Mikey Weinstein has a battle plan: "We're going to go into a court of law and lay down our own withering field of fire and leave sucking chest wounds on this unconstitutional heart of darkness that has swept through our Pentagon and our military like a fascistic contagion, turning the Pentagon into the 'Pentacostal-gon.'"
What is that "unconstitutional heart of darkness?" Evangelicals in military leadership.
Weinstein, a former Air Force JAG officer and lawyer in the Reagan White House, will tell you it's not all evangelicals, but only a small subset: "Premillenial, dispensational, reconstructionist, dominionist, fundamentalist, and evangelistic."
That reconstructionists are almost never dispensational; that all evangelicals are, by definition, evangelistic; and that Weinstein's most recent target, Christian Embassy, serves a constituency too theologically mixed to be pigeonholed, doesn't seem to bother him: He's on a roll.
In 2005, Weinstein started the Military Religious Freedom Foundation (MRFF), a group that is fighting what he says is rampant evangelical encroachment on the religious freedom of other active-duty service members. In October 2005, Weinstein, the Jewish father of two Air Force Academy cadets, sued the Air Force, accusing senior officers and cadets of fostering unconstitutional "religious intolerance" on its Colorado Springs campus, and allowing illegal proselytizing up and down the chain of command.
This June, the Fort Leavenworth, Kan., chaplain's office removed Bible study materials from its website after Weinstein threatened to sue. Weinstein charged that some study guide questions and answers were anti-Semitic. (Q: "Why did the Jews persecute Paul?" A: "Because of his teachings. The cross was an offense to the Jews.")
Then, early this month, the Defense Department made public the findings of an Inspector General investigation triggered by a Weinstein complaint. The report recommended "corrective action" against seven officers-including four generals-whom the IG said "improperly endorsed and participated with a non-Federal entity," Christian Embassy, an evangelical group.
Now-retired Pentagon Chaplain Ralph Benson, the report said, "provided a selective benefit" for Christian Embassy by allowing the group to film portions of a promotional video inside the Pentagon.
Founded by Bill Bright, Washington officials, and business leaders, Christian Embassy has conducted voluntary Bible studies and discipleship meetings at the Pentagon, on Capitol Hill, and among diplomats for 25 years.
Weinstein and some editorialists hailed the IG report as a blow to a dark spiritual conspiracy: The report "confirms the intentional dismantling of the constitutionally mandated wall separating church and state by some of the highest ranking officials in the Bush Administration and the U.S. military," Weinstein said in a statement.
But Christian Embassy executive director Robert Varney said religion wasn't an issue in the IG's findings at all. "The findings in that report show no evidence of inappropriate religious activity but only improper endorsement of a non-Federal entity while in uniform. That is the only substantive point. Let's not blow this out of proportion; let's not imply some kind of religious persecution, or coordinated plan, or national concern."
Charges of persecution, collusion, and national concern appear to be primary weapons in Weinstein's arsenal. Many of his public statements seem carefully tooled to stoke fear and loathing of evangelical military leaders. In his statement on the IG report, Weinstein said, "That these senior Pentagon officials control the world's largest nuclear, chemical and biological arsenal should eviscerate the American public's trust and confidence in their military and civilian leadership."
He told WORLD that Christian Embassy and other evangelical targets of his campaign are virulently "homophobic," "anti-Semitic" misogynists who believe "all women should be consigned to preparing and serving food, cleaning up after meals, spreading their legs, getting pregnant, and raising children."
Has Weinstein spoken with Christian Embassy or the investigated officers to find out if they believe those things?
Then how can he know what they believe?
"I can't," Weinstein said. "But I look forward to taking their depositions when we sue them. Then we'll find out for sure."
"I think what Mikey has done is mischaracterize much of evangelical Christianity and go after a bunch of people based on a set of beliefs that he thinks they have," Varney said. "He characterizes this very extreme group to be feared, then takes that little piece and spreads it over all of evangelical Christianity. That's not accurate, and it's not a reasonable thing for anyone to do."
Given Weinstein's purple pronouncements, he might be written off as a crackpot. But mainstream media outlets such as The Washington Post have published winsome profiles of Weinstein (he's one part Clint Eastwood, one part Rodney Dangerfield, the Post opined). And as an Air Force Academy honor grad and Reagan administration alum, Weinstein has been able to use his resumé to gain national attention and make himself a significant thorn in the Pentagon's side.
In March 2006, he amended his Air Force Academy suit, adding a plaintiff and claiming that Air Force recruiters were "using Jesus as a recruiting tool." The suit was dropped last fall when a judge ruled that the plaintiffs did not have standing to sue.
But Weinstein says he isn't giving up: "The judge gave us a toolkit for how to come back appropriately into federal court and we're just about to. Stay tuned."
In the Christian Embassy case, some officers had their promotions put on hold for months pending the outcome of the IG investigation, a suspense that is not yet officially resolved. Weinstein says he is about sue in that case, too.
While Weinstein's war may be inconveniencing the Pentagon, other of his targets, such as Officers' Christian Fellowship and Military Christian Fellowship, say the lawyer's diatribes aren't affecting them at all. Both groups offer voluntary Bible studies and discipleship activities. Weinstein has characterized them as part of a "Christian Taliban."
OCF executive director Bruce Fister, a retired Air Force lieutenant general and combat veteran, said, "Most of our members won't even be aware of Weinstein or what he's up to. This stuff gets a lot less circulation once you get outside the Beltway."
Weinstein claims his foundation has received complaints from "5,000 tormentees," many of them junior troops whose commanders intimidate them with "the weaponized gospel of Jesus Christ." But he told WORLD "you can't" verify their stories because most won't speak on the record. "You're going to have to take my word for it."
"Weinstein is dealing in anecdotal evidence," said Stephen Mansfield, author of The Faith of the American Soldier, a history of the influence of religion in the U.S. military. "I spent a couple of years researching this. The average evangelical 'Bible thumper' type would welcome nonbelievers in a unit. The bottom line is that we have some anecdotal stuff here, and that's what fuels the debate."
Varney noted that the story line of the heavy-handed evangelical military leader has played out in the media since 2003, when Army Lt. Gen. Jerry Boykin was accused of improperly representing his religious opinions as those of the Defense Department. Then came Weinstein's Air Force Academy suit, and now the Christian Embassy flap. But Boykin was exonerated, the Air Force suit dropped, and the Christian Embassy suit yielded no findings of religion-related abuse, Varney said: "In every case there's no substance to this idea of religious persecution."
Both Varney and Fister told WORLD they intend to continue encouraging military service members to live out their faith in Christ, demonstrating His work in their lives through excellence in military service.
"Our job is not to argue with Mikey," Fister said. "A lot of the people in our organization have put their literal bodies out for people to shoot at so that Mikey can believe however he wants to believe."