Sunday 11 July 2010
by: Matthew Harwood, t r u t h o u t | Report
Mikey Weinstein. (Photo: Steve Most)
In his fight against British imperialism, Mahatma Gandhi described the life cycle of successful civil disobedience: "First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win." Mikey Weinstein, the 55-year-old founder of the Albuquerque, New Mexico-based Military Religious Freedom Foundation (MRFF), likes to quote it, knowing full well he’s crossed the line into a bloody-knuckle brawl. Over the past year, Weinstein and his organization have recorded a tremendous string of victories in the fight against Christian supremacists inside the armed forces.
In January, the MRFF broke the story on the Pentagon’s Jesus Rifles, where rifle scopes used in Afghanistan and Iraq were embossed with New Testament verses. In April, he got the military to rescind its invitation to the Reverend Franklin Graham to speak at May’s National Prayer Day because of Islamophobic remarks. Most shockingly, MRFF received its second nomination for the Nobel Peace Prize in late October. These high-profile victories have earned him the enmity of the hardcore Christian Right and the mentally unstable. And the crazies are getting crazier. Weinstein and his family are bombarded with hate mail, from the grammatically incorrect and easy to dismiss – "I hope all your kids turn out gay as hell, take it in the ass, and get aids and die!!!!" – to the kind of threats that immediately make you leap out of your chair and double-check that the doors and windows are locked. (MRFF has referred multiple death threats on Mikey, his family, and MRFF employees to the FBI.)
Unlike Gandhi, Mikey’s no pacifist. Aggression rises up in his voice like a white shark’s fin breaks the waves. In a recent conversation, Mikey bragged how a punk wouldn’t shut up in a movie. When a confrontation ensued and the man took a wild swing, Mikey put him down. None of this is surprising. Weinstein boxed during his Air Force days, his face marked by a strong jawline sitting below a bald head on top of a stocky body – a cross between Rocky Marciano and Butter Bean. Simply put: Mikey Weinstein can be a brute and a zealot. He knows this and admits it freely. But he believes it’s the only position a reasonable person can take when confronted with a faction dedicated to mutating the U.S. military into "a weaponized Gospel of Jesus Christ."
But for all of his rhetorical excesses and bravado, Weinstein’s fight is simple and correct. The United States military cannot favor one religious sect over another, staying true to the Constitution’s establishment clause that service members pledge to defend. More pragmatically, the military cannot favor one religious sect over another because it’s destructive of good order and discipline, creating divisions between service members when they must rely on the guy next to them to survive in a firefight. Yet inside the U.S. military a small, determined, and fanatical clique wants to abuse its power and prosetlyze to service members below them in the chain of command. Through this captive market, they can inject their peculiar ideology into the most powerful institution on earth. As Weinstein likes to say, this isn’t just a civil rights issue, it’s a national security threat of the gravest magnitude. The description sounds hyberbolic, but according to Weinstein there’s a pervasive Christian supremacist milieu inside the U.S. military that’s a danger not only to constitutional order, but to the American wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. What’s ironic about Mikey’s fight is that he never thought about becoming "a civil rights activist." He discovered his calling by rising up like a grizzly bear for his son.
Top row, left to right – Casey Weinstein (Mikey’s son), Bonnie Weinstein (married to Mikey), Mikey Weinstein, Curtis Weinstein (Mikey’s son)
Bottom row, left to right – Amanda Weinstein (married to Casey), Jerry Weinstein (Mikey’s father), Alice Weinstein (Mikey’s mother), Amber Weinstein (Mikey’s daughter). (Photo: Steve Most)
The Weinstein family is an Air Force family. After graduating from the Naval Academy in 1953, Mikey’s father switched to the Air Force to pursue new opportunities in a new service. Mikey followed in his footsteps, as did his two sons, Casey and Curtis. Casey, the oldest, even met his wife Amanda at the Air Force Academy while they were cadets there. Mikey’s daughter Amber dates an Academy graduate – 2nd Lt. Mack Delgado, a Christian with a cross tattooed on his chest, a detail Mikey points out every time his name’s brought up. It’s a family whose life orbits around the Academy, although that gravitational pull has slipped.
