- Conservative media have claimed that the Military Religious Freedom Foundation (MRFF) is urging the Pentagon to court-martial military members who proselytize
- MRFF leader Mikey Weinstein, a controversial figure who some allege is anti-evangelical, is rebutting conservatives' claims
- Weinstein targets "dominionists" and fundamentalists who he believes are detrimental to the armed forces; he wants military leaders who push faith on subordinates court-martialed
- Military spokesperson denies claims that merely sharing one's faith will lead to legal ramifications
Over the past two weeks, the allegation that the Pentagon is consulting with a controversial church-state separatist group about religious tolerance guidelines has gone viral. The main claim coming from some conservative outlets and Christian advocates is that the organization in question, the Military Religious Freedom Foundation (MRFF), is advocating for military personnel to be court-martialed for proselytizing.
Conservative critics have long alleged that the MRFF and its president, Mikey Weinsten, have taken virulent stances against evangelical Christians. Past statements coming from the organization's leader may certainly be viewed as eyebrow-raising and offensive, particularly for those with traditional evangelical views.
As for the issue of proselytizing, Weinstein's opponents have also charged that the Department of Defense has agreed to comply with his -- and the MRFF's -- alleged recommendations. But is this really the case? Are Christians truly being targeted by the Pentagon? TheBlaze investigated these allegations in-depth, consulting with those familiar with the startling accusations.
HOW THE DEBATE UNFOLDED
The most recent debate started when media reports claimed that Weinstein (a graduate of the United States Air Force Academy) and other representatives from his organization held a private meeting with Pentagon officials on April 23. During this closed-door discussion, it was alleged that Weinstein said that U.S. troops who proselytize are guilty of both sedition and treason.
The MRFF leader was charged by various journalists and bloggers with calling for the military to punish (court-martial) those who overtly pushed their faith on others in the ranks.
“Someone needs to be punished for this. Until the Air Force or Army or Navy or Marine Corps punishes a member of the military for unconstitutional religious proselytizing and oppression, we will never have the ability to stop this horrible, horrendous, dehumanizing behavior," Weinstein was quoted as telling one reporter.
MRFF leader Mikey Weinstein (Photo Credit: AP)
But when TheBlaze spoke with the MRFF leader, he made some clarifications about his stance that are worth noting. Rather than going after any and all military members who share their faith or proselytize, Weinstein said that he and his group are only concerned with higher-rank officers using their power and position to force personal religious views on subordinates.
There's an important distinction here. Rather than punishing all members of the military who engage in the act of trying to convert others to Christianity, the organization is urging the military to combat higher-rank officers from exerting pressures on those they command.
Also, the regulation would not only apply to Christians, as any commanding officer inappropriately advocating for any faith or religious perspective would be held to the same standard. Whether it was a Jew, Muslim, Scientologist -- the list goes on -- Weinstein said that his group's policy on the separation of church and state is the same.
CLARIFYING WEINSTEIN'S VIEWS ON FAITH IN THE MILITARY
"When you are on duty in uniform in the workplace, a superior should never be trying to push religion on a subordinate," Weinstein told TheBlaze.
The church-state separatist leader went on to explain that it isn't an option for officers to tell superiors to "get the hell out" of their faces when they feel uncomfortable. And because these individuals cannot adequately defend themselves when commanding officers exert force on the religious front, Weinstein said that the MRFF does the job for them by getting involved and defending their interests.
A description on the group's web site reads, "The Military Religious Freedom Foundation is dedicated to ensuring 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." Weinstein believes that infractions continue to show that these protections simply are not in place in the military.
"They are being dehumanized, they are being kicked to the curb humiliated, they are being told they have no dignity or worth because they are not quote 'Christian enough,'" Weinstein said of the alleged religious abuses against members of the armed forces whom he represents.
In addition to expressing his disdain for seemingly inaccurate news coverage surrounding his group's policy on proselyting (PolitiFact has ruled the claim that the Pentagon will court-martial Christian soldiers "mostly false"), he decried labels that have been applied to him and the MRFF -- mainly that he is a leftist and an extremist and that the organization is atheistic in nature.
Of his own faith views, Weinstein described himself as an agnostic, but noted that the vast majority of his group's members and clients (more than 33,000) are Protestant or Roman Catholic. Additionally, he described himself as a Republican and said that the MRFF's "biggest donors are very conservative Republicans."
