only did Christensen’s terse response not clarify the policy; it set off a new wave of stories claiming that the DOD was planning to court martial service members who “share their faith.” The conservative “Drudge Report,” one of the most popular web sites in the world, got wind of the story and passed it along. The Family Research Council, a conservative Evangelical advocacy group based in Washington, D.C., hastily introduced an online petition asking the Pentagon to “scrub plans to court martial Christians.” Within a matter of days, the petition had garnered over 100,000 signatures.
This firestorm, coming hard on the heels of inaccurate stories about Weinstein’s role, compelled DOD spokesman Christensen to revise and extend his original remarks: “Service members can share their faith (evangelize),” he said, “but must not force unwanted, intrusive attempts to convert others of any faith or no faith to one’s beliefs (proselytization) … If a service member harasses another member on the basis of race, color, sex, religion, national origin, age, or disability, then the commander takes action based on the gravity of the occurrence. Likewise, when religious harassment complaints are reported, commanders take action based on the gravity of the occurrence on a case-by-case basis.” Christensen also disputed accusations that the military was becoming anti-Christian. “The U.S. Department of Defense has never and will never single out a particular religious group for persecution or prosecution,” he said. “The Department makes reasonable accommodations for all religions and celebrates the religious diversity of our service members.”
In just a few days, word that the MRFF’s Weinstein had attended a single meeting at the Pentagon was transformed into him having been hired to write DOD policy in a “new alliance between fanatical secularists and leaders in the Pentagon.” Similarly, confirmation by a DOD spokesman that service members may be subject to penalties under the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ) for proselytization was twisted into Pentagon “plans to court martial Christians” for sharing their faith.
At the heart of this story is the figure of Michael Weinstein. According to his biography, Weinstein is a US Air Force Academy graduate, the father of two Academy graduates, and the father-in-law of two Academy graduates. He is also a former Reagan White House official, a registered Republican, and former General Counsel to H. Ross Perot, the Texas billionaire. Weinstein’s organization, the MRFF, claims its mission is to ensure “that all members of the United States Armed Forces fully receive the Constitutional guarantee of religious freedom to which they and all Americans are entitled by virtue of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.” The MRFF website claims the organization has represented over 30,000 service men and women since 2005, and that 90% of those who contact them are practicing Christians. The site also includes this quote from Weinstein: “When one proudly dons a US Military uniform, there is only one religious symbol: the American flag. There is only one religious scripture: the American Constitution. Finally, there is only one religious faith: American patriotism.”
Weinstein also appears to possess an antipathy verging on hatred for “a small subset of evangelical Christianity that's called premillennial, dispensational, reconstructionist, dominionist, fundamentalist, evangelical Christianity, or just Dominionist Christianity.” A recent Weinstein column that appeared in the Huffington Post was full of the most bitter invective directed at “well-funded gangs of fundamentalist Christian 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.” In the column, Weinstein goes on to plead with readers to join his crusade, writing:
Clearly, Michael Weinstein’s opinion of Evangelicals is unhinged. He likely doesn’t care much for Catholics either. It is therefore legitimate to ask why a group of Air Force officers would take the time to meet with him, particularly since the new Air Force “blue book” had already been finalized. Perhaps it’s because Weinstein heads an advocacy group focused on the US military, or because he and several members of his family are themselves former Air Force officers and Academy graduates. Or perhaps it’s because military officials, like all government employees, are public servants charged with being responsive to a wide range of citizens, religious or not. In any case, the Air Force spokeswoman confirms that it was Weinstein who requested the single meeting, and that no revision to current policy is in the works. Media outlets that could have easily uncovered those simple facts chose not to, which should give all of us pause the next time we read breathless accounts of perfidy in high places.
And the fact is that Weinstein’s complaints are not without a kernel of truth. For example, a favorite target of the MRFF is retired US Army Lieutenant General William Boykin, a legend in the Special Forces community and a very active fundamentalist Christian, both before his retirement and since. In 2003, while still on active duty, Boykin was reprimanded by the Pentagon for appearing at fundamentalist rallies in uniform and declaring that the US was attacked on 9-11 because “we are a Christian nation,” that the “war on terror” is really a battle between Judeo-Christian values and Satan, and that “God, not the voters, chose President Bush.” Today, Boykin is executive vice-president of the Family Research Council, an Evangelical Christian advocacy group, but he continues to promote the notion that the US military is God’s instrument in a holy war against Islam.
The Air Force Academy itself has long had a problem with the systemic harassment of non-fundamentalists, including Catholics. The Academy is located in Colorado Springs, Col., also home to many major Evangelical Protestant ministries, including “Focus on the Family” and the highly influential New Life Church. That proximity has presented challenges for Air Force leaders trying to reign in unwanted Evangelical proselytizing both on and off campus, including cadets pressured by superiors into attending Bible studies and making public professions of faith. And the problem isn’t confined to the Air Force. Both the West Point and Annapolis have periodically had to deal with overly zealous proselytization bordering on harassment.
The military has a rigid hierarchical structure that exercises control over soldiers twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. Everything – including family life, personal finances, and even off-duty dress – is within the purview of commanders. When those commanders undertake to promote – not just witness or practice, but promote – their personal faith or non-belief, it can become a big problem for unit cohesion, morale, and combat effectiveness, just as it would if commanders were promoting their private political views. The fact is that the military provides a wealth of opportunities for religious service members to practice their faith. Every post and base is dotted with chapels, and soldiers are given the tools they need to fulfill their religious obligations, right down to mess halls offering meatless entrees during Lent. Chaplains are ubiquitous, and for Catholics there is even a military archdiocese, headed by Archbishop Timothy Broglio. Any media outlet that claims the Pentagon is out to punish Christians has an ideological or partisan axe to grind. It’s not true, and that is something all citizens, religious or not, should celebrate.