As recounted in his 2006 book, With God on Our Side, Weinstein’s confrontation with Christian supremacism began during his youngest son Curtis’s freshman year at the Academy in Colorado Springs. Sitting at the base of Pike’s Peak, Colorado Springs has been called the Christian Mecca. More than any city in America, evangelical Christianity saturates its streets. For instance, James Dobson’s Focus on the Family sits just across the interstate from the Air Force Academy’s airfield. Before he was outed for allegedly doing meth and banging a male prostitute, the Rev. Ted Haggard ran the 14,000-strong New Life Church in Colorado Springs. That extreme conservative religiosity has long permeated the Academy. Unsurprisingly, it doesn’t like or respect diversity of any kind, as two generations of Weinstein’s would discover.
Entering the Cadet Area at the Academy as a "doolie" in 2003, Curtis was asked from both naive and intolerant Christian cadets why the Jews killed their savior. During an intramural game, an upperclassmen asked him, "How it felt to kill Jesus." The religious discrimination got so unrelenting that Curtis complained to his father in June 2004. "The next person that calls me a fucking Jew or accuses me of killing Jesus, I’m going beat the fucking shit out of them," Mikey recounted to CNN in 2005. His older son, who graduated in 2004, confirmed the evangelical sea all Academy cadets swam in during their tenure there. "Dad, this is just the way it is," Casey said. "Senior cadets would sit down and say, ‘How do you feel about the fact that your family is going to burn in hell?’"
Bad memories flooded back from Mikey’s own time at the Academy, which he never told anyone about except for his wife, Bonnie. During his freshman year at the Academy, Mikey first faced anti-Semitic notes taped to his door that quickly escalated into two violent ambushes. The first time Mikey says he was attacked from behind inside an Academy academic building and thrown down the stairs, waking up in a pool of his own blood. The second time came while he was in the john. His attacker kicked in the stall and tore him up. "I was a victim, and having to admit that, even now, fucking pisses me off and makes me feel ashamed," he told the co-author of With God on Our Side, David Seay. Mikey was reduced to an Auschwitz Jew rather than the Warsaw Ghetto Jew he idolizes.
"I remember as an 18-year-old the overwhelming sense of helplessness of being abused, of utter degradation and humiliation," Mikey says. And the anti-Semitism then directed at Curtis gave him another chance to redeem himself and be that Warsaw Ghetto Jew. And he did. A former Judge Advocate General (JAG), a Reagan White House lawyer during the Iran-Contra scandal, and a former general counsel to billionaire and former presidential candidate Ross Perot, Mikey couldn’t be dismissed as a Che Guevara T-shirt- wearing armchair revolutionary. And as a lawyer, he made it hard to ignore him. In October 2005, he sued the Air Force Academy, seeking a ban on religious proselytizing or evangelizing by superior officers after finding evidence of systematic evangelical coercion festering inside the Academy’s walls. While the lawsuit was later dismissed in October 2006, the precedent was set. The initial lawsuit that Mikey leveled at the Air Force Academy morphed into MRFF as the winter of 2005 slid into 2006. Mikey left his lucrative job as an executive of business development at Perot Systems to continue agitating religious reform inside the military.
"Who will guard the guards," he asks. "We will, the Military Religious Freedom Foundation will." In the process, he has systematically exposed himself and his family to terroristic threats, virulent anti-Semitism, and financial ruin.
Quickly, Mikey realized that the infection wasn’t isolated; the virulence was military-wide. He likens it to nuclear contamination. "If you had a geiger counter, there wouldn’t be a place you couldn’t find it," he says.
For decades, he discovered, evangelical para-church organizations had cropped up with the sole purpose of evangelizing service members. One group, Campus Crusade for Christ’s Military Ministry, described the service members that come under its sway as "government-paid missionaries for Christ." At Fort Jackson in South Carolina, Military Ministry snapped pictures of soldiers posing with their rifles and their Bibles, an image eerily similar to jihadist propaganda videos. The same soldiers participated in Bible studies where one outline asked "Can a Christian Soldier Kill?" "NO to murder, YES to killing," the outline declared, because the soldier was god’s "angel of wrath," punishing evil.
