Media treatment of Mikey Weinstein under scrutiny

Earlier today I mentioned some questions I have about this crazy “court-martial” story that blew up this week. The post is headlined “I share, you evangelize, they proselytize,” in reference to GetReligion reader Will Linden’s saying about how the same action can be described in different ways.

Much of the media coverage has been devoted to tamping down conservative Christian concern about whether Christians in the military will be court-martialed for sharing the Gospel of Jesus Christ with fellow soldiers. And that’s a good thing, since the story was clearly overblown and mishandled.

I was reading Ed Stetzer’s piece “Some Thoughts on the Newest Christian Concern: Court-Martials for Evangelism,” in which he goes after Christians for hyping the story (and while we’re at it, here’s a great Warren Throckmorton piece with quotes from the actual regulations). The comments to his post were instructive, though. For instance:

I know I for one was in an uproar when I read the story on Breitbart, but not simply because I feared that our men and women in uniform could be facing court martial for being Christian and sharing their Christian faith. My indignation was over the administration’s willingness, and apparent desire, to bring in Mikey Weinstein as some sort of special advisor on the issue–a man who seemingly makes no bones about calling Christians who share their faith “monsters” and associating us with rapists. My contempt for this policy (and I’ll admit that I, too, rushed to judgment) was not simply about the policy itself, but the fact that Weinstein, among others, was brought in to advise the administration on this policy. He can call it freedom from religious persecution all he wants, but how can he justify advocating such a thing when he is clearly so hostile toward men and women like you and me–men and women who desire to see people come to Christ and experience the gift of salvation from sin and death that He offers to each and everyone of us.

and

I appreciate your desire to be the voice of calm and reason, but I’m not reading much in your post that re-instills my faith in the pure motives and direction of this administration. Their apparent willingness to meet with the character in the Breitbart report does nothing but build legitimate suspicion, especially when all of their other priorities are taken into account.

I definitely think tamping down Christian concern by reporting this story fairly is a great journalistic service, as The Tennessean did here. But I do wonder if reporters are missing this other huge angle: that Mikey Weinstein is a player in this story!

It might be worth noting that religion reporters have different types of sources. Compare how a source such as the Jesuit Father Thomas Reese is portrayed with how a source such as Pamela Geller is. What’s tricky about Weinstein is that he has a little bit of both attributes. Reporters love Reese because he is great at making journalists’ jobs easier. He’s always good for a helpful quote and he makes himself available to reporters. He is genuinely helpful and speaks in a quotable manner. It’s great. Geller is treated less favorably for many reasons, but her extreme rhetoric when talking about Islam plays a major role in that treatment.

Weinstein is great with public relations like Reese is — he makes himself nothing if not available to reporters and he pushes out hot-button stories on the religion beat. He (Weinstein) also speaks in the Geller manner about Christians and yet, unlike her, he gets used as a source and is treated neutrally or favorably by the media.

Back to the Religion News Service story we discussed earlier, it mentions that the controversy arose after Weinstein, the head of the Military Religious Freedom Foundation, met with Pentagon officials:

Weinstein is known for his inflammatory rhetoric about religious believers and Christians in particular, and he didn’t disappoint this time: he told The Washington Post after the April 23 meeting that proselytizing in the military is akin to “spiritual rape,” among other things.

It’s good that the “inflammatory rhetoric” is mentioned but it might understate things.

National Review Online published a piece where author David French also disputes the court-martialing for evangelicals aspect of the story, saying he’s “not aware of any immediate or pending change in Pentagon policies regarding religious liberty.” However, he’s deeply concerned about the military’s involvement with Weinstein. In an article headlined “Are Military Leaders and the MSM Embracing an Anti-Christian Extremist?,” he quotes a handful of comments made by Weinstein. The first example:

Our Pentagon has been turned into a Pentacostalgon, and our DOD has been turned into an imperialist, fascistic contagion of unconstitutional triumphalism by people that want to kill us – or have their version of Jesus kill us if we don’t accept their Biblical world view.

He provides four other similar, but somehow much worse, comments (seriously, you must read them, they’re amazing) and adds:

I’m sorry, but these are just ravings. And he met with generals? And the Washington Post, CNN, ABC News and others treats him as a serious commentator on faith in the military? Substitute “Muslim” for “Christian” in any of these comments and the brass wouldn’t let him darken the Pentagon’s doors. Sally Quinn might write about him, but only as a Terry Jones–like threat to peace, as the fanatical equivalent of a Koran-burner.

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I share, you evangelize, they proselytize


Many moons ago, before I came to write for GetReligion, I was a devoted GetReligion reader. And I remember reader Will Linden used to comment something along the lines of:

I share, you evangelize, they proselytize.

Such wisdom in that line. I thought of this when I saw the tweet above.

Let’s look at the definitions of both terms.

pros·e·lyt·ize
1. Convert or attempt to convert (someone) from one religion, belief, or opinion to another.
2. Advocate or promote (a belief or course of action): “Davis wanted to proselytize his ideas”.

