March 02, 2006 News » Cover Story

Mikey's Mission 

Air Force Academy graduate Mikey Weinstein has entered the battle over church and state with cannons booming

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How do you become the most dangerous man in America?

Let's ask Mikey.

We've started the five-hour drive to Albuquerque, N.M., for a visit with Mikey Weinstein. To set the mood, we tune in to Colorado Springs Christian radio station KGFT-FM.

The rambling homemade talk shows are mesmerizing. Heartbroken women call in from around the country, confiding in male hosts about strange and sometimes incomprehensible born-again sex and relationship problems. There's the woman who's riding a rough road trying to be truly submissive to her husband. Another has been married for two years and isn't exactly sure where her husband lives, though she does have his cell-phone number. A third reports intense physical pain during sex, and isn't sure whether she is being abused.

Finally, James Dobson comes on to deliver Focus on the Family's daily sermon, from the doctor's mouth to the ears of 200 million listeners around the world.

His guest today is United States Sen. Rick Santorum. The topic: Samuel Alito's appointment to the U.S. Supreme Court. Santorum first talks about his seven children one in heaven, the rest home-schooled by his wife, because public schools are inferior and because the only place to truly set the moral standard is at home. The Pennsylvania Republican plugs his new book, It Takes a Family, a direct swipe at Hillary Clinton's book, It Takes a Village. Dobson offers high praise for Santorum's work. They celebrate at length the soon-to-be-appointed Judge Alito, their great hope to outlaw abortion.

On comes an advertisement, sponsored by Focus on the Family's political action committee, urging listeners to call Colorado Sen. Ken Salazar and demand he vote their way. At the end of the show, another ad comes on, seeking donations to Focus on the Family, a nonprofit ministry with an annual budget of $112 million. Though its electronic transfer program, you can give $5, $10, $15, $20 a month. Please, sign up immediately.

All in all, a tight package. Sell a book for a senator. Take control of the U.S. Supreme Court. Get money. Praise God.

In the war room

A state away, Mikey Weinstein's entry into the war over the separation of church and state is, by his own admission, tardy. But he's joined the battlefield with cannons booming.

click to enlarge Mikey Weinstein, speaking strategy in his New Mexico - home. - KATHY CONARRO
  • Kathy Conarro
  • Mikey Weinstein, speaking strategy in his New Mexico home.

The 1977 honors graduate of the Air Force Academy is suing the United States Air Force for allowing, even promoting, evangelical Christian proselytizing at his alma mater, one of America's premier tax-funded military academies, just eight miles up the road from Focus on the Family world headquarters.

Weinstein's command central is a comfortable living room in an impeccably decorated Southwest-style home in the hills overlooking New Mexico's largest city. Among the magazines and books on the coffee table is a history of the Air Force Academy, and numerous tomes detailing the strategies of the Christian right, including the 2004 book You, the Warrior Leader: Applying Military Strategy for Victorious Spiritual Warfare, by Bobby Welch, president of the Southern Baptist Convention.

Next to the corner fireplace lies Mikey and Bonnie Weinstein's wedding album. On a table is a photograph of Weinstein with Ronald Reagan, an impromptu shot celebrating the president's 76th birthday, when Weinstein, an attorney, worked in the White House during the Iran-Contra investigation.

There are no displayed pictures of him with Ross Perot, for whom he served as general counsel and still works as director of energy-program business development. Weinstein wants to keep his employer out of this conversation a separation of church and state, so to speak.

From his dark green leather TV chair, Weinstein sits at attention to his cell and landline phones. Between calls, from the networks and lawyers and PR pros and reporters from around the world, his hands are constantly fiddling, moving rings around his fingers, especially his Air Force Academy signet, which ends up on his thumb.

His two attack-trained German shepherds, Ginger Honey Bear and Crystal Baby Blue Bear, are begging to play with a ball. Weinstein is at first firm, then relents, a softie after all. He produces a bloody bone to gnaw on.

"People say this is a Christian country founded on Christian principles," he says. "The real essential aspect of this country, woven into the tapestry of the embroidery of how beautiful this country is, is one concept above all others, which is tolerance of diversity.

"The biggest crime I accuse the religious right of and it's a blood libel, a crime against humanity is torturing that concept, by bludgeoning it and assaulting it, so that what it comes out as "tolerance for diversity' equals "intolerance for us in the majority.' My response is: Fuck you. Fuck you. How dare you?"