Other examples MRFF uncovered were no less disturbing. Inside the Military Police building at Fort Riley, a printout slapped on an office door carried conservative columnist Ann Coulter’s sunken face and this quote: "We should invade their countries, kill their leaders and convert them to Christianity." A more subtle evangelical hubris also appeared inside the Pentagon. In 2007, MRFF’s discovery of nine Pentagon officials appearing in a promotional video for Campus Crusade’s Christian Embassy caused the Department of Defense’s inspector general to rebuke seven military officers. For one officer, United States Air Force Maj. Gen Peter J. Sutton, that appearance proved embarrassing when he was assigned to Turkey as chief of defense cooperation. According to Sutton’s own testimony to the inspector general, his Turkish driver approached him with an article from the Turkish newspaper Sabah, which carried a picture of his appearance in the video and described him as a member of "a radical fundamentalist sect."
But the Christian supremacist rot inside the military wasn’t confined to home or overseas posts. It had spread to the worst possible battlefields: Afghanistan and Iraq. Tipped off by service members, MRFF has discovered chaplains handing out Bibles in Arabic, Dari, and Pashtun in theatre. In another instance, a lieutenant colonel and 15 to 20 armed troops cordoned off a city block in Iraq and told a missionary he knew from home that he would protect him and his missionaries while they evangelized Iraqis. These are all serious violations of military regulations. United States Central Command’s General Order 1A, issued in December 2000, couldn’t have been clearer for service members fighting overseas: "Proseltyzing of any religion, faith or practice" was prohibited.
According to MRFF’s senior researcher, Chris Rodda, the organization has adopted a crude categorization scheme for incoming complaints such as these: "holy crap," "holy shit," "holy fuck," and "holy fucking shit." One "holy fucking shit" tip MRFF received described an incident in Samarra in 2004, when a National Guard unit painted an Arabic phrase on their armored pickup truck. It read: Jesus Killed Mohammad. Examples like these continue to accumulate with untold damage to U.S. military operations, Mikey says, despite the emphasis on winning hearts and minds in Afghanistan and Iraq, the focus of Gen. David Petraeus’ counterinsurgency manual. In these environments, fanatical Christian soldiers become self-tripped IEDs. When news broke out in May 2008 that a soldier shot up a Koran at a Baghdad shooting range, a violent riot broke out among 1,000 Afghanis in which three people died.
Mikey talks about Christian supremacists like they’re vampires, demons determined to drain secularism and pluralism out of the military. That realization turned what was once a personal fight against anti-Semitism into a more lofty principle. "Wherever I see unconstitutional religious predators in the U.S. military, of any stripe, I don’t care if I live or die. Someone’s gonna get a beating and we’re going to do it," he says. "The two ways to administer the beating is to go into the media or into court," he explains, a strategy distilled from his fight at the Academy. Lance Benzel, a journalist for Colorado Spring’s The Gazette, recently summarized Mikey’s civil rights agitation aptly: "Condemn in the strongest language possible. Publicly embarrass. Sue if necessary. Each new step raises the pressure on his publicity-averse targets." What the U.S. military has realized over the years is that the mosquito they swatted at didn’t only have bite, it had malaria.
Some Christians, out of ignorance or sincere apocalyptic belief, believe Mikey is the anti-Christ. (He’s actually a reluctant agnostic.) Google "Mikey Weinstein" and you’ll see descriptions like "Jesus-basher," "AntiChrist," and "anti-Christian Jewish supremacist." One "Concerned American" on the website "Powered by Christ" argued Weinstein’s "doing all he can to create an anti-Jewish backlash and help bring about the predicted endtime Holocaust of Jews that’ll be worse than Hitler’s."
There’s one problem with this assumption. Ninety-six percent of MRFF’s 18,300 military clients are Christians – many Roman Catholics and mainline Protestant – that have been treated by their more spirit-filled comrades and commanders as not Christian enough. "This is not a Christian-Jewish issue," Mikey argues, "it’s a constitutional right and wrong issue, and Christian fundamentalism does not recognize the supremacy of the Constitution over its sectarian theocratic dictates."
Elizabeth Sholes, the public policy director of the California Council of Churches/IMPACT, which represents 1.5 million progressive Protestant members, denied Weinstein and MRFF are anti-Christian. She says he simply fights for religious freedom.
Sholes is a good person to describe Mikey’s enemies, as she sits on the left side of the great schism in American Protestantism. While Sholes supports an evangelical’s right to witness to whomever they please, she, like Mikey, believes they cannot do so when they are representatives of the government. "Our Constitution was established to give everyone the right to conscience, the right to free expression of religion" she says, "but not to commandeer the institutions of government to make that happen." Yet Sholes says aggressive evangelicals within the military get it upside down, believing the government violates their religious freedom when government regulations forbid its public servants to proseltyze the saving grace of their savior.
