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Mikey Weinstein talks “fighting words” and the military’s religious oppression in the Trump era 

A mud sport

click to enlarge MRFF’s Mikey Weinstein says he is particularly troubled by the influence of religion in the White House. - PAM ZUBECK
  • Pam Zubeck
  • MRFF’s Mikey Weinstein says he is particularly troubled by the influence of religion in the White House.
After Air Force Academy Superintendent Lt. Gen. Jay Silveria told cadets if they can’t embrace racial and gender diversity to “get out,” the video of the Sept. 27 speech went viral and won high praise from many quarters.

But one person wasn’t impressed. Mikey Weinstein, a 1977 Academy grad who founded the Military Religious Freedom Foundation in 2004, wanted more. He said Silveria’s speech defending women and racial minorities fell short by eight words: “or sexual orientation, or religion, or no religion.”

Silveria’s omission, and the deeply divisive presidency of Donald Trump, whom Weinstein calls a shill for Christian dominionists, monopolized the Independent’s 90-minute interview on Oct. 12 with Weinstein, who was in town for his 40th graduation reunion weekend.

Still passionate about the MRFF’s mission to excise religious favoritism of fundamental Christianity from the military, and certainly quick with a cutting insult, Weinstein is more subdued these days than he’s been in past years — he didn’t drop an F-bomb, for which he is famous, even once during the interview, except to quote others.

Over the years, MRFF has seen many victories, from removing Christian symbols from military workplaces to ending mandatory prayer sessions. Early on, MRFF got the Academy to remove a sign in the football team’s locker room that said “Team Jesus.” It also persuaded the Academy to handle the Christmas child program and the National Day of Prayer observance through the chaplaincy, rather than command staff, and more recently, it convinced the Academy to require disclaimers on Twitter feeds used by coaches that promote religion.

But Weinstein says the battle never ends. Last month, MRFF sought a Defense Department probe of an Air Force chaplain’s comments that military members who don’t worship Jesus serve Satan and that supporting rights of other religions “will lead them to hell,” Stars and Stripes reported. The Air Force itself didn’t investigate.

As the face of MRFF, Weinstein has endured death threats to himself and his family, swastikas scrawled on his house and blood poured on his doorstep — all by people professing to follow the New Testament tenet of “love thy neighbor.” Weinstein says Christians cite Luke 19:27 to justify violence against nonbelievers. That passage, spoken by Jesus: “And these enemies of mine who were unwilling for me to rule over them, bring them here and slay them in front of me.”

“People wonder why I have to be so aggressive and so vicious,” Weinstein says. “When you’re fighting for somebody’s civil rights, trying to do it drinking tea with your little finger out and wearing nice clothes, it doesn’t work like that. This is a mud sport.”

Weinstein still receives threats — including two such phone calls during our interview — leading to high security at home and when he travels. “We live with attack-trained dogs,” he says. “We live with security guards. And I’m not crying in my beer here. It’s just the way you have to live. To be an effective civil rights leader, it’s not [that you have] to be the pearl in the oyster, but the irritant in the oyster that causes the pearl to form.”

Silveria’s speech was triggered by the message “n****r, go home” scrawled on five white boards outside the rooms of students at the Academy’s Preparatory School. Soon after the speech, Weinstein says, he received a spate of phone calls from parents of black cadets and prep school students, as well as some of MRFF’s 379 clients at the Academy, who include cadets, faculty and staff. Calls also came in from across the globe, wondering why Silveria’s warning didn’t go further to include other marginalized populations, including the LGBTQ community.

Weinstein left a message for Silveria to pass on those concerns but never heard back. “The fish in the aquarium never see the freaking water,” Weinstein says. “Nice speech, but I just want Silveria to answer this: You left out lesbian, bisexual, questioning and transgender, and you left out those who don’t follow a particular faith. What about all those people? Are they not as good?”

While some have explained the omission by saying Silveria simply forgot, Weinstein says, “He didn’t forget. I’m sure he thought there was no way in the world he could give any sort of recognition to that, because that would be admitting there’s a religion problem there.”

Asked about that, the Academy issued a statement saying Silveria’s speech “was focused on a specific incident that occurred that week and in the context of a national conversation about race.” Though religion wasn’t mentioned, the statement said “it is certainly an area where the ideas of dignity and respect should be emphasized.”

Recently, cadets who identify as agnostic, atheist, secularist or humanist told Weinstein they want to be reinstated as members of the Cadet Interfaith Council — a campus group from which they were banned four years ago, because, Weinstein says, the Academy told cadets at the time, “How can you be on an interfaith council when you have no faith?”

The Academy wasn’t able to provide a comment on the Interfaith Council’s exclusions by the Indy’s deadline.

“They [cadets] are infuriated,” Weinstein says, “about being disenfranchised from the Cadet Interfaith Council at the same time their new superintendent is getting trillion-dollar press for saying something that normally would be considered pretty normal.”

Of course, Weinstein notes, such a bold defense of people of color as Silveria voiced isn’t particularly normal in the age of Trump, who Weinstein describes as: “the most despicable collection of human cells that I’ve ever come across in my life.”

In classic Weinstein style, he continues, “He’s nothing but a Trojan Horse for the most vile, vicious, fundamentalist Christian predators that I have ever seen, and I hope he stays president through his term, because the thought of Mike Pence as president is a trillion times worse, because Pence is politically astute and adroit and knowledgeable, but he’s one of the worst fundamentalist Christians.”

Trump’s administration, Weinstein notes, includes many fundamentalist Christians, including CIA director Mike Pompeo, Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos and Attorney General Jeff Sessions. On Oct. 6, Trump officially rolled back the Affordable Care Act’s contraceptive mandate, effective immediately, a sop to religious ideologues of the GOP base, the Lost Angeles Times reported. The Federal Register notice of that action, the Times noted, is “cloaked in claims of ‘religious freedom,’” and states its aim is to “protect religious beliefs for entities and individuals” with objections to contraceptive coverage.

An August New York Times opinion piece noted the Christian Broadcasting Network proclaimed that a “spiritual awakening is underway at the White House,” and that Trump has installed “the most evangelical cabinet in history.”

But Trump seems an unlikely Christian hero: multiple marriages, sexually violent/explicit comments about women, a tendency to lie, and a rather cozy relationship with racist groups. Weinstein says Christians cite biblical passages regarding King David, Jesus’ ancestor, when defending Trump. “They say, ‘The Lord uses people of power,’ like he used the deeply flawed King David, who had one of this sexual competitors killed in battle. They say, ‘It’s right there in the Bible. The Lord has picked him.’”

Weinstein says the influence of religion in the White House has led to more blatant expressions of religious preference within military ranks. He notes that MRFF’s client list has grown to 52,000, with thousands added, since Trump became the GOP nominee in mid-2016. “I have never seen us this polarized in this country,” Weinstein says. “When someone says we’ll agree to disagree, those are fighting words. The Caligula-in-chief actually talked about pulling the [FCC] license for NBC. He’s about to pick Sam Brownback, the governor of Kansas, to be our ambassador to the world for religious freedom. He’s a raging fundamentalist Christian predator.”

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