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Fighting for Religious Freedom for Fighters



Rob Hardy


When I was at the U.S. Naval Academy some forty years ago, all the midshipmen had to go to Sunday services. We were mustered and marched to the chapel every Sunday morning, although some chose to march to civilian churches in town. My atheist roommate wouldn't go along with this, and for mids like him, there was a mandatory Sunday morning discussion group. I realized at the time that this was all unfair; no part of the government ought to be making any religious observance mandatory. I didn't do anything about it, but a few years after I graduated, some midshipmen bolder than I and the dear old ACLU got the practice abolished. Now midshipmen who want to attend services do that, and those who want to sleep in do that. It was a battle that Mikey and Bonnie Weinstein, co-founders of the Military Religious Freedom Foundation, didn't have to fight, because they didn't start their organization until ten years ago. Mikey graduated from the Air Force Academy where he experienced discrimination due to his being a Jew, and he and Bonnie started the MRFF when their sons got the same treatment. There are many who think that America has Christianity as its official religion, and that it only makes sense for America to ensure that Christian soldiers onward go. The purpose of the MRFF is to remind them that this is not what the Constitution says, and to ensure that everyone in the military gets full religious freedom as the Constitution guarantees. 




Among those who think that the military ought to be able to be the religious boss of its servicemen are those who write to the MRFF to tell the Weinsteins just how wrong they are. Surely some of them simply have wrong opinions about what the Constitution says, and might change their opinions once their errors are pointed out. Others, however, just want to rant and threaten. Bonnie Weinstein has collected a small fraction of the hate mail MRFF receives and has brought it out in To the Far Right Christian Hater... You Can Be a Good Speller or a Hater, but You Can't Be Both (Rare Bird Books). It contains good illustrations of what the MRFF is up against. It must be said that most of the examples here show a seething religious fervor, but also little intellectual acumen. The spelling within them (as the title implies) is poor (the author has declined to show how often the spelling is bad by deciding against using "[sic]" after every mistake). The arguments are mostly ad hominem, and understanding of the Constitution is absent. So although these are low-lying fruits, the author has (mostly) decided not to get a last word in; most of the letters are reproduced without comment. Though the letters may show a low academic ability, in the real world the Weinsteins are dealing with powerful generals who must have some of the same feelings that the letter writers have. 




Some of the letters are funny in their wrongheadedness, but this is mostly unpleasant reading. "Be forewarned," Weinstein says, "many of the letters presented here are not for the faint of heart. They are personal, they are brutal, and they have forever affected and altered the course of existence for my entire family." The letters are vulgar, cruel, bigoted, and obscene. This is a very tame excerpt from one of them: "And demon-clever lawyer away all of our Christian rights out of our Christian country and Christian army, navy, air force and marines founded by Christians FOR Christians and BY Christians. kikey mikey doesn't like it? MFRR doesn't like it? it doesn't matter since you will all burn in hell for murdering the USA savior Jesus Christ who is not a freak religiun unlike jews and islams and hundis and buddists and athists and all the other homo freaks you try to replace peaceful American Christians with..." Besides the many gleeful predictions that members of MRFF will be tortured forever postmortem, there have been death threats against the family, necessitating bodyguards, and their home has been vandalized. Not everybody merely writes hate mail. 




The author has been able to figure out the rules followed by such Christians who get into a discussion with those who don't believe the same way they do: 


Yell certain points. 


Resort to name calling early on. (Actually, that's the first thing you should do.) 


Bring in talking points that have nothing to do with the issue at hand. 




Use random punctuation marks and lots of them!!!!!!!!!!! 


If all else fails, personalize your attacks and resort to more name calling. 




The writers seem to think that everyone in the military ought to have the writers' particular brand of Christianity. This is a distressing thought, given the hateful nature of these letters. I was particularly upset to read one letter that brought up the ancient prejudice that Jews have a ritual of eating bread in which there is blood from an innocent Christian child. There is at least one of the writers here who is familiar with that disgusting tradition of hatred.  




The author makes clear that the MRFF has the Constitution on its side. Even before the amendment guaranteeing religious freedom was passed, the founders put into the unamended Constitution that "no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office of public Trust under the United States." The letter writers here are not having any of that Constitution stuff. They have the backing of many in power in the military. In the last section of the book, Weinstein lists some of the causes for which the MRFF has gone to work. A general decided that he wasn't having any unbelievers in his Air Force and insisted that they say "so help me God" at the end of their reenlistment oaths. Rifle scopes engraved with biblical verses were ordered for our troops to use in Iraq and Afghanistan. Military emblems have had Crusader crosses on them. Soldiers were punished for declining to attend a Christian concert. An officer told gathered Muslim soldiers that America is "at war with Islam and you are a Muslim." A congressman called for Muslims to be purged from the military. Christian teachings about a "just war" were included in a course on Nuclear Warfare. A unit commander asked everyone in his charge if the person had "come to Christ yet." There is strong documentation that there are generals and government officials who think that the nation and the military should be run by a conservative Christian understanding of the Bible. 




The offensive letters will be dismissed by many Christians who do not share conservative or Dominionist beliefs; they will say that the letters do not really come from true Christians. The writers, though, repeatedly stress that their offensive rants and threats are just what Jesus wants them to do. The hate is scary. Bonnie Weinstein is obviously exasperated with it, but she also displays a security and a happy sense of humor as she makes notes on the entries. Gathering together these horrid letters in this way strongly makes an important point. People who serve their country in the military deserve to have extended to them America's highest ideals of religious freedom.



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