Sholes, a believer in the Protestant social gospel tradition, argues Mikey’s enemies represent the very worst of Christianity – the apocalyptic rapturites confident of their own salvation and most everyone else’s belly flop into the lake of fire. These types of Christians go by many names, she says: fundamentalists, dominionists, the Christian Right, Christian nationalists. I asked Sholes if Christian supremacists is an accurate description. She says yes. But Shole’s assessment goes even further, comparing Christian supremacists to Nazis. Asked if they represent Christian fascism, she doesn’t hesitate: "Yes."
"We hate a small subset of Christianity that goes by this term, dominionist fundamentalist Christianity," Mikey says.
Hate on the Homefront
Case in point: On May 25, the 5th floor of the Dallas County Courthouse was cleared so Mikey’s lawyer, Randy Mathis, could take the deposition of Rev. Jim Ammerman while six deputy sheriffs stood guard, rotating in and out of the jury room. In his 30 years of practicing law, Mathis never saw this type of security for a deposition unless the person being deposed was already a prisoner of the state. Spokeswoman Kim Leach for the Dallas County Sheriff’s Department confirmed extra security was provided, but could not provide details except to say the judge had requested it because of a "security issue." One possible reason for the extra security is that Ammerman is batshit crazy, a man who holds so many wild and dangerous beliefs he can be seen as the grandfather of the craziest fringes of the Tea Party movement. To be clear, Ammerman, who will turn 85 in late July, is not the threat. It’s those who listen to his conspiratorial screeds, according to Mikey and Bonnie.
A former Navy pilot, Green Beret, and Army chaplain who rose to the rank of full colonel, Ammerman is an early purveyor of the One World Government ideology that believes foreign troops are knowingly stationed in U.S. national parks, and that former President Bill Clinton and current Secretary of State Hillary Clinton are members of the Illuminati – a secret society determined to install a one-world government. As he stated in his deposition, he also believes there are 125 FEMA-built concentration camps inside the United States with more in construction right now.
What’s striking about all this is that Ammerman’s organization is currently one of the U.S. military’s largest ecclesiastical endorsing agencies for chaplains. As President and Director of the Chaplaincy of the Full Gospel Churches, he currently endorses 270 Pentecostal chaplains across all branches of the military. Ammerman’s tinfoil-hat beliefs, however, have brought scrutiny before – from the Pentagon, itself. In September 1997, Lt. Gen. Normand G. Lezy of the USAF ordered an investigation of Ammerman and his endorsing organization for using military chaplains "as agents to collect and convey military intelligence information for Mr. Ammerman’s political purposes." The two other reasons Lezy gave for opening an investigation were no less inflammatory: Rev. Ammerman’s encouragement of groups with "supremacist viewpoints" and his repeated suggestions that a military coup of the United States was imminent.
Mikey and his wife Bonnie are currently suing Rev. Ammerman because of the actions of Gordon Kingenschmitt, a former Navy chaplain and self-styled "traveling evangelist" he endorses. Klingenschmitt became a hero of the Christian Right in 2006 when he was court-martialed by the Navy for insubordination after he attended a Religious Right protest outside the White House in uniform. When the evangelical Episcopal Church pulled his chaplain endorsement after his reprimand, Ammerman’s Chaplaincy of the Full Gospel Churches picked him up.
An avowed enemy of MRFF, which applauded the Navy’s decision, Klingenschmitt began channeling the Old Testament’s King David in his fight against godless secularism. Last year, Klingenschmitt issued multiple imprecatory prayers, basically a curse, calling for Weinstein and his family’s destruction. During his first curse, Klingenschmitt quoted the Bible’s most violent imprecatory prayer:
Almighty God, today we pray imprecatory prayers from Psalm 109 against the enemies of religious liberty, including Barry Lynn and Mikey Weinstein, who issued press releases this week attacking me personally. God, do not remain silent, for wicked men surround us and tell lies about us. We bless them, but they curse us. Therefore find them guilty, not me. Let their days be few, and replace them with Godly people. Plunder their fields, and seize their assets. Cut off their descendants, and remember their sins, in Jesus’ name. Amen."
