The Terror That Flaps in the Night

dwd

I strive to avoid political commentary on this blog because I find it depressing, and nobody cares what I think, anyway. However, I encountered a news item the other day that was beginning to stir some anxiety among a few friends and acquaintances on Facebook and elsewhere, so I thought I’d provide a little context.

This runs on a bit, but stay with me. Opinions are my own, based on my personal experiences and reading of the evidence.

Here’s a link to the rather breathless and inflammatory article, from Breitbart.com legal correspondent Ken Klukowski, titled, “Pentagon may Court-Martial Soldiers Who Share Christian Faith.”

Scared now? You really shouldn’t be.

Let’s begin by parsing the Fox News report from pundit Todd Starnes that the Breitbart report is quoting. A gentleman named Mikey Weinstein, who heads an organization called the “Military Religious Freedom Foundation,” recently met with Pentagon officials to discuss a policy document identified as “Air Force Culture, Air Force Standards.” Note that the level of these Pentagon officials is not specified, so it’s unlikely we’re really talking about key decision-makers, though it’s clear they’re Department of the Air Force officials, not Department of Defense—so, there’s only one military service involved in this meeting. A related Washington Post article reports “several generals and a chaplain” were involved, which sounds more impressive, but rank and actual power in the military don’t always correlate. It’s also not the same thing for military representatives to meet with someone for a discussion versus that person being appointed as a consultant, called in to advise, etc. It appears that Mr. Weinstein’s organization requested this meeting, and the request was granted. That’s not being “tapped for vetting.” It’s a courtesy.

Here’s a link to the document in question, mis-referenced in the Fox News report: Air Force Instruction (AFI) 1-1, Air Force Standards, 7 Aug 2012. It details the Air Force’s standards of personal conduct, and is directive (rules, not suggestions). These are the pertinent paragraphs, quoted in full (emphasis mine):

2.11. Government Neutrality Regarding Religion. Leaders at all levels must balance constitutional protections for an individual’s free exercise of religion or other personal beliefs and the constitutional prohibition against governmental establishment of religion. For example, they must avoid the actual or apparent use of their position to promote their personal religious beliefs to their subordinates or to extend preferential treatment for any religion. Commanders or supervisors who engage in such behavior may cause members to doubt their impartiality and objectivity. The potential result is a degradation of the unit’s morale, good order, and discipline. Airmen, especially commanders and supervisors, must ensure that in exercising their right of religious free expression, they do not degrade morale, good order, and discipline in the Air Force or degrade the trust and confidence that the public has in the United States Air Force.
2.12. Free Exercise of Religion and Religious Accommodation. Supporting the right of free exercise of religion relates directly to the Air Force core values and the ability to maintain an effective team.
2.12.1. All Airmen are able to choose to practice their particular religion, or subscribe to no religious belief at all. You should confidently practice your own beliefs while respecting others whose viewpoints differ from your own.
2.12.2. Your right to practice your religious beliefs does not excuse you from complying with directives, instructions, and lawful orders; however, you may request religious accommodation. Requests can be denied based on military necessity. Commanders and supervisors at all levels are expected to ensure that requests for religious accommodation are dealt with fairly.

See anything troublesome here? Me neither.

The central issue is proselytization, which is not explicitly mentioned in AFI 1-1, but the Pentagon statement released to the press identifies proselytization as an example of a violation of the principles outlined in paragraph 2.11. The word does not mean in this context what Mr. Weinstein and his associates think it means. In terms of military policy, which hasn’t really changed on this topic in the 30+ years I’ve been associated with the military, proselytization is action to coerce conversion to a particular religious faith or creed, something our military has never sanctioned.

Creating a hostile environment toward people of differing faiths and/or using command influence to persuade individuals to adopt a particular faith (or political position, or party affiliation), is likewise forbidden. Such actions are already liable to discipline up to and including court-martial, depending on intent and severity. One’s faith can have no bearing on treatment, performance evaluations, or promotion of an individual. Thousands of men and women mirroring the diversity of religious (and non-religious) belief in the United States serve at this moment with equal skill and distinction within every military service. That’s the bottom line.