The day marks Weinstein's 2,429th consecutive cardiovascular workout to the point of full physical exhaustion. He started the regimen on May 22, 1999; before that date, he had lost his momentum after suffering a cracked ankle. "It was a little like Scarlett O'Hara, when she said, "I will never go hungry again.' I will never not work out again in a 24-hour period."

The day of our visit, a letter arrives from the Jimmy Carter Foundation, on which the former president has jotted a handwritten note of encouragement.

Also that day, Weinstein's lawyer files a response to the government's motion to dismiss his lawsuit. Weinstein is not giving up, says he'll never give up. He's just getting started.

click to enlarge Mikey Weinstein with Ronald Reagan, celebrating the - presidents 76th birthday. The photo was shot during the - height of the Iran-Contra investigation, just after Reagan - asked Weinstein, then an attorney working in the White - House, whether he should jump out the window. - PHOTO COURTESY OF MIKEY WEINSTEIN
  • Photo courtesy of Mikey Weinstein
  • Mikey Weinstein with Ronald Reagan, celebrating the presidents 76th birthday. The photo was shot during the height of the Iran-Contra investigation, just after Reagan asked Weinstein, then an attorney working in the White House, whether he should jump out the window.

"Every single time radicalized Christianity has engaged the machinery of the state and the armed forces, we have ended up not with puddles and little streams, but with oceans and oceans of blood," he says. "I'm not just talking about the Holocaust or the Inquisition or the four Crusades, I'm not just talking about the Black Plague; it's the transition from Plan A to Plan B.

"In Plan A, evangelical Christians with a smile on their face will ask you to please, please, please accept their biblical worldview of Jesus. The problem with that is, inevitably, Plan A morphs into Plan B. They stop asking so nicely, and then you have the Holocaust, the pogroms, the Inquisition ..."

Weinstein interrupts to field another phone call, and then picks back up.

"I'm the field general leading this thing right now. I get demonized by the religious right and I get canonized by the liberals, and I don't deserve either. I'm just a piece of flotsam on the ocean. But I'm telling you, this country is going through right now a transition from A to B."

No leftie radical

Weinstein represents the second of three generations of military academy graduates, with a combined 115 years in active service. Dad graduated from the Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md., in 1953. Mikey met Bonnie, a Mitchell High School grad, during his first year at the academy. They've been married 29 years. Their elder child Casey, currently stationed at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton, Ohio, graduated from the Air Force Academy in 2004. Younger son Curtis, 21, currently is a junior there.

Weinstein's immediate family is Jewish; his extended family is largely Christian. "Other than my wife and my kids, I love nothing more than the Air Force Academy, the Air Force and the military in this country," he says.

He proudly shows the videotape of Casey's academy graduation party at The Broadmoor hotel, complete with a chocolate fountain and the perfect ending: Casey, in front of 150 guests, successfully proposing marriage to Amanda, a Coronado High School graduate, fellow academy cadet, math whiz and life love.

"It's not like we came from a family of academics from Princeton or Berkeley, or a long history of being bohemian you know, liberal," Weinstein says. "Having to take on my school the way I'm doing it is reminiscent of a movie I'm sure you've seen, Old Yeller. I feel like I'm shooting my own dog."

Weinstein was going about his life as a Republican lawyer and businessman, husband and father, until July 2004, when he was among an elite group of alumni invited to attend the academy's first annual Graduate Leadership Conference. As an added bonus, he would be able to visit Curtis, who had just completed combat survival training.

"Curtis just has this tremendous joie de vivre, and the moment he walked in, I knew something was wrong," Weinstein says. His son wanted to talk, but not on base. All the way to the McDonald's beyond the South Gate entrance of the academy, Weinstein says he was freaking out, wondering what trouble his son had gotten himself into. Finally inside the restaurant, Curtis coughed it up.

click to enlarge Weinstein graduated from the Air Force Academy in 1977 - with honors.
  • Weinstein graduated from the Air Force Academy in 1977 with honors.

"He said, "Dad, it's not what I've done, it's what I'm gonna do, and I'm probably going to get into a lot of trouble. I'm going to beat the shit out of the next person who calls me a "fucking Jew" or accuses me or our people of killing Jesus.'"

"I could hear my heart in my ears," Weinstein says. "This is the Air Force Academy?"

