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Marching as to War
Former Air Force Officer Mikey Weinstein Zeroes In on Proselytizing in the Military

By Alan Cooperman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, July 16, 2006; D01

Porcelain figurines are perched on the mantelpiece behind Mikey Weinstein. Guests are seated on chintz couches in front of him. It's a nice crowd at a polite fundraising party.

But Mikey -- his friends, his enemies, even complete strangers call him "Mikey" -- has had it with nice.

He's done with polite.

"We've created this foundation to be a weapon. We're going to lay down a withering field of fire and leave sucking chest wounds," he says, glaring through the floor-to-ceiling windows of an Arlington high-rise at a panoramic view of Washington.

Weinstein, 51, was once a White House lawyer who defended the Reagan administration during the Iran-contra investigation. Three generations of his family -- his father, himself, both of his sons and a daughter-in-law -- have gone to U.S. military academies.

Now he's declaring war against what, for him, is an improbable enemy: the defense establishment. He is suing the Air Force in federal court, demanding a permanent injunction against alleged religious favoritism and proselytizing in the service. He has also formed a nonprofit organization, the Military Religious Freedom Foundation, to combat what he sees as a concerted effort by evangelical Christian organizations to treat the armed forces as a mission field, ripe for conversions.

Weinstein's head is big and bald, like a cannonball mounted on his short, powerful frame. He keeps a powerful stereo in the garage of his home in Albuquerque and listens to heavy metal at full volume. The incongruity of his sheepish first name is exceeded only by the incongruity of a middle-aged corporate lawyer quoting Meat Loaf, Mudvayne and Marilyn Manson.

Yet one of his favorite lines these days -- right up there with "sucking chest wounds" -- comes from the Officers' Christian Fellowship, a private organization with 14,000 active-duty members on more than 200 U.S. military bases around the world. In its mission statement, the OCF says its goal is "a spiritually transformed military, with ambassadors for Christ in uniform, empowered by the Holy Spirit."

Ambassadors for Christ in uniform . According to the OCF's executive director, retired Air Force Lt. Gen. Bruce Fister, it means that "the people around a military leader ought to see the characteristics of Christ in that leader." It is a national tradition reflected in "hundreds of writings and proclamations issued down through the ages by American leaders who claim divine protection for our nation, place our nation's trust in God and claim God as our source of strength."

Ambassadors for Christ in uniform. To Weinstein, who is both a Jew and a member of a military family, it is an abomination. It "evokes the Crusades." He says he can't believe that generals talk like this when the United States is fighting a global war on terror and trying to win hearts and minds in Muslim countries.

He starts to get riled up -- waving his arms, quoting the Constitution, saying "the Christian right wants people to think that separation of church and state is a myth, like Bigfoot." And then he pauses, something he does not do often.

"Let me make it clear. I would shed my last drop of blood to defend their right to hold that biblical worldview. They are absolutely entitled to believe that Anne Frank is burning in hell along with Dr. Seuss, Gandhi and Einstein," he says. "But I will not accept my government telling me who are the children of the greater God and who are the children of the lesser God. That's the difference. I will not defend -- I will fight them tooth and nail, and lay down a withering field of fire and leave sucking chest wounds -- if they engage the machinery of the state, which is what they're doing."

The Last Straw

To Weinstein, it's also personal, and has been from the start: July 29, 2004.

He visited the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs that day as a proud parent. His son Curtis, who was entering his second year at the academy, had just finished three weeks of combat survival training. Weinstein spotted him across a room and knew instantly that something was wrong. They drove off campus, in stormy silence, and pulled into a McDonald's.

"All right, Curtis . . . I can't take any more of this. What the hell have you done?" Weinstein remembers asking.

"It's not what I've done, Dad. It's what I'm going to do," Curtis answered, according to his father. "I'm going to beat the [. . .] out of the next person that calls me a [. . .] Jew or accuses me or our people of killing Jesus Christ."

At that moment, Weinstein says, "everything kind of telescoped. I could hear my heart in my ears. For a guy who talks a lot . . . I was speechless."

Weinstein says Curtis recounted eight or nine separate incidents in which cadets and officers had made anti-Semitic remarks. One came in the heat of athletic competition, when an upperclassman taunted: "How does it make you feel to know that you killed Jesus Christ?"

"What hurt me the most was . . . you know, he's a tough kid, he was the city wrestling champ of Albuquerque as a sophomore in high school . . . [but] he said, 'Dad, I don't really know what to do when they say that,' " Weinstein recalls.

