A few weeks ago I was sitting at a poker table, as I often am, when my phone rang. It was Mikey Weinstein asking if I would like a review copy of his new book No Snowflake In An Avalanche. I would have accepted the offer, of course, but I had already bought the book, though I hadn’t had a chance to start it yet. This is my review of the book.
Since I started the book, I had the opportunity to spend a weekend hanging out with Mikey at Ft. Bragg for the Rock Beyond Belief event. It was the first time we’d met in person after many years of regularly exchanging emails, talking on the phone and working together on projects. When I saw him at the airport I knew instantly that it was him. I have rarely met someone who looks more like his personality; the man looks like a bulldog — compact, stocky, muscular, and fierce.
So let’s start with the obvious disclaimer: Obviously I know Mikey. I consider him a friend and an ally in many important battles. And I like him a lot. It would not be unreasonable for you to keep that in mind as you read this review.
Let me also start with what some may find bothersome about this book. It is not a scholarly study of the issues, it is a dramatic call to arms. Mikey plays the role of a polemicist or a general firing up the troops for battle. The book is written very much the way Mikey talks, as though he were attempting to break the Guinness record for the highest number of adjectives and adverbs used in a single paragraph. A given situation is not merely bad, it is hideously appalling or outrageously vile. It’s a style that many will no doubt find off-putting.
But the book is at its best when telling real-life stories, both of the — yes — hideous and outrageous abuse he and his family have endured over the last few years with the founding of the Military Religious Freedom Foundation and of the men and women that foundation has intervened to help over those years. The Weinstein family has had dead animals left in its driveway, had their windows shot out and had a swastika and a crucifix — a telling combination — painted on the side of their house in New Mexico. They receive death threats on a weekly basis and now must travel with bodyguards and concealed weapons to protect themselves. I imagine that might amplify my outrage and make me sound a bit strident as well.But all that aside, what makes this book really worth reading are the stories of the soldiers and the way so many of them have had their rights violated in the name of God, including the members of his own family. It’s also the story of the many others who have stepped up and joined MRFF to fight the ongoing battles. Former Air Force chaplain MeLinda Morton, Yale Divinity School professor Dr. Kristen Leslie, retired Air Force Col. David Antoon, Vice Admiral Bernard Marvin Kauderer, our own Chris Rodda and many others have enlisted and helped to defend people like Dustin Chalker.
Chalker’s story is an excellent case study of the problems many soldiers face. He was forced to attend many meetings where superior officers demanded that the troops say prayers. He asked repeatedly to be excused from such events and was denied every time. As he puts it in the book:
“You can imagine the sense of betrayal I felt when I was involuntarily drafted into these religious gatherings and forced to put on a charade of praying along with Christian clergymen, whose salaries were paid with tax dollars. These ceremonial prayers were not innocent acts of ‘free exercise,’ but forced exercise that non-Christian soldiers cannot escape.”
Far too many people do not take his position seriously because they see Christianity as a default, as the de facto official religion. This is a Christian nation, they argue, so Chalker should just remain silent. The flaws in this argument would be breathtakingly obvious to those who make it the moment they are required to bow toward Mecca for a Muslim prayer.
The battles that MRFF fights are important. As I said in my opening remarks at Rock Beyond Belief, the separation of church and state is never more important than when it involves those who take an oath to defend the constitution that is the source of that vital principle. And while some may object to Mikey Weinstein’s flamboyant and provocative style, the reality is that no one much cared about these issues, even civil libertarian groups like the ACLU, until he started rocking the boat. No Snowflake in an Avalanche tells the story of how it all happened.