Weinstein says he attended a briefing the next morning that included a 12-point presentation overview of the current climate at the academy. At this time, it still was reeling from the controversy over widespread reports of rapes and sexual assaults of female cadets and the academy's initial response downplaying the situation.

Last on the list was this academy bullet: "An apparent insensitivity to non-Christian beliefs."

"That's when this thing exploded," Weinstein says.

He asked his older son, who had just graduated from the academy, about his experience. "Casey said, "Dad, this is just the way it is. Senior cadets would sit down and say, "How do you feel about the fact that your family is going to burn in hell?"

Heathen Flight

Over the past several years, stories about the overtly evangelical climate at the installation have been widely disseminated.

A June 2004 report conducted by a team from Yale Divinity School observed, among other things, that during basic training, Maj. Warren Watties called on about 600 cadets to proselytize their bunkmates and warn them they would burn in the fires of hell if they weren't born again.

A 2004 survey indicated that half the cadets at the academy reported hearing religious slurs on campus.

One documented "joke" went like this: "Why do Jews make the best magicians? Because they can go into a building and vanish in a puff of smoke." Jewish cadets complained about being called "Christ-killers" and being told that the Holocaust was revenge for the death of Jesus.

click to enlarge During his fight against the Air Force, Weinstein has - received widespread support and has been vilified. - Here, he holds a letter of encouragement he received in - January from the Jimmy Carter Foundation, with a - handwritten note from the former president. - KATHY CONARRO
  • Kathy Conarro
  • During his fight against the Air Force, Weinstein has received widespread support and has been vilified. Here, he holds a letter of encouragement he received in January from the Jimmy Carter Foundation, with a handwritten note from the former president.

Cadets who declined to attend a Christian worship service reported being marched back to their dorms by upperclassmen in an exercise they called "Heathen Flight." Official academy fliers, distributed on military grounds, promoted Mel Gibson's movie The Passion of the Christ. Seventh-day Adventist and Jewish cadets were denied the ability to worship on Saturdays.

There was the incident when a bus driver shuttling cadets to a training exercise refused to shut off an offensive Christian radio show. A Christian chaplain resigned her commission, convinced that the hierarchy simply was not interested in addressing the pervasive religious intolerance at the academy.

In 1998, the Independent detailed the saga of an honors graduate who wanted to get married in the academy chapel but was denied because he planned a traditional Hawaiian Huna ceremony. He was told it would desecrate the chapel. (At the time, the chaplain at Peterson Air Force Base welcomed the couple to marry in the Christian chapel there.)

On Dec. 12, 2003, Campus Crusade for Christ sponsored a full-page advertisement in the Air Force Academy's newspaper, proclaiming "Jesus is the Reason for Our Season." The ad listed dozens of names of supporters, including ranking Air Force officers, under the statement, "We believe that Jesus Christ is the only real hope for the world. If you would like to discuss Jesus, feel free to contact one of us!"

There was the November 2004 dust-up over football coach Fisher DeBerry's decision to hang a banner in the locker room that said, "I am a Christian first and last ... I am a member of Team Jesus Christ."

Last July 12, Weinstein picked up his New York Times and read a story about the increasingly religious climate in the Air Force. He choked on this quote, from Brig. Gen. Cecil R. Richardson: "We won't proselytize, but we reserve the right to evangelize the unchurched."

"The fact he would make that statement on the front page of the most visible newspaper in the world, when we're fighting a war against an enemy that already sees us, sees America, as invading Christian imperialist crusaders!" Weinstein marvels. "How do you think that plays with [Iraqis and other Muslims] when they can say, "Hey, this is the Air Force policy'?

"What if [Richardson] had said, "We reserve the right to Islamatize the unmosqued, Judaimize the unsynagogued, atheize'... you get the picture."

As a lifetime member of Team Air Force Academy, Weinstein knows full well that when a ranking officer gives an order or opinion, you cooperate. You do not make waves, lest you threaten your career. In the hierarchy of the military, for example, you cannot expect to respond to a senior officer insisting you accept the Lord as savior with a "Get out of my face, Sir," or "Not interested, Ma'am." That's simply not an option.

