[Update: writing this blog post drew the ire of senior officers on the Air University faculty, who were fully postured punish me under the military's disciplinary system. You can read all about these events in my follow up to this post, "Under the Guise of Academic Freedom"]
The first time I saw Mikey Weinstein speak to a military crowd I left feeling very hopeful. Several months ago, Lt General Peck of Air University invited Weinstein to speak to the combined faculty of Air War College, Air Command and Staff College, and Squadron Officer’s College at Maxwell AFB, Alabama. In this small and intimate setting I witnessed officers listening intently, and afterwards asking pointed but respectful questions. There were a few tense moments, that bristled with the possibility of argument, but the students and the speaker exercised restraint over their emotions and remained cordial—as anyone who is experienced in debate knows, this restraint is essential if a group of people is going to hash through the issues and learn from each other’s perspectives. When I went to see Weinstein speak today to Air University’s current Air Command and Staff College students, I quickly figured out that we were not about to have a repeat of that initial pleasant experience.
My first sign should have been when I walked into the large auditorium, and found myself a seat near the back— trying to remain as inconspicuous as possible in a room full of senior officers. A Major with a Howdy Doody-esque comb-over plopped down in front of me, and proceeded to clumsily attempt to flirt with the female Major sitting next to him. He leaned in and remarked nonchalantly,
“Well, I had to miss Mikey Weinstein the first time because I had a dentist appointment. Now I guess I’m here because I couldn’t come up with another excuse. Wish I could go to the dentist again, I’d rather be in that chair than listen to him speak.”
I wasn’t amused, and the female Major he was trying to impress offered only a conciliatory chuckle—clearly she had become used to placating Air Force men during her career. The part of this that struck me was not the hapless efforts of Major Don Juan, but how loudly and confidently he made this sad little joke. He took it for granted that all the people sitting around would be on board with him, as if we were all a part of some good ol’ boys club that “knows better than to take this whole Constitution thing too seriously.” His classmates sitting beside him said nothing.
The thousand person auditorium quickly filled to capacity, as officers in their blues rushed in minutes before presentation time.
General Rock strolled on to the large stage and stood at the small podium perched in the center.
"I'd like to introduce our next speaker. Mikey Weinstein is someone that may make us uncomfortable, and someone we may not like, but this is part of what we do here at Air University-- we talk to people we disagree with, and our next speaker certainly falls into that category."
I could feel the negative energy setting in as he vacated the stage.
Mikey Weinstein walked out and introduced himself graciously, offering his thanks to ACSC, and going so far as to say he was honored to be speaking to a roomful of some of “the best and the brightest” the Air Force had to offer. I sat in quiet amusement, wondering if perhaps he’d been a little too generous in his assessment. I would soon find out what an incredible over-statement these initial compliments would turn out to be.
The initial speech went well enough. Weinstein explained the Military Religious Freedom Foundation, their mission, and their struggle against attempts to spread fundamentalist Christianity through the armed forces. Weinstein noted that the MRFF has had over 18,000 clients, and 96% of them are Christians (just not Christian enough). He explained that he views the attempts to intertwine religion into the military fabric of the most powerful nation in the world, vis-à-vis the National Day of Prayer Task Force, Officers Christian Fellowship, and groups like them, as a “national security threat from within.” He went on to explain that the military is ill-equipped to deal with this phenomenon, as the resident IG system in the military has failed to recognize this as a problem, while his foundation has been flooded with pleas for help since its inception. “Clearly” he said,”there’s a disconnect.”
The first few questions were run-of-the-mill, genuine inquiries from officers who wanted to know more about the foundation, or who had questions regarding the age-old Christmas Party vs Holiday Party conundrum. (The answer, by the way, is that if it’s a unit function just call it a winter holiday party, and make it an inclusive environment for all your troops like any good commander would.)On the whole, the event was shaping up to be a nice, educational, incident free discussion, where everyone could leave a little smarter on the issue of religion in the military than when they came in, even if perfect agreement hadn’t been reached.
