Our (Soon to Be) Sectarian Air Force

Keith Taylor

With God on Our Side: One Man’s War Against an Evangelical Coup in America’s Military, by Michael L. Weinstein and Davin Seay (New York: Thomas Dunne Books, 2007, ISBN 0-312-38143-2) 258 pp. Cloth $25.95.

The places of hell are reserved for those who remain silent, particularly in times of moral crisis. I will not be silent.

—Dante, quoted by Michael Weinstein and Davin Seay in With God on Our Side

With God on Our Side is about Michael Weinstein, who does not remain silent. “Mikey,” as he calls himself, raises unholy hell about religious persecution at one of America’s most revered universities, the Air Force Academy. Mikey is by his own definition a Jewish American. Notwithstanding his theism, atheists must pay attention to his story, because his problem is our problem. Indeed, it is even more than that—it’s America’s problem.

An alumnus of the Academy, Weinstein takes on his old institution in a polemic written in the third person. Perhaps this technique gave him the freedom to use the words that he felt best expressed his outrage. Juicy old Anglo-Saxon expletives, along with their more modern inner-city adaptations, leap out at the reader from between quotation marks. As a Navy veteran of twenty-three years, I envy his ability to express himself so vividly.

From 1954, when the first cadets were sworn in, the Academy has been allied with evangelical Christians. All cadets have to subscribe to an honor code that originally read: “We will not lie, steal or cheat, nor tolerate among us anyone who does.” In 1984, it was amended so that it ended: “So help me God.” The addition was only for emphasis, however. From the Academy’s beginning, the cadets were made to understand that all matters of honor involved God, in particular, the god of the most fundamental segment of Christianity.

Weinstein in the 1970s, and three decades later, his son, Curtis, underwent the hazing traditional in our country’s military academies. The upperclassmen had the upper hand and the underclassmen were required to obey all orders—even those they thought silly. This environment was tailor-made for the zealous fundamentalists who were bent on saving souls. It was also tailor-made for getting dissenters out of the way of the chosen people, who, in the Air Force, were usually not guys with names like “Weinstein”—unless they repented for killing Christ.

One guy with the name of Weinstein was given special attention, including some attention that surely flew in the face of the vaunted idea of unit cohesion. In his first year, Mikey was constantly called religious epithets. Then he started receiving anonymous notes calling him a “fucking Jew” and a “Christ killer.” To emphasize the point, the notes were decorated with swastikas.

To get around that part of the old saying that ends “but words will never hurt me,” someone resorted to the sticks and stones as well. Mikey was twice waylaid, knocked unconscious, and beaten. On one of those occasions, he was even thrown down a flight of stairs.

After all that, he was called into the Office of Special Investigations and accused of writing the threatening letters to himself. Discipline failed him at that point. He lost it and did something that he kept secret for thirty years. He coldcocked the OSI officer and fled the room, frightened to death.

Mikey was certain that he would be thrown out of the Air Force. He called his father, who was himself a graduate of the Naval Academy and who had served in the armed forces for twenty-nine years. Weinstein isn’t quite sure what transpired after that, but he was surreptitiously interviewed by a member of the Anti-Defamation League. From what little he could piece together, he learned that someone from the ADL warned academy officials that if they harmed one hair on his head, Mikey’s story would be aired in the New York Times. Furthermore, they promised that they would get Barry Goldwater, at that time a U.S. senator, involved. Goldwater had Air Force clout. He was a Reserve brigadier general.

After the ADL intervened, the harassment and attacks ceased. Nobody was charged. One wonders how the guilty got the word without being identified or, if they were identified, why they weren’t charged.

Weinstein never found out, and he was glad to let that part of his past remain a secret. I can understand why. Hitting an officer is one of the worst things an enlisted person or a cadet can possibly do. Respect for and obedience to officers is a linchpin of military discipline. Few violations could weigh more heavily on the conscience of an aspiring officer.

Mikey Weinstein went on to compile a sterling record. He quotes himself: “It’s also true that my record at the Academy would have been impossible to accomplish if it had been known that I struck an officer. Obviously, the cover-up was incredibly thorough.”