Weinstein thought that surely Brig. Gen. Richardson, No. 2 in command of the Air Force chaplaincy, would be fired, or at least reprimanded, for his statement to the New York Times. He watched for a backpedaling clarification by the Air Force to appear.


click to enlarge Weinsteins collection of coffee-table books includes - tomes detailing the strategies of the religious right, - including You, the Warrior Leader: Applying Military - Strategy for Victorious Spiritual Warfare, by Bobby - Welch, - president of the Southern Baptist Convention.
  • Weinsteins collection of coffee-table books includes tomes detailing the strategies of the religious right, including You, the Warrior Leader: Applying Military Strategy for Victorious Spiritual Warfare, by Bobby Welch, president of the Southern Baptist Convention.

On Oct. 6, Weinstein filed his lawsuit, alleging that, in an attempt to impose evangelical Christianity, the Air Force is in violation of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment, the wall separating church and state.

Specifically, Weinstein is demanding that the Air Force prohibit its members from involuntarily converting, pressuring, exhorting or persuading fellow members to accept their own religious beliefs while on duty. Also listed as plaintiffs are his son, Casey Weinstein, and Patrick T. Kucera, Ariel B. Kayne and Jason A. Spindler, all academy graduates who currently are serving in the Air Force.

"There's a time and a place to talk about religion, and I don't think that time and place is while you're on the job," Weinstein says. "That's what Title 7 of the U.S. Code says, and it's worse in the military, because they've got all the guns and the bombs and the bullets and the rockets.

"I have no problem with anybody having their cuddly Moses, Buddha, Confucius or Jesus teddy bear. That's not my issue. My issue is when the government starts telling me which of us U.S. citizens are children of a greater God and which ones are children of a lesser God, or no God at all.

"Whatever religious belief you have Judaism, Christian, agnostic, et cetera wear whatever clothes you want, you just can't wear Uncle Sam's clothes.

"What is so hard to understand about this?"

Malodorous scent

Air Force lawyers responded to Weinstein's lawsuit, claiming, among other arguments, that he and the four other plaintiffs were no longer attending the academy and thus not subject to the abuse they alleged.

Weinstein counters that opinion, noting he is suing the Air Force, not the academy.

"I'm a taxpayer, and they're not supposed to be running the Air Force Academy of Jesus," he says.

Attorneys from the Alliance Defense Fund, an Arizona-based Christian law firm whose founders include Focus on the Family's Dobson, jumped into the lawsuit. Siding with the Air Force, the Alliance Defense Fund lawyers have steered the debate from separation of church and state to freedom of speech. Restricting evangelicals from proselytizing, they argue, would muzzle their right to freely exercise their religion.

click to enlarge Weinsteins two attack-trained German shepherds, - Crystal Baby Blue Bear and Ginger Honey Bear. - KATHY CONARRO
  • Kathy Conarro
  • Weinsteins two attack-trained German shepherds, Crystal Baby Blue Bear and Ginger Honey Bear.

In May, Rep. Steve Israel, a Democrat from New York, tried to introduce an amendment to require the Air Force Academy to take immediate action to correct problems; Republican Congressman Walter Jones of North Carolina countered that Christians were being persecuted. Israel withdrew the amendment in the face of certain defeat.

"To divorce all religion from anything that's public, I don't think that's what the founding fathers had in mind at all," Colorado Springs Congressman Joel Hefley said.

The National Association of Evangelicals, with offices in Colorado Springs, also has joined the battle, siding with the government and calling Weinstein's lawsuit "an unprecedented attack on religious expression in the military." (NAE president Ted Haggard, pastor of New Life Church, also clashed with Weinstein on a personal level when he released to the public a series of holiday e-mail exchanges between the two men. Haggard's action prompted Weinstein to challenge him to a fistfight.)

Last month, the Air Force released new "interim" guidelines on religious expression, which include the statement that "Voluntary participation in worship, prayer, study and discussion is integral to the free exercise of religion."

Focus on the Family and the National Association of Evangelicals heralded the blueprint. Not surprisingly, Weinstein reacted with disgust, calling it a signal that the Bush administration is trying to appease powerful evangelicals, including Dobson and Haggard.

"This was really a despicable kowtowing to the religious right that bears the malodorous scent of coming into a ravine filled with decaying corpses of 10,000 swine," Weinstein says. "This thing is dirty. It stinks.

"America is so polarized right now, that if we were a thousand times closer than we are right now, we would then qualify to be two ships passing in the night. Right now, we are clearly two starships in different space-time continuums on either side of the universe."