In a revealing exchange during the deposition, Klingenschmitt told Mathis that he and Mikey were both anti-Christians for suing him. Then, without prompting, Klingenschmitt added, "And it’s a little bit anti-Semitic because King David was Jewish, and King David prayed that Psalm to God as a member of the Jewish faith."
His absurd Biblical exegesis aside, Randy Mathis says Klingenschmitt’s prayers are coded directives to other Christian supremacists to harm Mikey, Bonnie, and their children, done on behalf of Ammerman. "They’re trolling for assassins," he says. If a conspiracy exists and that was indeed its intent, there’s evidence it worked. Kingenschmitt’s curses have ratcheted up the hate directed at Mikey and MRFF to extreme levels. "Since these fatwahs were issued, the threats and hate mail have increased exponentially," the lawsuit filed last September states. "Plaintiffs justifiably live in fear of imminent violence against their person and their family."
Things have deteriorated more rapidly since the New Year. In January, MRFF discovered that the Pentagon had a $660 million multi-year contract with Michigan-based Trijicon, which supplies rifle scopes to the U.S. military that had New Testament citations inscribed on them. One scope read "2COR4:6," a reference to Second Corinthians 4:6 which states: "For God, who commanded the light to shine out of darkness, hath shined in our hearts, to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ." The Pentagon, along with countries like Canada, Great Britain, Israel, New Zealand, and Australia, have all since either raised concerns about the scopes or demanded Trijicon wipe the scopes of their New Testament citations purchased by their respective militaries. Then the news broke that MRFF successfully had Rev. Franklin Graham’s speaking invitation at the Pentagon’s National Day of Prayer event revoked. The son of legendary presidential sycophant Rev. Billy Graham, the younger cleric didn’t have his father’s discretion in public and had assailed Islam repeatedly, once calling it "A very evil and wicked religion" after 9-11.
"We moved to another level," Bonnie says of getting Graham booted from the event.
Then on April 15 at 11:18 p.m., an e-mail popped into Mikey’s box. It’s subject read: "Bad Leo Frank," and displayed a picture of a young bookish man, hair parted to the side, with glasses framing a skinny face. A minute later, another e-mail appeared in Mikey’s MRFF account. It read: "Good Leo Frank" and showed the lynched corpse of the same man dangling like strange fruit from a tree. Considered a textbook case of Southern prejudice and cruelty, Leo Frank was a Jewish pencil factory manager in Atlanta, Georgia who was murdered by vigilantes for the murder of a 13-year-old girl many believe he didn’t commit.
A little more than 12 hours later, the final e-mail dropped into Mikey’s inbox. The subject read "Re: Good Leo Frank." The e-mailer knew a version of Leo Frank’s murder too. "He was guilty as sin, just like you," it read. "Tried, convicted, sentenced, appealed, denied. When jew money bought him a Clinton style pardon, white justice stepped in. Are you ready?"
Since Mikey’s very public fight began half a decade ago, the family has had to take increasingly extreme security precautions, as people left dead animals on their lawn, shot projectiles into their home, and drew crucifixes and swastikas on the side of their house. The family has two attack-trained German Shepherds, referred to as "the girls," that patrol their property with a third one on the way. The house is equipped with floodlights, surveillance cameras, and when things get really bad, Curtis tells me, a team of security professionals camp out and watches over the property. But that e-mail, among other threats, made him embrace the Bill of Rights even more: he and Bonnie got concealed firearms permits.
Bonnie, who suffers from multiple sclerosis, now carries a gun in her purse. She and Mikey now regularly go shooting to keep their skills sharp. "I have to have my gun as my friend," Bonnie said. "It reminds me on a daily basis, if not hourly basis, that there are really crazy people out there and at any moment they can shoot." To remain comfortable with the weapon, Bonnie aims the unloaded gun at the TV and pulls the trigger.
The hatred takes a toll on her. "When I talk about this my chest tightens up; I get full of stress," she says. She is very, very afraid, she tells me.
Zachari Klawonn is an unfortunate young soldier. Not only is he a Moroccan-born U.S. Army Specialist and a Muslim-American, the twenty-year-old is stationed at Fort Hood, where Maj. Malik Nadal Hassan went jihadi postal on his comrades, butchering 12 soldiers and a civilian in November.