(What do you think about faith in the military? Take the poll at the bottom of this article)
"I don't care if you believe in Spiderman. What we care about is that you have the right to ... celebrate gloriously and comprehensively any religious faith that you want, including no faith," he said of his views on faith in the U.S. military. "But not one particular faith can become an alloy with inextricably intertwined to engage the machinery of the state the -- awesome financial power house and prestige of the United States of America, particularly the Department of Defense."
The MRFF leader maintains that he and his group have been misrepresented in media and he told TheBlaze that the outlets that are purportedly guilty may be taken to court.
"My response to them is simply: Tell it to the judge. I'm going to see you in court," he said, noting that he is reviewing legal options to determine the best path forward.
CONTROVERSY SURROUNDING WEINSTEIN AND THE MRFF
Despite potentially being partially misrepresented in this particular instance, there's no doubt that Weinstein is controversial. His tactics are seen by many advocates as abrasive and some charge that he and the MRFF have a particular bias against faith -- and Christianity more specifically.
Jordan Sekulow, executive director of the American Center for Law and Justice, a conservative group devoted to freedom and liberty, provided comments to TheBlaze about his perspective on Weinstein and the MRFF.
“He and his organization have a troubling track record of bringing baseless lawsuits that embrace the kind of intolerance that our U.S. military should reject," Sekulow said. "Mikey Weinstein has a long track record of using pejorative language to describe Christians – including words and phrases like 'monsters,' 'pitiable unconstitutional carpetbaggers,' 'bigots,' 'stuck pigs,” “evil,” “hate groups,” and “die-hard enemies of the Constitution."
Sekulow went on to say that he believes Weinstein is on a smear campaign that is aimed at both Christians and other religions, alike. These statements are very clearly the exact opposite of what the MFRR leader has said about his views and aim. Weinstein's perception is that he is protecting free speech and the religious rights of those in the ranks. But Sekulow obviously disagrees.
"While he claims to be in pursuit of religious tolerance, he readily defames those who disagree with him and accuses them of all manner of evil activities," the ACLJ executive director said. "In truth, Mr. Weinstein's disagreement is with the beliefs held by those he targets, beliefs that he frequently misunderstands and misstates and beliefs he periodically mocks."
There's no doubt that Weinstein has made some contentious statements. Just consider his HuffPo blog entry last month that took aim at "fundamentalist Christian monsters." Here's just a sample from that article, showcasing the heavy-handedness Weinstein sometimes uses in addressing his grievances with subsets of the Religious Right:
Today, we face incredibly 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. Oh my, my, my, how "Papa's got a brand new bag."
What's Papa's new tactic? You're gonna just love this! These days, when ANYone attempts to bravely stand up against virulent religious oppression, these monstrosities cry out alligator tears in overflowing torrents and scream that it is, in fact, THEY who are the dispossessed, bereft and oppressed. C'mon, really, you pitiable unconstitutional carpetbaggers? It would be like the utter folly of 1960's-era southern bigots howling like stuck pigs in protest that Rosa Parks' civil rights activism is "abusing" them by destroying and disenfranchising their rights to sit in the front seat of buses in Montgomery, Alabama. Please, I beseech you! Let us call these ignoble actions what they are: the senseless and cowardly squallings of human monsters.
In his interview with TheBlaze, Weinstein, somewhat more subdued than the tone present in the aforementioned text, took aim at evangelicals who embrace what he calls "dominionism." He made some distinctions that he claims have not been adequately reported in media.
"I thought that every fundamentalist or dominionist by necessity is an evangelical but ... not the other way around. Not every evangelical is a fundamentalist or dominionist," Weinstein said, noting that these latter groups don't see the need to comply with church-state separatist rules, as they seek to share their faith regardless of appropriateness. "The only Christians that we fight are the fundamentalists or dominionists."
In 2011, TheBlaze covered this issue of purported fundamentalism in detail, highlighting an article that the Daily Beast's Michelle Goldberg wrote at the time, tying both Minnesota Congresswoman Michele Bachmann and Texas Gov. Rick Perry to the supposedly “fringe” Evangelical movement seeking world domination. In describing "dominionism," Goldberg wrote:
Put simply, Dominionism means that Christians have a God-given right to rule all earthly institutions. Originating among some of America’s most radical theocrats, it’s long had an influence on religious-right education and political organizing. But because it seems so outré, getting ordinary people to take it seriously can be difficult. Most writers, myself included, who explore it have been called paranoid.