Synonyms
proselyte – convert

e·van·ge·lize
1. to preach the gospel to.
2. to convert to Christianity.
Synonyms
homilize, preachify, proclaim, proselytize, sermonize

So you can do one and not the other. You can convert but you can’t convert? Sounds confusing. Precisely what do the regulations say?

The Religion News Service piece mentioned above attempts to tamp down some Christian concern that erupted this week. And tamping down is good, in one sense, since there was bad information out there that suggested a policy change by the military. (If you want to get up to speed, you can do no better than this piece from The Tennessean, which lays out the current environment very well.)

Back to the RNS piece. Basically the military already has a regulation against proselytism but some anti-religion activists who are used as consultants by the military have been pushing the military to change how they enforce those regulations against people who “share” their religion.

So while the headlines of “sharing Jesus will totally get you court-martialed” were inaccurate, I’m not entirely sure that headlines definitively stating you won’t get court-martialed for sharing Jesus are on much stronger ground. At least from what I’m reading in the news stories.

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West Point cadet quits, citing religion

I’ve long been fascinated by stories about religious practice at the service academies. My brother attended the Air Force Academy in the 1990s and the religious pressure there was quite strong. His commanders didn’t quite accept that the generic Protestant service at the beautiful chapel there wouldn’t quite work for him (Missouri-Synod Lutherans don’t worship in a unionistic manner). They were suspicious as to why he needed to go off base for Divine Service, etc.

My father-in-law attended the Naval Academy (class of ’58) and told us stories of how midshipmen would try to get out of weekend worship by claiming religions without a local presence — only to find out that the academy would go to extremes to get them to a mosque or Theosophist center or what not many miles away.

Frequently stories about violations of the separation of church and state at military academies focus on the complainant’s claim, as they should. Sometimes this is at the expense of the possible complications at play. So I wanted to highlight this Associated Press story that I thought handled everything with a very nice balance. It begins:

ALBANY, N.Y. (AP) — A cadet quitting West Point less than six months before graduation says he could no longer be part of a culture that promotes prayers and religious activities and disrespects nonreligious cadets.

Blake Page announced his decision to quit the U.S. Military Academy this week in a much-discussed online post that echoed the sentiments of soldiers and airmen at other military installations. The 24-year-old told The Associated Press that a determination this semester that he could not become an officer because of clinical depression played a role in his public protest against what he calls the unconstitutional prevalence of religion in the military.

Quitting six months before graduation is almost unheard of at military academies. A big part of that is because, after a window that closes before your second year is completed, you usually pay a penalty. The information about Page not being able to be an officer is crucial, and it’s good to put it up at the top. But I like how the reporter simply mentioned it, described the role it played according to the student, and didn’t try to say that this aspect of the story invalidates the claim.

The article gives us specifics about Page’s complaints — jokes about nonreligious cadets being called heathens at basic training, an officer telling him he needed to fill the hole in his heart. He criticizes the leadership of West Point, calling them “criminals” for allowing these things to happen.

We also hear from folks at West Point who dispute the allegations, including citing the academy’s Secular Student Alliance, where Page was president. The article goes ahead and speaks with members of that club to see what they have to say:

Maj. Nicholas Utzig, the faculty adviser to the secular club, said he doesn’t doubt some of the moments Page described, but he doesn’t believe there is systematic discrimination against nonreligious cadets.

“I think it represents his own personal experience and perhaps it might not be as universal as he suggests,” said Utzig, who teaches English literature.

One of Page’s secularist classmates went further, calling his characterization of West Point unfair.

“I think it’s true that the majority of West Point cadets are of a very conservative, Christian orientation,” said senior cadet Andrew Houchin. “I don’t think that’s unique to West Point. But more broadly, I’ve never had that even be a problem with those of us who are secular.”

The article goes on to discuss the problems the Air Force Academy has had with church and state issues, pointing out that a retired four-star general was asked to conduct an independent review of the religious climate there. The article also discusses the rise in acceptance of atheists, agnostics and humanists in the military.

It’s then that we learn that Page is involved with the Military Religious Freedom Foundation, led by Mikey Weinstein. Weinstein is then quoted about “fanatical religiosity” in the military, comparing Page’s courage to that of Rosa Parks. It’s great to quote Weinstein, but I liked that his quotes came toward the end of the story. Frequently the stories we see about this issue are dominated by Weinstein, who is a significant actor in the movement.

The story wraps up with final details about Page’s honorary discharge, including that he will pay no penalty in terms of military commitment or reimbursement for his education costs. We also learn that Page says his depression worsened after his father’s suicide last year. The story ends with Page’s quote that he hopes to spend the rest of his life as an activist on the role of religion in the military.

Very well done. It handles a number of delicate issues with care for all involved and you can come away from the complicated story with an understanding of a multitude of different perspectives. Perhaps, you could argue, there should be more perspective from the folks who are accused of unconstitutional behavior. And that’s a fair point. But given the space constraints, I rather liked how much was fleshed out by focusing in on the secularist community.

Image of West Point cadets via Spirit of America/Shutterstock.