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Meet “Mikey” Weinstein, the Questionable Critic of the Pentagon’s Religious Policy

Two U.S. Air Force F-15E Strike Eagle aircraft fly over northern Iraq Sept. 23, 2014, after conducting airstrikes in Syria

Senior Airman Matthew Bruch, U.S. Air Force CC<br /> <br /> <br /> Two U.S. Air Force F-15E Strike Eagle aircraft fly over northern Iraq Sept. 23, 2014, after conducting airstrikes in Syria. The aircraft were part of a large coalition strike package that was the first to strike Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) targets in Syria. President Barack Obama authorized humanitarian aid deliveries to Iraq as well as targeted airstrikes to protect U.S. personnel from extremists known as ISIL. U.S. Central Command directed the operations. (DoD photo by Senior Airman Matthew Bruch, U.S. Air Force/Released)

Mark Stricherz - published on 01/06/15

The Military Religious Freedom Foundation's feats include scrubbing “So Help Me God” from the Air Force cadets pledge

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WASHINGTON – On November 19, Michael L. Weinstein sat down at a wooden table at a hearing of the House Armed Services subcommittee beside four experts on religious accommodations in the armed forces. He noticed the high ceiling inside Room 2118 of the House Rayburn Office Building and the print reporters at a table off to the side. After scanning the room, Weinstein made an opening statement in the familiar manner of those who testify before Congress.

“Thank you profoundly for the gracious invitation to speak with you today,” Weinstein said after acknowledging the members present. Then he urged lawmakers to protect lower-level military members from high-ranking officers seeking to religiously convert them. “They ask this Congress to protect their right to remain free from those commanders or other superiors who wrongly believe that the First Amendment gives them the unrestricted right to proselytize or witness to their subordinates,” Weinstein said.

On November 24, writing for two progressive online news sites Weinstein described his opening statement. He made no mention that he had spoken like a typical professional-class American who testifies before Congress. Instead, he gave readers the impression he had spoken like a bull-horn wielding political activist on the National Mall.  “In my introduction, I was blunt. I noted the abject fecklessness and Christian supremacy and exceptionalism of the present regime of religious oppression in the armed forces,” Weinstein wrote, despite the fact that he did not say the words “Christian,” “exceptionalism,” “oppression,” or “supremacy” at all. 

The discrepancy between Weinstein’s opening statement and his description of it revealed more than his penchant for flattery and for demagoguery. It revealed his tendency to stretch the truth and make questionable claims. Weinstein has suggested he can bend military policy to his will. He has let it be known that he served as a White House lawyer to President Ronald Reagan and that he is the victim of unrelenting anti-Semitism. Although each claim has some justification, the whole truth is more complicated or difficult to determine.

In Weinstein’s eyes, he is a modern-day David for lower-rank service members slaying the Goliath of high-ranking, Christian dominionists. He insists that others refer to him as “Mikey,” the name of a boy in a famous 1970’s cereal commercial, and he refers to his opponents as “fundamentalist Christian monsters.” 

“We created this foundation to be a weapon. We’re going to lay down a withering field of fire and leave sucking chest wounds,” Weinstein told the Washington Post in 2006

A year earlier, Weinstein founded the Military Religious Freedom Foundation, a nonprofit committed to building a higher wall between church and state in the armed forces. Weinstein, 59, graduated from the Air Force Academy in 1977. A Jewish-American in a Christian-dominated military, he claims that 96 percent of his clients are practicing Christians who are sensitive to overt religious displays. In subsequent years, the organization has fought to scrub the words “So Help Me God” from the pledge that Air Force cadets make every summer; remove the preference for “Christian” applicants for an Army reserve-officer-training corps (ROTC) teaching assignment at an evangelical Christian college, and prevent coaches at Air Force’s football team from making a hand salute of J for Jesus.

