This Week in the Military: Duelling Moral Panic

Military Religious Freedom Foundation head Mikey Weinstein takes pains to remind fellow Americans that he’s a Republican. There’s no need. He sounds just like one, or anyway, like some talk-radio character who thinks the GOP went soft when Reagan’s promise to outlaw Russia turned out to be a joke. Granted, his targets are a little unusual. In his own words, the MRRF aims to protect the U.S. armed forces from “Premillenial, Dispensational, Reconstructionist Dominionist, Fundamentalist Evangelical Christians” who are working to reshape them in their own image.

Weinstein says that “96%” of the complaints his organization fields come from believers of some stripe or other, “including 21 different variety of Baptists alone” — not, in other words, from Richard Dawkins acolytes. Independent sources have corroborated some of his charges. In 2005, an investigative panel found that faculty and officers at the U.S. Air Force Academy had evangelized in “inappropriate” and “insensitive” ways. The number of chaplains from the various evangelical denominations has increased sharply over the years 1995-2005. It should be clear that Weinstein’s doing more here than reading tea leaves.

But Weinstein’s struggling to sell a demographic and tonal shift as the signs of an apocalypse. In an interview with Religion Dispatches, he warns that in any military environment, even the Air Force Academy, deviation from a norm, even a religious norm, “will get you killed.” Going on record with the Philadelphia Jewish Voice, he drops an H-bomb, that is, invokes the name of Hitler. After declaring that the Christians MRRF is “at war” with make up “a small subset of evangelical Christianity – about 12.6% of the American public,” he reminds readers, “Hitler never had more than eight percent of the German citizenry in the Nazi party.”

But it’s in joining the labels “evangelical” and “dominionist” that Weinstein really does his damage. In its current usage, “dominionism” is a slippery term. It can refer to the vision of R.J. Rushdoony, who advocated the adoption of Mosaic law, including capital punishment for homosexuality and adultery. Or it can refer to the position that the Founding Fathers meant America to be a Christian nation, and that Christians should organize and seek to re-gain political ascendancy within the existing system. Application of the term tends to tar members of the second group by association with members of the first. Jeremy Pierce judges this tarring a species of conspiracy theorizing and gives it a name of its own — Dominionismism.

The idea of Rushdoony disciples taking over our armed forces the way Alawis took over Syria’s is horrifying. But it doesn’t seem to be happening. Even in 2005, when the commander in chief was a devout Methodist and favorite of the religious right, evangelical chaplains were complaining about regulations that crimped their style. The Navy declined to extend the contract of a chaplain who warned, in a funeral homily, that “God’s wrath remains” upon those who die outside Jesus’ friendship. Two years ago, the Air Force Academy permitted Wiccan and Druid cadets, for the first time, to establish their own chapel. Since the repeal of DADT, a number of gay military weddings have taken place with a minimum of official hassle and a maximum of publicity. It may be that MRRF advocacy deserves some of the credit for this openness; but, taking Weinstein’s words at face value, it’s hard to get the impression that the barbarians are any farther from the gates than they were a few years ago.

Last week, President Obama met with Weinstein and other MRRF members to discuss the implementation of a policy called “Air Force Culture, Air Force Standards.” Adopted in 2012, it seeks to prevent military officers from promoting “personal religious beliefs to their subordinates” or extending “preferential treatment for any religion.” The very thought of Weinstein and Obama sharing a conference table drove the Family Resarch council to the barricades. Drafting a petition, it denounced the MRRF as a “far-left” and “anti-Christian,” and predicted its influence would see confessing Christians “prosecuted as enemies of the state.”

It fell to the Pentagon to play the voice of reason. On May 2, Lieutenant Commander Nate Christensen assured the nation that the Defense Department would continue to make “reasonable accomodations for members of all religions.” Aggressive prosyletizing was out, but simple evangelizing remained in. The distinction between the two, and the penalties for misreading it, he said, would be left for the chain of command to determine on “a case-by-case basis.” In other words, the First Amendment’s Free Exercise and Establishment clauses were still engaged in the same old balancing act.

But Christensen’s comforting words came only after Breitbart and other news had brought fears of an anti-Christian purge almost to a boil. I should know — it was all over my Facebook news feed. If the Long Parliament was any more convinced of King Charles’ complicity with rebellious Irish Catholics, I wouldn’t want to live on the difference.

Sociologists use the term “moral panic” to describe the spreading, fearful conviction that some value is in imminent danger. From seeing Weinstein’s wild prophesying followed by the the FRC’s, we’re getting a good look at what happens when a group becomes the object of that panic: it panics right back. We’re left with moral panic à deux, which, funnily enough, doesn’t double anyone’s pleasure.

  • Deiseach

    I don’t know, Max; having read the frothing at the mouth piece by Mr. Weinstein in “The Huffington Post”, he made it sound like Margaret Atwood’s “The Handmaid’s Tale” was soft-focus propaganda for the theocratic state desired by these ” incredibly well-funded gangs of fundamentalist Christian monsters who terrorize their fellow Americans by forcing their weaponized and twisted version of Christianity upon their helpless subordinates in our nation’s armed forces”.