This is not the same as talking informally, even passionately, with others about what you believe, on- or off-duty. If someone asks what you believe, you can answer honestly and in detail. Off-duty attempts to convince others of the benefits of your religious faith, “witnessing,” or even handing out religious tracts are irrelevant to the military, so long as it’s not done in uniform and does not target subordinate personnel. Again, this is about using one’s position as an agent of the government to impair constitutionally-ensured freedoms by coercing a religious affiliation. We use similar language in labor regulations forbidding use of unlawful influence in the civilian workplace.

There have been isolated instances when a commander of religious bent has gotten a bit full of himself and declared a preference toward a particular faith and adherents of that faith in his official capacity as a military commander, and I know of one time this has happened at the Air Force Academy. However, such behavior has been met with harsh rebuke from higher authority and the commander censured and replaced. The vast conspiracy Mr. Weinstein attempts to paint simply does not exist. If anything, I’d say the dominant religious position across the Armed Forces is “indifferent.”

As a graduate of the U.S. Air Force Academy (USAFA), I have some passing familiarity with Mikey Weinstein (and I’m not juvenilizing him…he does go by “Mikey”).  For a long time, he was the sole member of this “Military Religious Freedom Foundation,” which he created, though he’s gathered a few high-profile props since then, including controversial former U.S. Ambassador Joe Wilson. I first noticed him spilling bile across the opinion pages of the Rocky Mountain News, Colorado Springs’ primary newspaper. The florid rhetoric quoted in the Breitbart and Fox articles is sadly typical of his tirades.

Mr. Weinstein is an atheist, though of Jewish descent, which is an uneasy philosophical pairing if he takes his heritage at all seriously. He claims his two sons were subjected to anti-Semitic bullying while they attended the Academy. Could this have happened? It’s possible—there are bad apples in any basket of humanity, and USAFA is no exception, though it was one of the most accepting communities of my experience, and cadets were judged by faculty and peers on the content of their character and performance of their duties, not their color, creed, or reproductive equipment (and I entered in the first year in which female cadets were present in all four cohorts within the Cadet Wing).

The distinctive Cadet Chapel houses, besides Protestant and Catholic chapels, a beautiful Jewish chapel tiled with stone from Jerusalem, as well as a Buddhist meditation space. A ring of stones accommodating Pagan religious rituals was installed in the woods nearby a few years ago. Arrangements for other traditions such as LDS and Islam are routine. Accusations of a monolithic conservative-fundamental-evangelical Protestant culture at USAFA hostile to religious minorities simply don’t hold water.

Anyhow, if what Weinstein claims about his sons’ experience is true, given his antagonism toward USAFA it seems particularly odd that he would send any of his children there, or that he would send a second son if the experience of the first was so negative, unless he was trying to prove a point or exploit his children for the advancement of his private agenda. It’s an action that is, at best, questionable.

Mr. Weinstein’s solution to what he sees as the blight of conservative, evangelical Christianity in the military is to subject it to the sort of discrimination he decries. Apparently, prejudicial treatment is fine so long as it’s directed toward people he dislikes. The sort of “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy he advocates toward Christianity will find no traction in Congress or the Department of Defense.

In summary, fear not. Mikey Weinstein is attacking a problem that doesn’t exist, as a proxy for his personal antagonism toward Christianity, the military in general, and the U.S. Air Force Academy in particular. This is the same soap he’s been selling for the past two or three decades, and nobody’s listening. He has no role or influence in forming or changing military policy, and he is not a government consultant. He’s the guy who shows up at every school board meeting with a 30-minute prepared text about how American education is failing—or why there need to be more geraniums planted around the flagpole. He is the terror that flaps in the night—he is the grain of sand under your contact lens…

No, he’s not Darkwing Duck. He could, however, learn a few things from a guy who understands the difference between crime and the Bill of Rights.

UPDATE: Here’s a report from David Gibson of the nonsectarian Religion News Service that summarizes the whole brouhaha. This incident was mostly poor media management by the Pentagon that gave opinion-spinners on both sides of the issue free rein to inflame their followers with partial or misleading information.

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