Weinstein touts his accomplishments for liberal news outlets, and mainstream and trade publications return the favor by touting them for him. In 2006, The Forward listed Weinstein in its top 50 of the most influential Jewish Americans. 
 In 2012, Defense News named Weinstein as the 95th most influential person in the world shaping military policy. 

Weinstein’s influence over religious policy in the military is widely accepted. Ron Crews, executive director of the Chaplain’s Alliance for Religious Liberty, said Weinstein has “too much power. He has boasted that he can get Air Force leaders on the phone in an hour and that’s too often the case.”

Weinstein’s professional status is not lost on him. Although one’s place in the human pecking order is a common preoccupation in American politics and law, Weinstein seizes on any temporary status coup to exalt his position.  After Defense News put him on its 2012 list, Weinstein noted that he was ranked ahead of Gen. David Petraeus, architect of the allies’ counter-terrorism policy in Iraq in 2006 and 2007. Weinstein notes that his organization has been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize.

On top of those accolades, Weinstein goes out of his way to say he worked as a lawyer for President Ronald Reagan.  On his organization’s website, Weinstein said he “spent over three years in the West Wing of the Reagan Administration as legal counsel in the White House.” 

National media outlets, too, cite Weinstein’s ties to Reagan. In the stories, the link establishes Weinstein’s professional bona fides: He is not just any old law school grad with a sheepskin in his office; he is an attorney at the top of his profession. Weinstein “was once a White House lawyer who defended the Reagan administration during the Iran Contra investigation” (Washington Post, 2006), a “White House lawyer during the Reagan administration” (Defense News, 2012) and a “former White House counsel to President Ronald Reagan” “(Esquire, 2014).

Weinstein’s main foes are evangelical Christians who proselytize fellow service members. Evangelicals are a major Republican constituency, so Weinstein’s tie to Reagan helps give Weinstein and his cause a veneer of bipartisanship and fairness. “I cannot emphasize strongly enough that this is not a partisan battle,” Weinstein wrote in a 2007 op-ed.

Yet Weinstein promotes more than his professional status and competence. He also promotes bigoted attacks directed at him and family members. To this reporter Weinstein forwarded anti-Semitic email messages sent to him.  “Who you think you are? You want to stop our American soldiers from spreading The Word of our Savior to all others with ears to hear? Over my dead body JEWdas mikie Weinstein; better yet over the dead bodies of your jew wife and jew children pray Christ to take them soon,” Terry4Dallas wrote to Weinstein last month.

Weinstein has caught the notice of orthodox and conservative Christians. To some, Weinstein is a respected adversary or interlocutor. At the invitation of Patrick Henry College, he spoke at the evangelical Virginia school in September. To others, Weinstein is a persecutor. “… (T)hose opposed to the Gospel of Jesus Christ have throughout history sought to silence the voices of His children,” Michael Avramovich of Touchstone Magazine wrote last summer. 

But look closer at Weinstein’s claims, and you find that some might be exaggerated.

Take Weinstein’s alleged influence over religious policy in the military.  

Regardless of Weinstein’s skill at getting military leaders on the phone, Weinstein failed to stop the Department of Defense from revising its guidelines in a more religion-friendly direction last January. “The new policy states that military departments will accommodate religious requests of service members unless a request would have an adverse effect on military readiness, mission accomplishment, unit cohesion and good order and discipline,” Navy Lieutenant Commander Nathan J. Christensen said. 

Michael Berry, senior counsel and director of military affairs at the Liberty Institute, a conservative non-profit, said the Pentagon handed a victory to supporters of religious expression. “The default is that expression of religious freedom is okay. It didn’t used to be that way. Now the shoe is on the other foot: The burden is on the military to show that service members should not engage in religious expression,” Berry said in a telephone interview.

Consider, too, Weinstein’s claim that he served as a White House lawyer. 

Ray Wilson, an archivist at the Reagan library in California, said he could not verify Weinstein’s employment in the White House. “I couldn’t find anything. Our records showed he did not work in the White House. I don’t see anything in the Reagan White House, and I checked five different collections,” Wilson said in a telephone interview. 