The sad and yet unanswered question is, why wasn’t there a thorough investigation? Defamatory and even life-threatening religious persecution was carried out under a cover of hazing. And what would have happened if Weinstein had not had the Anti-Defamation League on his side? I also found myself wondering how much help an atheist in those circumstances would have received if he’d asked a senator named Feinstein for help.

(I once wrote Diane Feinstein, asking why she didn’t say anything on my behalf when, in 1994, Rabbi Daniel Lapin opened the 106th Congress with a prayer. The part that I remember is “. . . this is to remind us that nothing has the ability to unify people as much as a common devotion to Him except perhaps hatred of Him, as seen in the evil doctrines of socialism and atheism. . . .” [Emphasis added.] My senator answered with a form letter thanking me for my interest but ignoring the question altogether.)

But, the hounds off his back, Michael Weinstein kept his secret for three decades. During his time at the Academy, he was on the dean’s list every semester for which he was eligible. He finished as an Honor Graduate, the equivalent of magna cum laude at a civilian college. After his graduation in 1977, he earned a law degree and continued to serve as a JAG (Judge Advocate General) lawyer. Then he worked as a special counsel in Ronald Reagan’s White House. Today, he is a civilian lawyer and the proud father of two sons who graduated from the Air Force Academy.

It was in his role as father that he discovered that, three decades later, harassment still continues for Jews at the Academy. When Weinstein visited his alma mater in 2004 to attend a Graduate Leadership Conference, he visited his son Curtis, then about to commence his fourth year. Curtis was upset. When pressed, he said, “I’m going to beat the shit out of the next guy that calls me a ‘fucking Jew.’” He added, “I just thought that before it happens, you and Mom should know.”

Weinstein understood and resolved to do something about it. He writes, “I would never be one of those docile, pious Jews . . . I would be a Judah Maccabee Jew, the ones who faced down Antiochus and his ten thousand howling Syrians on their armored elephants. . . .”

He proved his impiety at the conference by confronting the Academy’s vice commandant, Colonel Deborah Grey, who had just finished a PowerPoint presentation that included the agenda item: “An Apparent Insensitivity to Non-Christian Beliefs.” In a tirade that he was later told lasted an hour, he remembers saying, “No Debbie, you don’t have an apparent insensitivity. . . . Instead you have a lusty and thriving intolerance, obje
ctively manifesting itself in numerous acts of unconstitutional prejudice and discrimination.”

And that was just the beginning. Michael Weinstein confronted the superintendent of the Academy. That’s when his wife jumped in with what must have been the most scathing but trenchant comment on leadership Lieutenant General John Rosa had ever heard: “You have a total of six stars on your shoulders, John. If you tell someone to do something, they will do it. . . . But you never gave that order and that’s a failure of leadership.”

In my opinion, the best thing to come out of it is that Weinstein is still airing his grievances for the world to see. He lent his support and donated heavily to the Military Religious Freedom organization at http://militaryreligiousfreedom.org. It is well worth a mouse click.

I hope my fellow secularists are paying attention. This is our battle, possibly even more than it is the battle of Jewish Americans. My worry is, what happens if people like the ones who condoned and carried out the harassment at the Air Force Academy move into positions of power in our government? How much damage can one of those brainwashed cadets do down the road when he ends up wearing stars on his shoulders and thinks the End Times need a little push? Now give him control over some hydrogen bombs and ask that question again.

One of the most telling statements in the book came from a chaplain who was in retreat but obviously trying to save something in the process. “I will not proselytize from other religious bodies, but I retain the right to evangelize those who are non-affiliated.” Guess who that would be?

Keith Taylor

Keith Taylor, a longtime humanist activist, is retired from the Navy and lives in Chula Vista, California.

With God on Our Side: One Man’s War Against an Evangelical Coup in America’s Military, by Michael L. Weinstein and Davin Seay (New York: Thomas Dunne Books, 2007, ISBN 0-312-38143-2) 258 pp. Cloth $25.95. The places of hell are reserved for those who remain silent, particularly in times of moral crisis. I will not be …

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