With the next student however, my hopes were dashed, and the entire episode took a turn into the Twilight Zone. A Major positioned at the front of the auditorium bolted up from his chair and in a trembling voice declared that he “couldn’t be as glib as [Weinstein]” so he “may not be able to make [his] case as well”. I’m not sure this was proper use of the word “glib”, but it was insulting nonetheless. He went on to issue emotional claims that he was the “evangelical enemy” Mikey was fighting, and proceeded to say he didn’t see a problem “sharing his faith” with his subordinates. Weinstein carefully explained that when a commander “offers” anything, it never feels optional. Any military member should understand the special relationship between a commander and his troops—I never deemed it appropriate to “offer to share” my views on atheism with any of my subordinates.
The next few students offered their views in a similar vein, and I can’t pinpoint exactly when the transformation took place, but a room full of military professionals quickly devolved into an unruly mob. Having spent four years at the Air Force Academy before graduating, and five years on active duty, I don’t have any illusions about the open-mindedness of military officers. But I was shocked at how hostile the level of discourse became.
One tall, fresh-faced Major opened his commentary to Weinstein by charging, “you’re just paranoid!”He then went on to offer his sophomoric observation that, “pushing religion in the military doesn’t seem any different to me than pushing one football team over another.” The back of the auditorium broke into applause. I was absolutely dumbfounded. Weinstein reminded him that the US Constitution all military members swear to defend says nothing about “the separation of football and state.” But the simple logic of these statements couldn’t seem to pierce through the fog of philistinism that was taking hold in the crowd.
It seemed as if half the auditorium had become a mob of hollering and jeering morons, who would scream and clap in unison whenever any person would make any argument against Weinstein, no matter how ill-informed, no matter how intellectually devoid. Many had decided that instead of standing up to ask a question, they would simply sit in the back, cowardly yelling taunts from their safe little corner of the room. I would expect this at a Tea Party rally, not at the Air Force’s prestigious Air Command and Staff College.
The Major’s sage advice on football and church was only one of many such incidents, and I’d be doing a disservice to my readers if I didn’t highlight some of the gems of intellectual insight that earned the approbation of the assembled ACSC students.
One student, a self-proclaimed historian, pointed out that George Washington advised his troops to find solace in God. Weinstein recognized this argument before the student had even finished, and responded by reminding him that George Washington and many of the founding fathers owned slaves, and participated in other questionable practices, and that emulating them perfectly would be ill-advised. He reminded the students that whatever George Washington thought of God, the Constitution he helped bring into being is very clear on the separation of church and state. This statement from Weinstein earned no applause.
A foreign exchange officer who flies helicopters stated that he isn't a Christian, and that while he agrees with most of what the MRFF does, he flies his helicopter with a doll of Santa Clause that was given to him, so he didn’t see what the big deal was about. If he agreed with “most of what the MRFF does”, I wondered, what was his point? Weinstein simply moved to the next question.
Another exchange officer, who proudly proclaimed his Christianity, said he didn’t see why Weinstein was trying to take God out of the military. This earned rounds of applause. Weinstein responded by telling him “the constitution of our country dictates a separation of church and state in all aspects of government, which includes the military”.
Another Air Force Major spoke up, this one with a crew cut and a belly that I doubt was within Air Force standards. He said that he thought Weinstein was too abrasive, and that he hadn’t seen any problems with religion in the military. Cue the applause and hollering. Weinstein politely ignored the clamor, and reminded the student that a lot of things happen that he may not see, and most people who are in the majority don’t notice these things. As he put it, “the fish in the aquarium don’t see the water.” As a member of both majority and minority groups I can attest to this phenomenon, and would add that if all commanders’ calls ended with a prayer to Satan, that these people might not be so comfortable if they were told to “just deal with it” as non-Christians are told today.
A different officer took issue with Weinstein’s support of Sikhs seeking to wear their religious head dress. He accused the MRFF of targeting Christians, while helping religious minorities. More applause. Weinstein calmly responded with a story of a Christian soldier who was being attacked for her faith, to the point that pages of her Bible had been used as toilet paper—Weinstein’s organization fought for her case to success. Silence filled the room.
The most overt show of disrespect came from an officer who, in the middle of his exchange, said "we've had to suffer through you". Weinstein, never one to duck a fight, asked for this Major's seminar number so they could continue their debate after the formal session. The Major responded, "I'd rather not."
The rest of the exchanges in Weinstein’s Q and A session were of a similar nature, with the atmosphere of defensiveness and ignorance having firmly taken hold. Most of the comments came from stubborn officers who said they didn’t see any problems, and that Weinstein was making a big deal over nothing. This, even after he told them that 18,000 soldiers had come to him in desperation, after they were neglected by the military’s systems of justice.