Clearly, Weinstein believes that not every Christian is a dominionist, as he told TheBlaze. But the issue of dominionism, itself, is considered to be over-the-top even by the most fervent of Christians. And even individuals who would potentially qualify under this designation wouldn't define themselves in this manner. With world domination far from the central goals in the minds of most believers, the concept -- especially as highlighted by Goldberg -- seems a bit inflated.
In Weinstein's case, it appears that the issue, when boiled down, is more simply about the scenarios in which faith-sharing may be appropriate and inappropriate, for that matter. Thus, the MRFF head attempted to affirm the difference between evangelicals who believe in proselytizing, but who acknowledge that there is a time and a place -- and those who share their faith in a no-holds-barred fashion.
"Evangelicals are our friends," he said, noting that he regrets the title of his 2008 book, "With God on Our Side: One Man's War Against an Evangelical Coup in America's Military." Rather than targeting all Christians, Weinstein seems to want to bring non-fundamentalists into his camp (although there is obvious debate surrounding what this means, exactly).
EXAMPLES THAT WARRANT COURT-MARTIALING
Now, let's circle back to the issue of court-martialing. What, exactly, would count as an infraction in the MRFF's eyes? To illustrate his point, Weinstein shared a few examples. First, he described a scenario in which troops go to Iraq and their platoon sergeant tells everyone to get down on their knees and to pray to Jesus Christ. In this case, he said he would want the platoon leader court-martialed, as he is overtly telling those beneath him to pray in a specific way, to a specific God.
But on the flip side, if the sergeant told troops that they were heading into a dangerous area and that they can take a moment to themselves if they want, such sentiment would be permissible. In this latter example, the platoon leader would tell them, "I'm going to kneel over here and anybody who wants to be with me -- that's fine. Whatever else you want to do is also fine."
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In this case, Weinstein said that he wouldn't have an issue with the leader's actions, as officers were given a choice and were not told by a commander to get down on their knees and pray to a specific deity. All too often, though, MRFF claims to find itself fighting battles that follow the blueprint of the former scenario, Weinstein contends.
Last month, the Washington Post's Sally Quinn shared some of the recent battles that the MRFF has engaged in:
The most recent outrage, he said, was reported by a West Point cadet who wrote to Weinstein to say that after the Boston bombings, an active-duty instructor said in class that he would “bet his life on the Muslims having been behind it like they always are. It’s always the Muslims and everyone knows it, and everybody is afraid to say it. Well, I am not.”
That’s just one or many complaints.
- Recently, an Army commander in Europe overturned a jury’s conviction of an officer for sexual assault, despite the fact that the decision was unanimous.
- So called “Jesus rifles,” with gun sights inscribed with Bible quotations, were used in battle by troops. The MRFF fought successfully to have the New Testament passages removed.
- Last year, Marine officers at a U.S. base changed the name of their fighter attack squadron from “Werewolves” to “Crusaders,” with a cross and shield as an insignia. MRFF fought the change after receiving many complaints from Marines. MRFF won, and the squadron is back to Werewolves.
- A chaplain in Afghanistan recently was the target of complaint for sermonizing to troops, including Afghan soldiers, that they had approximately 2,000 days to live and needed to “get right with Jesus.”
- Weinstein even got the military to force an officer to remove an atheist bumper sticker from his car. An evangelical Christian complained about the sticker, which bore a drawing of Satan and a Christian fish.
While some may agree that these are egregious violations, others will likely see these grievances as over-the-top. A car, for instance, is a personal item and, thus, the notion that a commanding officer would need to censor himself may seem overboard to some religious freedom advocates. Needless to say, there is legitimate debate surrounding how various infractions should be handled -- and where MFRR stands on these scenarios.
IS THE MILITARY REALLY PLANNING TO COURT-MARTIAL CHRISTIAN SOLDIERS?
As stated, debate surrounding proselytizing began after news reports starting making the claim that the military is on the prowl to crackdown on religious freedom. Grove City psychology professor Warren Throckmorton, a conservative, has accused right-of-center reporters of leaving out some key portions of Pentagon spokesman Lt. Cmdr. Nate Christensen's response to recent questions about faith in the military -- curiosities that emerged in the wake of reports that Weinstein met with the Pentagon.