Since that day, Weinstein says, he has talked with hundreds of present and former cadets and staff at the academy, and has become convinced that the conflict is not between Christians and Jews, but between aggressively evangelical Christians and everybody else.

Weinstein's passion already has shaken the Pentagon. His complaints about the Air Force Academy led last year to congressional hearings, an internal Air Force investigation and new Air Force guidelines on religious tolerance.

The internal inquiry substantiated virtually all of his specific allegations. It found, for example, that Brig. Gen. Johnny Weida, the commandant of cadets, taught the entire incoming class a "J for Jesus" hand signal; that football coach Fisher DeBerry hung a "Team Jesus" banner in the locker room; and that more than 250 faculty members and senior officers signed a campus newspaper advertisement saying: "We believe that Jesus Christ is the only real hope for the world."

But the Air Force's report concluded that there was "no overt religious discrimination," merely a "lack of awareness over where the line is drawn between permissible and impermissible expression of beliefs." In its motion to dismiss Weinstein's lawsuit, the Air Force maintains that it has already addressed and remedied the religious climate at the Academy, and that Weinstein's complaint cites no specific incidents in the Air Force at large.

The pushback from evangelicals has been intense. Focus on the Family and like-minded groups, many of which are headquartered near the academy, succeeded early this year in persuading the Air Force to soften its guidelines, so that the latest rules explicitly allow commanders to share their faith with subordinates.

More than 70 members of Congress have urged President Bush to issue an executive order guaranteeing the right of military chaplains to pray "in the name of Jesus" at mandatory ceremonies attended by service members of all faiths.

The National Association of Evangelicals and the Alliance Defense Fund, a conservative legal group, also have filed motions to intervene in the suit on behalf of Christian chaplains and service members. They argue that the injunction Weinstein is seeking would infringe on their rights to free speech and free exercise of religion.

"I consider my constitutional right to discuss my faith without censorship or fear of retribution as valuable to the military and the future of our nation as the aircraft, bombs and bullets I am trained to employ," Air Force Capt. Karl Palmberg, one of the would-be interveners, said in an affidavit.

Judge James Parker, who is hearing the case, has not yet ruled on the preliminary motions. As a result, the Air Force has not yet had to respond to the substance of Weinstein's allegation that it has a pervasive, unconstitutional bias in favor of evangelical Christianity.

Weinstein has amended his lawsuit, filed last October in U.S. District Court in New Mexico, to add several active-duty officers (including his older son, First Lt. Casey Weinstein) as co-plaintiffs. He is girding for a long legal battle, which is why he has formed a foundation with 501(c)(3) tax-exempt status and traveled from Albuquerque to Arlington on a recent weekend to raise money.

When the Air Force allows superior officers to evangelize their subordinates, Weinstein contends, it is doing something that no private company would allow. "Imagine if your boss were constantly coming by your desk to talk about his faith and invite you to his church," he says. "When it's your superior officer, it's much worse."

"I don't care what the admirals and generals say anymore," he says in an interview a few hours before the fundraiser, which took in about $20,000. "I'm done with the politicians. What I say to the Pentagon, and to George Bush, and to the people on Capitol Hill, and to all these mega-evangelical church folks, is just five simple words: Tell it to the judge. Because we're in federal court now."

The Field General

Fellow members of the Air Force Academy's Class of 1977 say Weinstein was always like this. His nicknames at the academy, where he graduated in the top 15 percent of his class, were "Motor Mouth" and "Ticktock," for his loquacity and his hurry. He is perpetually on the move, talking fast, driving fast. He just traded in his yellow Dodge Viper, an $85,000 roadster, for an even more exotic Lotus.

"There's this line where Meat Loaf in 'Bat Out of Hell II' says: 'We were born out of time.' That's my attitude exactly," Weinstein says. "In archaeological time, we're already dead. We're only here a nanosecond. You got to make it count."

If half of Weinstein's persona is Clint Eastwood, however, the other half is Rodney Dangerfield. The combination, more surprising and appealing than either of its parts, is his real charm, his unique shtick.

When his wife, Bonnie, takes one of his favorite See's chocolates, he reminds her of the label given him by a mega-church in the southeastern United States.

"I'm the Field General of the Godless Armies of Satan!" he says. "You can't just steal my candy like that."

The Weinsteins were married 29 years ago in the Air Force Academy's modernist chapel, its 17 gleaming spires lined up like fighter jets shooting into the sky. It was a Jewish ceremony, but the clergyman under the huppah was a Protestant chaplain. Back then, Weinstein says, military chaplains "were like Father Mulcahy in 'M*A*S*H,' type O universal blood donor chaplains" who gave equally to all, who tried to serve the troops, not convert them.

