Jewish father tackles proselytizing in Air Force after sons’ harassment


WASHINGTON — Betrayal. Contagion. Oceans of blood. That’s Mikey Weinstein, describing the threat he believes the United States faces from the Christian evangelists he says are permeating the military. At least, that’s the printable Weinstein.

And he says to expect more of the same in-your-face approach as his Military Religious Freedom Foundation picks up steam and continues to pursue lawsuits against the U.S. armed forces.

“We’re out of the business of comforting the afflicted, and we’ve gone into the business of afflicting the comfortable,” Weinstein said in Washington last week hours before a fund-raiser at a posh Arlington, Va., address for the foundation he established a year ago.

Weinstein, an Air Force veteran and an assistant counsel in the Reagan administration, was thrust into this limelight 18 months ago when both his sons reported anti-Jewish harassment during their stints at the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colo.

Weinstein, 51, was shocked; he had never experienced such intense hostility, including obscenities and epithets; nor had his father, a U.S. Navy veteran. The culprit, he concluded, was a new pervasive evangelism in the military. Evangelical fliers were distributed on campus, chaplains proselytized from their lecterns and cadets who did not attend prayer meetings were snubbed — or worse.

The revelations were like a bolt, Weinstein said, precisely because as a veteran of the military’s legal corps, he understood that the armed forces work under a hierarchy.

“We don’t let sergeants pitch Amway because we know of the draconian structure of the military hierarchy,” he said.

He felt the need to stand up to an “unconstitutional contagion,” he told JTA. “We have seen this train leave the station before, and we’ve ended up with oceans of blood.”

Since then, Weinstein has joined Melinda Morton, a Lutheran chaplain fired by the Air Force for her critiques of evangelism, in becoming the go-to address for media seeking commentary on the issue.

It has also brought less welcome attention.

Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Calif., the chairman of the Armed Services Committee of the House of Representatives, told the Washington Times last month that it would be “folly” to instruct chaplains to “start editing prayers.”

Weinstein says with a half-smile: “I’ve been called the field general of the armies of Satan.”

He gives as good as he gets.

Weinstein, who lives in Albuquerque, where he is an executive employed by billionaire businessman Ross Perot, recently turned on his congresswoman, Rep. Heather Wilson.

Wilson, a fellow Air Force veteran, had employed Weinstein’s son, Casey, and had walked him across the stage when he graduated in 2004. She was also one of only eight Republicans who backed a bill aimed at rolling back evangelical coercion in the military.

That wasn’t good enough for Weinstein, who is now fund-raising for Wilson’s Democratic opponent, New Mexico Attorney General Patricia Madrid, in what is expected to be a tight race. He says Wilson has not been sufficiently outspoken on the issue.

“Heather Wilson took me and my family, and threw us under a bus to bleed by the side of the road,” Weinstein recently told the Albuquerque Tribune. He called her silence “betrayal.”

That kind of rhetoric unsettles Jewish groups, who count Wilson as a friend. Weinstein, currently on a fund-raising tour of major American cities, said he opposed the conciliatory approach he says is employed by Jewish groups and church-state separation advocates.

“They’ve become staid,” he said.

The centerpiece of the foundation’s activity has been Weinstein’s suit, filed in October against the U.S. Air Force.

The lawsuit would force the Air Force to ensure that “no member of the U.S. Air Force, including a chaplain, is permitted to evangelize, proselytize, or in any related way attempt to involuntarily convert, pressure, exhort or persuade a fellow member of the U.S. Air Force to accept their own religious beliefs while on duty.”

The Air Force, backed by conservative Christian groups and by powerful congressional Republicans, says such requirements would infringe on army officer’s free speech rights.

The Christian Coalition has been front and center in the campaign, saying that keeping chaplains from mentioning Jesus in multifaith contexts constitutes “religious discrimination against Christians.”

That argument infuriates Weinstein, who calls it “torturing language.” He says the military should never have become a forum for this debate. “The bombs and the bullets all belong to the military,” he said. “If you lose the military, you lose everything.”

It’s a stark contrast with how major Jewish organizations have dealt with the issue.

In a statement Thursday, four advocacy groups granted a cautious welcome to Air Force guidelines aimed at stemming proselytizing.

The guidelines have “substantially alleviated concerns that followed reports of religious proselytization and anti-Semitism,” said the letter signed by the American Jewish Committee, the Anti-Defamation League, the American Jewish Congress and the Reform movement’s Religious Action Center.

The Jewish groups suggested a greater emphasis against “particularistic” prayer in multifaith settings and urged officers not to discuss beliefs with enlisted people in the military.

The one-page guidelines issued by the Air Force back away from such specific recommendations, instead generally recommending “sensitivity.” An earlier version, which urged officers to keep their counsel in front of enlisted men, was rescinded by the Air Force after a nationwide campaign by conservative Christian groups. Weinstein dismisses the guidelines as “words,” and says the Air Force’s rollback proves his point.

Some Jewish groups said engagement is better than Weinstein’s brand of confrontation.

“The key issue for us is that we want to be engaged in the constructive fashion and to recognize that there were some changes we weren’t thrilled with,” said Richard Foltin, the general counsel for the AJCommittee. Others said Weinstein provided a useful “bad cop” role in the effort to engage the military.

“He’s certainly brought the issue very dramatically to the fore, and for that we are all grateful,” said Abraham Foxman, the ADL’s national director. “We’re giving the Air Force some slack, but there’s nothing wrong with suing — maybe it helps.”

Weinstein’s friends say not to count him out.

“He’s tenacious if he’s anything,” said Sam Bregman, his attorney. A colleague from his Reagan administration days, Sam Fairchild, said Weinstein will always find a new way around a problem.

“He was creative in solutions, able to look beyond bureaucratic perspective,” said Fairchild, adding that Weinstein came up with the idea of auctioning lab space on space shuttles to help pay for the missions. Rep. Steve Israel, D-N.Y., who has taken the lead in the U.S. House of Representatives against attempts to broaden allowances for evangelizing, says Weinstein has been key in the fight.

“Mikey Weinstein has pursued this more aggressively than anyone I know,” Israel said.

“He is passionate about this issue from a constitutional perspective but also because his family was personally affected by it. His approach is understandable.”