"I am just an American soldier who happens to be Muslim," he says. Not everyone at Fort Hood sees it that way, and his faith has not endeared him to some soldiers. In February, someone on base wanted him to know it – badly, at 2:00 a.m. on a Monday morning. That night, someone repeatedly kicked the door to his barracks room, making him leap from bed. When he opened the door, he found an empty hallway and a note, folded twice and wedged into the doorframe. It read: "FUCK YOU RAGHEAD BURN IN HELL." It was an incident reminiscent to what happened to Mikey during his Academy days. The nighttime visit, shoveled on top of a pervasive base culture that associated Islam with terrorism and repeatedly used the ethnic slur haji, made Klawonn decide to stand up for himself. It also didn’t hurt that Klawonn’s own comrades would hurl the most offensive slur imaginable after the Fort Hood Massacre; they called him "Zachari Hasan."
"Enough was enough," Klawonn says, and he filed a complaint with his unit’s equal opportunity officer to force the Army "to take a good hard look at that moral compass and start using it."
But that arrow didn’t move. Instead, Klawonn was forced off-base because Fort Hood could not assure his security. Too compound his problems, Fort Hood also did not pay out his housing stipend, and Klawonn had to survive on loans and pawning belongings. "I was running out of hope quite frankly," he said. "I lost hope in the system." With nowhere to turn, Klawonn did research online and found Mikey and MRFF. Within 24 hours, MRFF reached out to Klawonn’s chain of command. "I felt the urgency in the matter just completely take a 180," he said. He was told immediately that his living expenses would be reimbursed. In another act of kindness, MRFF extended him a loan to carry him until Fort Hood reimbursed him. Within the next pay cycle, Klawonn was collecting his Army paycheck again. "It’s clear and it’s evident, MRFF definitely has some big push," Klawonn.
"He’s the Jackie Robinson of the U.S. military," Weinstein says.
Klawonn’s story isn’t an aberration. MRFF receives multitudes of thank you’s from veterans and service members serving across the globe. One thank you came from a U.S. Navy veteran, a self described "religious Jew," who described extreme religious coercion during hospital stays at the Iowa City Veterans Affairs Medical Center in 2007. "During two hospitalizations, despite my written and verbal instructions to the contrary, the hospital staff was not content to just refuse to contact my rabbi," wrote Akiva David Miller, now the director veterans affairs for MRFF, "they sent a proselytizing Protestant chaplain in to see me – while I was bedridden and wired to a heart monitor – to tell me that Jesus was the Messiah of the Jews too, and that my only hope was salvation through Jesus Christ." Miller and his rabbi protested and the medical center retaliated by discontinuing Miller’s care. When they cut of his pain medication, Miller asked his doctor why. His response: "You’re a religious Jew. Why don’t you try prayer or meditation?" Miller contacted MRFF. Mikey flew out to Des Moines and held a press conference that launched a full investigation that confirmed Miller’s discrimination. And with the help of his old boss Ross Perot, Mikey got Miller care at the Dallas V.A. Medical Center.
While Mikey considers his approximately 18,300 clients new members of his family, his fight has naturally eviscerated other family relationships. Bonnie Weinstein tells of many friends and family who have left their sides when Mikey began trying to reconstruct the wall between church and state in the military, but she didn’t provide details.
She didn’t have to. On June 25, Colorado Spring’s Gazette printed letters to the editor on Benzel’s piece on Mikey. The comments took an even more absurd turn than usual, considering the type of e-mails and comments Weinstein and MRFF generate. Paul Baranek, the father of Mikey’s daughter-in-law Amanda, wrote a letter to the editor calling Mikey an anti-Christian bigot and chastised the paper for giving him more press. "This man’s motives are anything but noble, and the more publicity you give him, the more you encourage his crusade against Christianity," Baranek wrote. Mikey responded in typical Mikey fashion: "I want to fucking strangle him," he told me. But a more constructive and devastating response came from Baranek’s own daughter, Mikey’s daughter-in-law Amanda, published in the Gazette:
I was raised with the idea instilled in me that only a person with unstable and unsound beliefs tries to silence those with beliefs different from his or her own. Ironically, it is Paul R. Baranek who instilled this belief in me, the same man now wishing to silence Mikey Weinstein. Technically speaking, Paul Baranek is my father, but it is more accurate to describe Mikey Weinstein as my father. It is not by blood but by heart and choice that makes Mikey my father. He is the one who believes in me. He is the one who protects me. He is the one who defends me. He is the one who stands and speaks for me when no one will listen. He is the one who knows me. And he, Mikey Weinstein, is the one that I call father, that I call Dad.