Round-the-clock prayer

Weinstein always went by Michael or Mike, until he got to the Air Force Academy in 1973. His classmates started calling him Mikey, after the kid in the old Life cereal commercials, whose siblings urged breakfast-lovers to "just ask Mikey" how delicious Life is.

Considering two academy buildings are named after a "Billy" (Brig. Gen. William Mitchell, considered the father of the United States Air Force), and a Hap" (Henry H. Arnold, former commanding general of the U.S. Army Air Forces) Weinstein didn't mind that his name stuck. Heck, even President Carter goes by Jimmy.

But some people have a difficult time calling a grown man Mikey. Last April or May, after Weinstein started making the news with his agitating, he says a woman called him up asking for Mickey Weinstein. She claimed she was from Colorado Springs and wanted to let him know that she was a member of an evangelical church, and that her pastor had authorized a round-the-clock prayer vigil to put an end to Mickey Weinstein.

click to enlarge Weinstein with Bonnie, his wife of nearly 30 years. - KATHY CONARRO
  • Kathy Conarro
  • Weinstein with Bonnie, his wife of nearly 30 years.

Usually Weinstein is quick to correct any mispronunciation of his first or last name. But in this case, he kept listening as the woman, who did not identify herself and whose number came up as "caller unknown," kept calling him Mickey.

"I said, "Ma'am, are you threatening me?' I didn't have the heart to tell her, "Actually ma'am, it's Mikey Weinstein.' So I figure some ophthalmologist in Kansas City or somewhere named Mickey Weinstein is getting all [messed] up [because of those prayers]."

Since he filed the lawsuit, Weinstein says he's been inundated with support from strangers, like the man who sent him a card with a check intended to help offset the cost of the lawsuit or to take his wife out to dinner.

"I've gotten a gazillion calls from military people all over the world saying, "OK, I'm seeing what's happening, and this is wrong,'" Weinstein claims. "From the academy alone, I've gotten over 1,000 people coming forward: cadets, officers, civilian staff, former cadets, graduates, coaches, athletes, saying "Oh my God, thank God someone is doing something about this.'"

Most of them, Weinstein says, will not allow him to share their identities, fearing their careers will be shattered. The vast majority, he says, are mainstream Christians Presbyterians, Methodists, Catholics, Episcopalians, Lutherans who are "just not used to being preyed on and prayed upon by fellow Christians saying, "You don't accept the Lord the right way.'"

He's also been vilified, as in the menacing "Mickey" phone call. He says he's been called "Satan's lawyer," and "Satan's assistant."

"I tell everyone I don't even know the guy," he says.

Weinstein says a rumor has circulated that he wants to ban people from saying "God bless you" when someone sneezes.

"If standing up for the Constitution makes you a godless secular leftist or an arch secularist, well, like I've said before, gee, you say that like it's a bad thing."

He's also been called "the most dangerous man in America." "If I am the most dangerous man in America," he says, "then America is doing great."

The worst insult of all, that "I have a chilling effect that will cause thousands of brave men and women in the armed forces to burn eternally in hell to me, that is a blood libel."

Sucking chest wounds

During this fight, Weinstein has hired, at one point or another, eight different law firms and five PR agencies. The 18-, 19- and 20-hour days of work and battle are starting to pile up. But, he figures, somebody's got to do it. "It's time," he says, "to stop doing nothing."

He paraphrases Leon Trotsky: "Ladies and gentlemen, you may not be very interested in this war, but let me assure you that this war is very interested in you."

Weinstein gestures to the book sitting on his table, You, the Warrior Leader. He has heard that Bobby Welch's book is currently and frequently referenced by many top-ranking U.S. military officials. With the declaration, "We are at war!" the book's cover depicts the close-up image of a helmeted soldier, face smeared with camo make-up. Its jacket reads:

"You, the Warrior Leader will develop Christians called to leadership roles into victorious spiritual war fighters who can form a multiplying army to fulfill the Great Commission the mission to which God's army has been called. Christians will be able to expand their force in a unified, focused, mobilized, intentional, and effective offensive campaign that will succeed at winning and discipling the world locally, nationally, and internationally."

Weinstein is aghast. He's got his own message:

"I'm now going to lay down in a withering field of fire, kick ass, take names and leave sucking chest wounds," he says. "We are at war, I agree with my friend Bobby Welch. We are at war."

Next week: Meet Mikey Weinstein's newly formed army.

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