As the United States sent tens of thousands of troops to Afghanistan in 2010, a controversy erupted: the rifles they were carrying had coded scopes engraved with biblical references. In the war against the Taliban, already religiously charged, it was akin to tossing a match on gasoline in the ongoing fight over where religion should fit into military life.
The incident followed a script for the Military Religious Freedom Foundation, the activist organization that exposed the issue. Service members registered their complaint about the so-called “Jesus rifles.” Mikey Weinstein, its founder, distributed the information widely through the media, expressing outrage. And then the government responded, with some officials defending the practice while others — including Gen. David Petraeus, then the top commander in Afghanistan — called it problematic.
The scope’s maker, Trijicon, eventually promised that it would stop using biblical references, and the military said it would work to alter rifles already in service. They were inscribed with phrases like “PSA91:5,” short for Psalms 91:5: “Thou shalt not be afraid for the terror by night; nor for the arrow that flieth by day.”
It was one of several victories by Weinstein over the military about how religion will be handled in the ranks. His pugnacious style, vigorous public relations efforts and aggressive fund-raising have earned praise from some — but also made him a target for those who say he is capitalizing on political correctness to get rich and exaggerating problems.
On Wednesday, Weinstein will get one of his largest stages yet: An appearance before the House Armed Services Committee’s subcommittee on military personnel. Weinstein, along with several other witnesses, will testify before Congress on the military’s current policy for religious accommodation, which requires Sikhs to seek a waiver from top service officials to wear their religion’s mandatory turbans and beards.
Weinstein intends to stretch the conversation beyond that, though, he said. He plans to tell Congress that numerous leaders in the military practice a “twisted version of Christianity” that oppresses not only Muslims and other religious minorities, but Christians who are not devout.
“If they intend to try to shoot the messenger, to assassinate the messenger, I couldn’t care less about that,” Weinstein said Tuesday. “To me, this is about the U.S. Constitution. They will not assassinate the message, and the message is that tens of thousands of our brave members of the U.S. military are being persecuted by a version of Christianity, a twisted version, that is the closest thing to the American, Christian version of the Islamic Taliban.”
Weinstein, who has not appeared before Congress previously, said the foundation will celebrate its 10th anniversary in about two weeks. It has grown to include nearly 40,000 members, 96 percent of whom are Christian, he said. The other 4 percent are from various faiths — there are even about 12 members who subscribe to Jedism, a religious movement based on the ideas in the “Star Wars” movie franchise.
Weinstein said he founded the organization after growing angry with the way his sons were treated while attending the Air Force Academy following the release of Mel Gibson’s 2004 movie “The Passion of the Christ.” His sons objected to the way the movie was advertised on campus, and were subjected to anti-Semitic slurs because of it from evangelicals on campus, he said. He sued the academy, alleging that cadets also were coerced into attending Christian events on campus.
A study of the religious climate at the academy eventually found numerous examples of intolerance, insensitivity and inappropriate proselytizing, but said that the school was not overtly discriminatory. Weinstein, however, has continued to pounce on similar issues across the military for the last decade.
His actions have led to plenty of critics. Rep. Walter B. Jones, R-N.C., objected strongly last year after hearing a report that Weinstein had met with U.S. generals to offer advice on religious tolerance, and would consider court-martialing chaplains who professed their faith to others in the ranks.
“The work of military chaplains is essential to the well-being of our men and women in uniform,” Jones said at the time. “Threatening them with a court-martial for doing their job would be a disservice to all members of the armed forces. It is appalling that this administration is allowing an individual with such a history of threatening religious freedom to help shape policies for military personnel.”
Rep. Tim Huelskamp, R.-Kansas, also expressed frustration that the Obama administration had met with Weinstein, calling him a “notorious anti-Christian zealot who says the military ranks are full of Christian fundamentalist monsters whose evangelizing constitutes ‘spiritual rape,’ ‘a national security threat,’ and sedition and treason.’
The conservative Family Research Council also piled on, chronicling numerous attempts by Weinstein’s foundation to stop certain forms of religious expression in the military in a report released this year and titled “A Clear and Present Danger: The Threat to Religious Liberty in the Military.”
Weinstein also is derisively called an atheist on many online forums, but is actually a “Jagnostic,” he said — an agnostic Jew.
There’s also the money issue. An Air Force Times article earlier this year zeroed in on Weinstein’s income. In 2012, Weinstein received total compensation worth $273,355, or nearly half of all the money his organization earned that year, the newspaper reported. That is significantly more than top executives for other military non-profit organizations of similar size, but Weinstein said his donors and fellow board members have no problem with it.
The other witnesses testifying Wednesday are from the Family Research Council, the Liberty Institute, and the Chaplain Alliance for Religious Liberty. Bruce Kahn, a rabbi and retired Navy chaplain, also will appear. Kahn has said previously that most military officials oppose proselytizing, while the other organizations have called repeatedly for politicians to stay out of religious issues in the military.
“If it’s contentious, it’s contentious,” Weinstein said of the hearing. “It’s not supposed to be UFC fight or a World Wrestling Entertainment event. It’s a congressional hearing. But, we’ll see how it goes.”