When pressed about his alleged service in the Reagan administration, Weinstein said he worked in the Office of Management and Budget from 1984 to 1986 and worked as assistant general counsel in the White House Office of Administration from 1986 to 1987. He added he was on detail from the Air Force in his first two years as a government attorney. Also, he referred a reporter to Arnold Intrater, general counsel to the White House Office of Administration. A phone call and email to Intrater were not returned. 

“What can I say, I mean, there’s a picture of me with Reagan at his 76th birthday party. I’m wearing a White House pass around my neck,” Weinstein said in a phone interview.

But Richard Painter, a former deputy legal counsel in the White House under President George W. Bush, said Weinstein’s job title was more consistent with that of an attorney who handled bureaucratic matters than an attorney who advised Reagan on high-profile issues. “That is not part of the White House counsel’s office.  The Office of Administration is in the White House but handles more routine administrative issues for the White House,” Painter wrote in an email. 

In addition, some anti-Semitic emails that Weinstein forwarded to this reporter have questionable origins.  The email addresses were, and All three bounced back and contained the same message: “Domain name not found.”

Weinstein said the explanation for the questionable emails was simple: “A lot of (anti-Semitic people) are cowards. They hide behind fake emails … There’s nothing we can do about it. We can’t tell them to disclose their identity.”

Weinstein’s critics admit Weinstein has been the victim of anti-Semitic prejudice. “I regret that. I certainly do,” Crews said. 

Last September, on his nightly news program televangelist Pat Robertson disparaged Weinstein for his opposition to the cadets’ oath. “You think you’re supposed to be tough. You think you’re supposed to defend the country. And you got one little Jewish radical who is scaring the pants off of you. You want these guys flying airplanes to defend us when you’ve got one little guy terrorizing them?” Robertson said. (Weinstein gives no quarter to his critics. After Robertson’s harangue, Weinstein compared the televangelist to dog excrement).  

In addition, clearly Weinstein exerts influence over the application of religious policy in the military. 

The Air Force’s changing policy on the words “So help me God” illustrates Weinstein’s power. For decades, first-year cadets stood up to repeat the four words at the honor oath at the start of the school year. Weinstein urged military leaders to remove the phrase. He said it violates Article VI of the Constitution that forbids a religious test for any government office or trust. In 2012, the four words were removed entirely from the oath, which Air Force leaders said was the result of a misprint. Last year, the phrase was restored but made optional for cadets. 

In December, Weinstein helped remove the requirement for Christian applicants to a ROTC teaching assignment at Wheaton College in Illinois. On November 6, Weinstein complained to the Secretary of the Army that the evangelical school’s requirement was a “blatant violation” of the no-religious test clause of the U.S. Constitution. On December 4, Deputy Assistant Secretary Anthony J. Stamilio complied with Weinstein’s request. “We understand your concerns and have removed all university preferences from our assignment postings,” Stamilio wrote. 

Weinstein’s influence has won the respect of some military-establishment figures. Lawrence Wilkerson, former chief of staff to Secretary of State Colin Powell, served on Weinstein’s board. In The Washington Post, reporter Alan Cooperman compared Weinstein’s persona to a cross between Clint Eastwood and Rodney Dangerfield. 

But few in the military establishment or the mainstream or the religious media have taken a hard look at Weinstein or his claims about his organization; in a notable exception, The Air Force Times revealed that Weinstein set his own salary (of $273,355) in 2012, a departure from federal guidelines.  

If Weinstein recognizes the discrepancy between his calls for scrutiny of military religious policy and the lack of scrutiny about him, he has not said. Instead, he debates hosts of Fox News shows and receives favorable profiles in mainstream media outlets, perhaps secure in the knowledge that the more he seeks to shine a bright light on evangelicals and anti-Semites, the less that others will shine a bright light on him.

Mark Stricherzcovers Washington for Aleteia. He is author of Why the Democrats are Blue.

Religious Freedom
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