    I’ve read some accounts of proselytization in the American armed forces and I agree that there can indeed be unwarranted pressure, inappropriate use and indeed abuse of authority and lack of sensitivity, but what is missing is that this often springs from what critics within Evangelicalism call “Wretched Urgency” – the teaching that the unbelievers are going to Hell and if you don’t do your utmost to save them, their blood is on your hands. It’s not a Sinister Conspiracy to turn the United States into a fascist theocracy, it comes from genuine spiritual anguish over the fate of the unchurched.

    Also, his reaction to the legitimate complaints by Evangelicals and the Catholic archdiocese of Pennsylvania about a presentation that used the Southern Poverty Law Center definitions of “hate groups” to lump all Catholics (and not just the tiny sub-set of Radical Traditionalist one-man bands that use anti-Semitic language) as a “hate group” is less than convincing: he says “Why didn’t these Evangelicals and Catholics complain about the Muslims being included? That’s because they’re Islamophobic, isn’t it?”

    I think the main reason people are concerned about this guy is because he’s not just some random nutter on the internet, he’s connected. He’s able to get a hearing at the Pentagon and he’s quoted in newspaper articles as an authoritative source. I think he’s right that there is a definite tendency for some in the military to use their position to push their version of Christianity and that this needs to be addressed, but the kind of OUTRAGE!!!! tone he writes in is not helping his cause. You have to read pretty far down the article to get the one line about ‘We’re not saying evangelical Christians should be barred from the military’, but if you waded through lines about supremacists, fundamentalists, monsters, haters and so forth trying to take over the U.S. military to launch an attack on the constitution, you might be inclined – if you were what could be described as an evangelical Christian – to think he believed exactly that.

    [I don't like the cut of his jib, either. (Or should that be "the sweep of his wing"? What do Air Force people say, anyway?) But there's a big difference between getting a hearing, and having the responsible, listening party adopt your view uncritically. Weinstein himself doesn't talk like a man convinced of his own vast influence; if anything, he plays the embattled underdog. Deciding that his presence in the White House spells imminent doom requires a lot in the way of credulity.]

  • Helen

    Let Mikey try it. He hates everything!

  • Kenneth

    For all his rhetoric, Weinstein has been doing good work on this issue for a decade, and he’s not some shrill atheist liberal trying to reshape the military into something it’s not. He’s been there. He, and many of his family, have served with distinction in various branches for decades. He knows how vulnerable recruits are to spiritual coercion in a chain of command system. His cause is no more radical than demanding that command actually upholds the Constitution they swore to defend, and to exercise some professionalism – and the morale thing. Troops bullied toward conversion with no safe redress ain’t exactly in top fighting form.

    The offenders, evangelicals and some conservative Catholics – basically a vocal minority of the religious right, have spun this around to make themselves the victim, which is the basis of their entire PR strategy in this country. They’re bleating about how this means that no Christian will even be able to own the label in the military anymore. Pure Stalinist official atheism, beginning the week after the new guidelines are adopted. They have absolutely no basis in fact for this absurdity, but it rallies their own troops and gets the money flowing. They can’t raise a single example of a Christian discharged or punished for their faith, and when you point that out, the stammering begins, followed with the classic conspiracy reasoning. “Well, the fact that it hasn’t happened is proof that it will.”

  • JoFro

    This man may have a done a lot of good but lets be honest – read that Religious Dispatches article or his article on the Huffington Post and replace the word “Christian evangelicals” with the word “Muslim” “Jew” or “atheist” and tell me if someone was spouting out what this man said would even be on the board of anything that deals with the Air Force or any government department! Be honest, if Bush was president and you had a man saying such things about those other groups, would you be seeing the media not making this a major story?

  • Fred Warren

    By all indications, Mr. Weinstein wasn’t summoned to Washington to “vet” anything. His organization was granted a meeting with “Pentagon officials,” who may have included a couple of generals and a chaplain. As you said, getting a hearing is not the same thing as coming on board as a consultant or policymaker.

    The regulation in question, Air Force Instruction (AFI) 1-1, Air Force Standards, 7 Aug 2012, details the Air Force’s standards of personal conduct, and is the latest periodic update of a reg that’s been around a long time. The pertinent paragraphs, 2.11 through 2.12.2, focus on improper use of military authority to promote a leader’s religious beliefs or extend preferential or prejudicial treatment based on religious beliefs. That has -never- been acceptable. At the same time, it strongly reaffirms and encourages each servicemember to confidently practice their beliefs while respecting the differing viewpoints of others. Nothing worrisome here, but Mr. Weinstein seems to think we need more courts-martial to make sure everybody knows we mean business.

    I’m fairly familiar with Mr. Weinstein’s rhetoric and tactics after four years at the U.S. Air Force Academy reading his overheated opinion pieces in the Rocky Mountain News and another 24 years in the Air Force watching him pop up periodically as a self-appointed gadfly fussing about problems the military has handled quietly and evenhandedly without his help for decades. The free publicity he’s garnered from the overblown and panicked reactions of certain conservative and Christian pundits has only served to grant him a false mantle of influence and authority. He’s just one more guy with an axe to grind, and they are legion.