While Christensen was quoted in outlets as saying that "religious proselytization is not permitted within the Department of Defense," Throckmorton claims that these comments were taken out of context or, at the least, not provided in a clear manner. In a blog post highlighting what he believes to be some key pieces of information that were left out of coverage, the professor shared the Pentagon spokesperson's entire statement on proselytizing in the military:
"The Department of Defense places a high value on the rights of members of the Military Services to observe the tenets of their respective religions and respects (and supports by its policy) the rights of others to their own religious beliefs, including the right to hold no beliefs. The Department does not endorse any one religion or religious organization, and provides free access of religion for all members of the military services.
Court martials and non-judicial punishment are decided on case-by-case basis and it would be inappropriate to speculate on the outcome in specific cases.
However, religious proselytization is not permitted within the Department of Defense.”
There's quite a bit to unpack here. It is true that the statement does not explicitly identify what "proselytization" means, as its precise meaning and the ramifications for engaging in the act are not outlined in the brief release. That said, there is no indication that, based on the available information, military officers would be court-martialed simply for sharing their Christian beliefs.
It's clear that additional questions need to be asked to clarify these details, but select outlets' contention that officers would be punished so harshly simply do not seem to be embedded in this particular statement on the matter. But, again, there may be a few pieces of information that are important to consider on the part of religious liberty critics.
As PolitiFact notes, regulations cracking down on proselytizing are potentially problematic from a theological point of view. The fact-checking outfit writes, "Still, there’s a sliver of truth — if you believe your Christian faith compels you to try to convert others in a way people find harassing, it’s possible you could face court-martial, though such a thing has yet to happen."
In an e-mail exchange, Throckmorton was able to obtain additional information from Christensen about the parameters surrounding faith in the military. Aside from claiming that the Department of Defense would never single out a particular faith, the spokesperson said that diversity is a respected element in the armed forces. As for the proselytizing, he attempted to clarify.
"Service members can share their faith (evangelize), but must not force unwanted, intrusive attempts to convert others of any faith or no faith to one’s beliefs (proselytization)," he explained. "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."
Here, again, Christensen did not say that officers would be court-martialed simply for sharing their faith and he noted that the ramifications for religious harassment would be explored based on the level of the offense. He concluded his release by affirming that service members are free to express their beliefs and practice their religion.
"We work to ensure that all service members are free to exercise their Constitutional right to practice their religion — in a manner that is respectful of other individuals’ rights to follow their own belief systems," he said. "And in ways that are conducive to good order and discipline; and that do not detract from accomplishing the military mission."
DID WEINSTEIN GO ON A QUEST TO STOP ANY AND ALL PROSELYTIZING?
Now, let's circle back. Weinstein claims that his organization isn't concerned with proselytizing between officers of the same rank. In his interview with TheBlaze, he made it clear that his contention was the use of power to hamper individuals' religious beliefs and to belittle those subordinates with whom commanders theologically disagree.
One of the other claims, though, that has circulated in media is that the church-state separatist leader has a special role at the Pentagon -- one in which he consults the government on matters of faith. In another statement shared with Throckmorton, Christensen flatly denied these claims; in an interview with TheBlaze, Weinstein simply said he had a meeting at the Pentagon about religious liberty.
“Mr. Weinstein is not part of any DoD Advisory Group or Committee, nor is he a consultant to the Defense Department regarding religious matters," the spokesperson said. "Mr. Weinstein requested, and was granted, a meeting at the Pentagon April 23, with the Air Force Judge Advocate General and others, to include the Deputy Chief of Chaplains, to express his concerns of religious issues in the military."
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Another element that has driven debate is a director that the Air Force put out last year. Dated Aug. 7, 2012, Air Force Instruction 1-1 is a cultural document that highlights the handling of faith and religion in this particular branch of the military. As Throckmorton notes, it reads, in part (these policies are more specific and are reflective of Weinstin's views):
2.11. Government Neutrality Regarding Religion. Leaders at all levels must balance constitutional protections for an individual’s free exercise of religion or other personal beliefs and the constitutional prohibition against governmental establishment of religion. For example, they must 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. Commanders or supervisors who engage in such behavior may cause members to doubt their impartiality and objectivity. The potential result is a degradation of the unit’s morale, good order, and discipline. Airmen, especially commanders and supervisors, must ensure that in exercising their right of religious free expression, they do not degrade morale, good order, and discipline in the Air Force or degrade the trust and confidence that the public has in the United States Air Force.