But she wasn’t finished, echoing a sentiment seen in countless e-mails to MRFF: "But Mikey is much more than just MY father. Every military member seeking help from MRFF, whether they are Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, Atheist, or Christian (and most of them, like me, are Christian) is treated the same way he treats his own children," she wrote. "Mikey is the only person willing to protect our military members and stand up for them when no one else will listen, ensuring they have the same constitutional right of religious freedom guaranteed by our country’s forefathers, the same rights that he himself fought to protect during his service in the Air Force."
The letter, with all its awkward airing of family hatreds, proved one thing: Mikey Weinstein can be an incredible asshole sometimes, but to those that know him, he’s an indefatigable protector of the weak when they have nowhere else to turn.
"The care with which he handles each and every person who has decided to appeal to him for help…is what matters to us," says Sholes. "His personal style is just not the issue."
"My family is my life," he declares repeatedly to me over multiple conversations.
The fight has changed Mikey. He has a darker view of American history now, acknowledging the genocidal underbelly of the American Christian conception of "manifest destiny." He also feels like he’s beset by enemies from every conceivable angle – fearful an imbalanced Christian fanatic could step out of the darkness and end it all, as well as resentful he can’t rely on even liberal Democrats for support. In May, the Pacific Pasilades Club awarded Mikey its Anne Froehlich Political Courage Award but then quickly yanked it back, the club’s president justifying it by saying they weren’t aware Mikey defended the Reagan administration during Iran-Contra. (The Air Force assigned him the task.) In disgust, former Ambassador Joe Wilson and his wife Valerie Plame, the CIA agent outed by the Bush administration during the run-up to the Iraqi War, gave back the same award they won years before. The club flip-flopped again and returned the award with apologies. Mikey will receive it in Los Angeles this fall.
Sholes compares the last five years of Mikey’s life to the famous Vietnam battle of Khe Sanh: "He’s been under fire relentlessly and he’s just exhausted emotionally." Bonnie says their struggle, and she believes it’s their struggle, has taken a lot from them, especially their wealth. "Our security is completely gone," she said. At times there’s an air of fatigue in her voice, that the stress of all this has ground her and her husband down. Yet she says service members would have no one to turn to if MRFF closed shop.
And the e-mails seeking counsel and help just keep coming. In May, 43 members of the U.S. Army – 29 of which were Catholic and mainline Protestant – reached out to Mikey complaining about the emblem at of Evans Army Community Hospital at Fort Carson. The emblem shows a cross with a stake at the end accompanied by the Latin phrase "Pro Deo et humanitate," meaning "For God and humanity." The official Army Heraldry Manual says the symbol dates back to the Crusades when Christian pilgrims would stake a cross in the ground to mark their camp, and he wants it retired. Mikey says it shouldn’t be ignored that the Fort Carson cross looks eerily like the cross emblazoned on the Web site of the Hutaree militia, the apocalyptic militia the FBI raided in March. He compares the casual Christian supremacy at Fort Carson to the casual racism of the "Sambo’s" restaurant chain that died out after the Civil Rights movement took hold in America. And just a few weeks ago, Mikey received complaints about a new commander at Dobbins Air Reserve Base in Georgia. During the change of command ceremony, the new head of the 94th Airlift Wing, USAF Col. Timothy E. Tarchick, declared, "My personal priorities are first, my Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, second, my family, and third, everything else." Imagine Tarchick said this, argues Mikey: "My personal priorities are first, Allah and Savior Mohammed, second, my family, and third, everything else."
According to Mikey, these recent incidents mean the fight will continue on. Sometimes he says he feels like he’s "screaming into the abyss each morning." In essence, he’s a civil rights Sisyphus. He shoulders the boulder up the hill, only to watch it come crashing down again.
"I worry about him," Amber says, knowing full well her father won’t stop "unless someone shot him dead."
Looking back on the 20th century, one of the morbid realizations of any civil rights activist is that their wick doesn’t last long. There’s no reason to think the 21st century will be any different. That doesn’t deter Weinstein. Neither does poverty. He says he’ll sell everything to continue his fight. He is a man on fire, but he’s hoping his wick will burn out naturally.
Mikey Weinstein is a member of Truthout’s board of advisers.