The display I witnessed from the current class at ACSC had left me disoriented and angry. I walked out of the auditorium feeling outraged, yet powerless to level any real criticisms at officers who outranked me. I had felt the need to speak up while the mob of bullies attempted to turn Weinstein into a punching bag, but was too afraid of making myself a target in a military system. When I spoke to Mikey Weinstein on the phone I apologized for my cowardice, and he responded in his usual humble manner by assuring me that there’s nothing I could have done in a room full of superior officers. He also gave my ailing spirit a slight boost when he said that as he talked up front he saw a lot of heads nodding in agreement—folks who agreed with MRFF’s mission, but didn’t feel comfortable speaking up. This was confirmed later in the day when Weinstein received phone calls from eight ACSC students, and an email from another, apologizing for the rudeness of their classmates, and saying that they wished they had spoken up but felt pressure not to be singled out among their peers. (By the way, Mikey Weinstein got these calls by engaging in a task reserved solely for those with brass balls: he read his cell number aloud to an entire audience of people who had been attacking and mocking him.)
This here, is the danger of letting fundamentalist religion creep into a culture that’s as coercive, conformist, and authoritarian as the military. Even other Air Force Majors, peers to the obnoxious crowd members, felt as if they couldn’t speak out against them. As a younger officer who was outranked by all of them I felt this pressure ten-fold. How would a young enlisted troop have felt?
When I consider this issue, I often count myself lucky that I’m simply an atheist, and therefore the dominant culture in the military tends to regard me with merely suspicion and, in my worst experiences, mild disdain. I can only imagine how difficult it must be for a Muslim in the military. In the past, anti-Muslim bigotry in the military was another one of those “problems I didn’t see”. Then I got involved in a relationship with a Muslim woman (who was, by the way the most open-minded and tolerant of the girlfriends I’ve had) and then I started to notice the snide comments, jokes, and all-around ignorance within the military culture in regards to Islam. Since then I’ve charged headfirst into more than one savage argument in defense of Islam—such irony for an atheist!
If we were to wonder what life for a Muslim soldier might be like, the Military Religious Freedom Foundation’s latest client should give us an idea. While the ACSC students broke into their seminars following the dustup with Weinstein, the fight went on for the MRFF. Weinstein headed immediately to do an interview that appeared this evening on CNN’s Campbell Brown, for his latest client, a Muslim soldier in the Army. Zachari Klawonn, a 20 year old Army Spec. at Fort Hood has come to Weinstein after the Army failed to address repeated complaints of harassment he’d been receiving from fellow soldiers. Klawonn was moved out of his barracks and off base for his safety, but was neglected the standard housing allowance the Army issues to all soldiers. He has been forced instead to resort to drastic measures, taking out two personal loans, pawning his possessions and borrowing money from the MRFF to make ends meet. As is all too typical in cases like these, Klawonn’s requests for his housing allowance didn’t receive any attention until his chain of command was contacted by reporters. Since then he has been told he will receive his stipend starting in June. Klawonn’s long history of discrimination and neglect within the Army is a real embarrassment to the service, and is unfortunately too lengthy to repeat here. Please take the time to read it at the Washington Post.
Cases like this are exactly why we need the MRFF. Young religious minorities like Klawonn are regularly treated with scorn within the military system, and then neglected or scoffed at by their superior officers— officers just like "the best and the brightest" I encountered this morning at the Air Command and Staff College. Officers who, when they were told by a knowledgeable speaker that fundamentalist Christianity is contributing to a hostile religious environment within their ranks, responded by shedding all vestiges of professionalism, hurling insults, and generally engaging in behavior that was a downright embarrassment to the Air Force. Of course they don’t see the problem. They are the problem.
Speaking with Mikey later in the day I commented that given some of the phone calls and emails he’d received, that there were probably a lot of “quiet allies” in the auditorium, and that the conversation had just been hijacked by the most combative element.
“Yeah” he agreed, “But the problem here is that these students are future commanders. MRFF is a voice for the voiceless, but these people are the command structure. They have a voice. We need them to not be shy about defending their Constitution. As Martin Luther King said, when things get critical ‘a time comes when silence is betrayal’”