2.12. Free Exercise of Religion and Religious Accommodation. Supporting the right of free exercise of religion relates directly to the Air Force core values and the ability to maintain an effective team.
2.12.1. All Airmen are able to choose to practice their particular religion, or subscribe to no religious belief at all. You should confidently practice your own beliefs while respecting others whose viewpoints differ from your own.
2.12.2. Your right to practice your religious beliefs does not excuse you from complying with directives, instructions, and lawful orders; however, you may request religious accommodation. Requests can be denied based on military necessity. Commanders and supervisors at all levels are expected to ensure that requests for religious accommodation are dealt with fairly.
Again, these regulations are only pertinent for the Air Force and they can be read in their entirety here. Throckmorton also points to Department of Defense provisions and an Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) directive that discuss proselytizing -- regulations that were put on the record well before the latest debate was sparked over Weinstein and his alleged involvement in faith and the military.
It's clear that the government had regulations against forceful proselytizing well before President Barack Obama came into office. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) directive 915.003 provides these parameters -- regulations that the military adopted for soldiers as well. Dated July 22, 2008 (President George W. Bush was still in office), the EEOC provisions provide intriguing statements on faith-sharing:
Some employees may seek to display religious icons or messages at their work stations. Others may seek to proselytize by engaging in one-on-one discussions regarding religious beliefs, distributing literature, or using a particular religious phrase when greeting others. Still others may seek to engage in prayer at their work stations or to use other areas of the workplace for either individual or group prayer or study. In some of these situations, an employee might request accommodation in advance to permit such religious expression. In other situations, the employer will not learn of the situation or be called upon to consider any action unless it receives complaints about the religious expression from either other employees or customers. As noted in §§ II-A-3 and III-C of this document, prayer, proselytizing, and other forms of religious expression do not solely raise the issue of religious accommodation, but may also raise disparate treatment or harassment issues.
To determine whether allowing or continuing to permit an employee to pray, proselytize, or engage in other forms of religiously oriented expression in the workplace would pose an undue hardship, employers should consider the potential disruption, if any, that will be posed by permitting this expression of religious belief. As explained below, relevant considerations may include the effect such expression has had, or can reasonably be expected to have, if permitted to continue, on co-workers, customers, or business operations.
These can be read in their entirety here. As stated, a directive put into place by the Department of Defense in Feb. 2009 affords military officers the same protections and regulations on the religious front as civilians have enjoyed under EEOC regulations.
While it is important for the faith community to continue fighting to ensure that soldiers' religious rights are kept in tact, it seems some stories, as reported in numerous conservative outlets of late, did not portray all of the elements involved in this complicated case.
Weinstein was not the catalyst, it seems, for the proselytizing regulations embraced by the military (although some might argue that he did play a role in solidifying the Air Force language shared in this article; he would likely maintain, though, that the wording simply reinforces the sentiment that the Department of Defense already embraces). That said, there are legitimate questions surrounding both his tactics and handling of religious themes.
As far as the U.S. military goes, it is not explicitly targeting Christians with its policies, as regulations apply to all faiths equally. That said, the Christian population in the armed forces is massive in size and scope and, as a result, because they are part of the majority religious culture, it is likely that believers will encounter the most push-back if and when complaints surrounding proselytizing are waged.
In an interview with TheBlaze, Throckmorton, who did a plethora of research on these issues in recent weeks, explained that there is a real danger in misreporting on the Pentagon's handling of religious freedom. While he said that it is entirely possible that there are problematic issues in the military concerning religion being stripped out of the ranks, the most recent reports -- which he called inaccurate -- "obscure" potentially important issues.
"When you report something and spread it out to your audience -- which is fairly substantial -- what you've done is you've made your audience ill-prepared to defend their liberties," the professor charged. "They're spreading incorrect information, which gives an advantage to those who would be perhaps more zealous to restrict religious liberty. It never helps your cause when you go too far with the tendentious reporting."
Photo credit in story and for featured photo: ShutterStock.com.
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