Not God’s Army: The Front Lines of the Fight Against Proselytizing in the U.S. Military

Since this interview took place RD has learned that one member of the armed forces, having been the object of persistent harassment from a military superior in their direct chain of command for their religious affiliation, has attempted suicide. In the coming weeks, this MRFF client faces an official military proceeding. Due to the sensitive nature of the situation all identifying information has been omitted. –Eds.

Last month, right before his retirement, Chief of Staff of the Air Force, Gen. Norton Schwartz issued new rules regarding proselytizing among the troops. The document instructs commanders to “avoid the actual or apparent use of their position to promote their personal religious beliefs to their subordinates or to extend preferential treatment for any religion.” 

Although the new order is backed up by military law, Mikey Weinstein, founder of and force behind the Military Religious Freedom Foundation (MRFF), remains skeptical

It was a transparent and likely guilt-ridden concession by Schwartz, yet it was both too little and too late. With Schwartz’s butt-covering, last second, ‘midnight drive-by’ delivery of AFI 1-1, we have no alternative left but to look to the new USAF Chief of Staff, Gen. Mark A. Welsh III, to show the all-too-rare backbone once required of all top leaders within the U.S. Military.

Weinstein, whose work with the MRFF was nominated this year for the Nobel Peace Prize, has been fighting for religious freedom within the military since 2005, when his son Curtis, an Air Force Academy cadet, confided to his father that he’d been struggling. As Weinstein recounts in his most recent book, Curtis told his father: “I’m going to beat the shit out of the next guy who calls me a ‘fucking Jew.’ I’m going to beat the shit out of the next guy who accuses me, or our people, of killing Christ.”

Weinstein knew the anguish of his son firsthand, having been threatened and harassed himself over his religion back in 1973 while he himself was a cadet at the Academy. 

He founded the MRFF to defend the religious liberty of every service member, fighting not only against anti-Semitism, but to protect who have felt pressured to accept a radical form of Christianity—and to find justice for those who have been assaulted or marginalized within the ranks for resisting the proselytizing. 

Don’t get Weinstein wrong. He’s no bleeding heart liberal. He’s a registered Republican, and he worked as the Assistant General Counsel to the White House office of Administration under Ronald Reagan. He has a long history with the military and has seen both his sons, and a daughter-in-law go through the Academy.

The payback for his work with MRFF has come in the form of about a dozen death threats each week, vandalism of his home and other property, poisoned pets and a fairly steady stream of hate mail. 

Weinstein recently took some time to talk to me about his work.

What is the Military Religious Freedom Foundation?

We’re a very aggressive and militant civil rights organization. Our aggression and our militancy is in support of the U.S. Constitution—specifically the separation of church and state, which is set out in both the First Amendment and article 6, clause 3 of the body of the Constitution (the clause that states that we will never have a religion test for any position in the federal government).

Our job is to keep separate the spiritual and temporal, church-state, metaphysical and physical where all the nuclear weapons are. We’re doing this in the technologically most lethal organization ever created by humankind, which is our U.S. military.

We represent 28,522 active duty U.S. Marines, sailors, soldiers, airmen, cadets, midshipman at West Point, Annapolis and the Air Force Academy, National Guard, reservists, Coast Guard, and veterans. Around 96% of our clients are practicing Protestants or Roman Catholics. About three-fourths are Protestants of almost every denomination including 21 different variety of Baptists alone. The other one-fourth are Roman Catholic. The other 4% that we represent are Hindu, Jewish, Buddhist, Muslim, Atheist, Agnostic—including 12 practitioners of the Jedi Faith.

About 100 people work in the foundation—many of them are full time volunteers and still others are highly decorated veterans. We have many law firms that provide pro bono legal work as well as promotion and public relations entities. We have offices in all four time zones and thousands of donors across the country.

Frederick Douglass once said, “Power concedes nothing without a demand.” We at MRFF are the demanders of the commanders. We are the voice of the members of the military who are not allowed to speak.

How did fundamentalist Christianity get such a strong foothold in the military?

I believe it started in 1972 with the end of the draft. When we had mandatory conscription at least we were, arguably, pulling [somewhat equally] from “red” and “blue” states, since they were going in involuntarily. With the end of the draft (though we clearly still have a “poverty draft”) we begain to see people who were volunteering coming mostly from the red states, or extremely conservative states.

After Vietnam a lot of clergy did not want to go into the military, and since nature abhors a vacuum we began to see this influx of extremely evangelical people coming into the chaplaincy as well as into the operations of the military. It really hit its stride in 1994 with the so-called Newt Gingrich revolution at the end of the second year of the Clinton presidency when we really saw the politics of polarization clearly rear its filthy head.

You have said that not all evangelicals are fundamentalists, and that most of those you represent are evangelical Christians. As you see it, what are the philosophical differences between the radical Christians who are proselytizing in the military and other Christians?

The guiding principle for mainline, progressive Protestants and Roman Catholics is the great commandment, “To love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind and soul and love your neighbor as yourself,” and the Golden Rule. Evangelical and Fundamentalist Christians don’t follow the Great Commandment, but instead follow the Great Commission talked about in Mark 16:15 which is “Go and make disciples of all nations.”

The difference is that every fundamentalist, by necessity, is an evangelical, but not vice versa. Because evangelicals and fundamentalists both want to convert you and me to become Christians like they are but evangelicals are saying, “I have to comport my zeal to this in accordance with the time and the place and the manner restrictions put forth by the U.S. Constitution and federal and state case law.” But fundamentalists and dominionists say, “Screw that! There is no place, time or manner in which we can be restricted from proselytizing the gospel of Jesus Christ as we see it.”

What kind of complaints do you hear about?

We’ve had people beaten, denigrated, families and careers ruined. Our clients are being told they are not Christian enough. It’s a porridge of horrors. When you’re told you have the wrong religious faith—the military is very tribal and ritualistic. It’s a different environment.

Everybody is against rape, murder, and armed robbery, but when you say to someone, “you can’t use your position of military authority to force your religious faith on a completely helpless subordinate,” a lot of eyebrows go up and they ask, “You don’t like Jesus, do you?”

There are over two dozen parachurch organizations that run rampant through the military. One of them is the Officer’s Christian Fellowship. It has about 15,000 officers of many ranks, some of them generals and admirals. Their purpose is to have Christian officers exercising biblical leadership to raise up a godly military. Their three goals are to spiritually transform the U.S. military with ambassadors for Christ in uniform empowered by the Holy Spirit. Their chief Bible study that they push on their helpless subordinates is “we will not allow the opposition, all of which is spearheaded by Satan, to thwart or prevent us from regaining territory for Jesus Christ and the U.S. military.”

There are many other organizations that the military actively encourages.

What do you do for those who complain?

We provide them with what we call AARP—anonymity, action, results and protection. Right now, about 84% of the chaplaincy are evangelicals, which doesn’t make them all bad because evangelicals are our friends. About a third of those are hardcore fundamentalists.

Father Mulcahey from MASH is dead and buried. For most of the chaplaincy, their role in the military is a mission field where they are going out for low hanging fruit that’s fertile for conversion to their version of Christianity. The military environment, particularly at the academy, is adversarial, communal, ritualistic and very tribal. If you don’t conform to the way everybody else is, that will get you killed.

What can people do to change the atmosphere of harassment in the military?

The biggest thing is to support us. We’re a nonprofit charity. Writing senators and congressmen is useless, but when you fund us, we can get results. We’re a very militant and aggressive organization, but our aggression is in support of the U.S. Constitution.