Weinstein writes, travels and exercises as frenetically as he speaks. He corresponds by e-mail with U.S. soldiers, sailors and airmen around the world who report incidents of proselytizing and religious pressure. He lectures at synagogues and Rotary Clubs.

He is writing a book, tentatively titled "With God on Our Side," for publication by St. Martin's Press in the fall. He may soon make his film debut, too: He was followed through Arlington by documentary maker Oren Jacoby, who is adapting James Carroll's best-selling history of the church and the Jews, "Constantine's Sword."

Last year, Weinstein exchanged vitriolic e-mails with the Rev. Ted Haggard, pastor of the 14,000-member New Life Church in Colorado Springs and president of the National Association of Evangelicals. The private messages became public when one of Haggard's associate pastors gave them to a blogger, hoping to embarrass Weinstein by publishing his torrent of incomplete sentences punctuated with !!! and ??? together with Haggard's calm, composed replies.

Since then, Weinstein, who boxed in his academy days, has repeatedly offered to go three rounds in the ring with Haggard, a former football player. "We'll do it for charity. That can include the Christian Children's Fund and also, I think, the United Way and the United Jewish Appeal," Weinstein says. And though he is smiling, he is not kidding.

On the morning of the Arlington fundraiser, he spends 61 minutes on an elliptical trainer. By his reckoning, it is Day 2,572 in a row without missing a cardiovascular workout.

The Allies

In spite of his pugnacity -- or maybe because of it -- Weinstein has enlisted a growing number of big-name allies.

The guest of honor at the party in Arlington is Joe Wilson, a career diplomat whose criticism of the Bush administration's rationale for war in Iraq led to the unmasking of his wife, Valerie Plame, as a CIA officer and, ultimately, to perjury charges against I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, Vice President Cheney's former chief of staff.

He and Weinstein are natural allies, Wilson explains, "because I'm fighting the neo-cons, and he's fighting the theo-cons."

The party, held in the posh apartment of a Weinstein cousin, is the first event organized for the new foundation by David Rosen, once the campaign finance director for Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.) and now Weinstein's chief fundraiser. After deliberating for just five hours, a jury acquitted Rosen last year of underreporting the cost of an August 2000 Hollywood gala in honor of Hillary and Bill Clinton.

Among the guests in Arlington are several members of Weinstein's advisory board, which he has stocked with retired senior officers and decorated combat veterans that he says the Pentagon cannot simply dismiss as "Chardonnay-sipping liberals." Its luminaries include retired Air Force Gen. Robert T. Herres, who was the first vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff; retired Vice Adm. Bernard Kauderer, former commander of the Pacific submarine fleet; and retired Air Force Col. Richard Klass, who won a Silver Star as a pilot in Vietnam.

Some of them think Weinstein is over the top. And they like it.

"It's sort of like Howard Dean and the 2004 campaign," Klass says. "It took someone like him to get out in front and bring the issue to people's attention. If this is going to be a long, hard slog -- which I'm afraid it is -- maybe some years down the line we'll need someone who's more politic than Mikey. But at this stage I think it absolutely requires hell-raising. . . . You can't have a man in a gray flannel suit as the point man on this issue right now."

The military has been a path of upward mobility for Weinstein's family, as for so many others. His father grew up poor, enlisted in the Navy as a teenager and got into the Naval Academy through its prep school; one of his close buddies in the class of 1953 at Annapolis was H. Ross Perot.

Weinstein himself was born on an Air Force base. The military gave him his entire education, including at the University of the Pacific McGeorge School of Law. After 10 years in the JAG corps and three years in the Reagan White House, he went to work for his father's old friend, becoming general counsel of Perot Systems Corp. in 1988. During the 1990s, Weinstein launched a series of his own ventures. Last year, he rejoined Perot as a director of business development.

Judging by his taste in cars, Weinstein appears to have plenty of disposable income, but he declines to discuss his finances: "I'm wealthy in the love I have for my family, that's all I'll say."

He is more forthcoming about the battle's emotional toll. His sons have stopped giving interviews to the media. Bonnie, who has multiple sclerosis, has been diagnosed with a painful, stress-induced jaw disorder. Since anonymous callers began leaving threats on their home telephone, they now live with two attack-trained German shepherds. But Mikey is not about to duck a fight.

"When somebody threatens me," he says, "I usually tell them to pack a picnic lunch and stand in line."

© 2007 The Washington Post Company