“Freedom” Group Seeks Ban on Religious Exercise in the US Military

Despite running a self-founded “religious freedom” organization, Michael Weinstein is apparently calling for the US military to restrict religious free exercise within its ranks.  His reason?  The Constitutionally-protected liberty offends al Qaeda.

Unlike most mainstream organizations, Weinstein’s Military Religious Freedom Foundation still revels in publicizing his organization’s communications, wearing both the hate mail and the kudos as badges of honor.  (They even republish comments from their website, because apparently being posted once isn’t good enough…)  Recently, MRFF board member Richard Baker responded to a contact with a lengthy message in which he included many standard MRFF talking points, like this one:

At MRFF we are engaged in promoting freedom of religion in the armed forces wherein that freedom guarantees religious choice.

Ironically, the MRFF publicized this message from Baker nearly simultaneously with Weinstein’s public derision of a group of combat-bound American Marines exercising that very freedom of religion.  Just a few days earlier, the Los Angeles Times had published a brief article on the beachside baptism of a group of Marines from Camp Pendleton.  The LA Times blog is so short it is even difficult to excerpt:

A group of Marines headed for Afghanistan underwent baptism in the ocean off Camp Pendleton, an area normally used for amphibious assault training…The baptisms, done Sunday morning by the battalion chaplain, are part of Operation Sword of the Spirit, a program meant to prepare the battalion for duty in the Taliban stronghold of Helmand province.

The baptism service was attended by Lt. Col. Lawrence Kaifesh, the battalion commander, who called each of the 29 Marines forward for the symbolic immersion at Gold Beach.

“The spiritual and religious foundation that we’re able to develop here allows us to perform our job the way we need to in a very challenging environment,” Kaifesh said…

“I believe and trust that God will take me and my fellow Marines back home safely,” Lance Cpl. Yeke Sumo said in a statement released by the Marine Corps.

The article is a simple statement on a religious service conducted by a military Chaplain for a group of Marines in a previously hard-hit combat battalion, and it was posted without editorial comment.  The article was subsequently reprinted on a reputed terrorist website under the title “Crusaders Baptized Before Leaving For Afghanistan,” and that apparently made Michael Weinstein happy to provide comment:

Surely the Taliban and Al Qaeda will be sending bountiful fruit baskets to Lt. Col. Kaifesh, and his entire culpable USMC/DoD chain of command, for so magnificently advancing the cause of their “U.S. as Crusaders” propaganda machine.

What, precisely, does the MRFF say the Marines did wrong?  For what is the DoD chain of command “culpable?”  Are Marines not allowed to be baptized?  Are they not permitted to participate in religious ceremonies consistent with their faith?

Apparently not.

The reason Weinstein gives for the Marines being “culpable” is that their actions could be used as propaganda.  In typical fashion, he is claiming “the Taliban and Al Qaeda” — not the Constitution — should be the arbiters of what US military members are and are not allowed to do with regard to their faith (at least, if they’re Christian).

A few days later, Weinstein solicited a comment from “an extremely devout (evangelical) Christian” serving in Afghanistan (though Weinstein normally says he is “at war” with “extreme” religionists).  The soldier’s response indicates how hypnotized some are by Weinstein’s invective (capitalization original):

IN THIS COUNTRY, LOCAL NATIONALS WILL BELIEVE ANYTHING [the Taliban] SAY…Making public spectacles of their faith and drawing ties between state/military and their church, the Taliban jumps on it…What this Marine officer has done is basically LEGTIMIZED [sic] WHAT THE TALIBAN HAS BEEN CLAIMING….

I asked [an Afghan soldier] what he thought of Jews and Christians. His response: “HA! I don’t care what religion you are. I came here to kill Taliban and protect my people. I believe you came to do the same. We are both soldiers!” Mikey, Can you explain to me how an ANA non-commissioned officer and a Muslim understands this better than a U.S. Marine Corp [sic] O-5?

Now, think about that.  If local nationals believe anything the Taliban says, how come the local national he quotes doesn’t?  Despite the contradiction, if they believe whatever the Taliban says, what difference does it make what actually happened?  The Marines could have been collecting seashells and the Taliban could have said the same thing.  And what part of a baptism, or any other religious ceremony, legitimizes anything a terrorist says?

Finally, a question for both the MRFF supporter and Weinstein: where in the US Constitution does it say the government can’t interfere with free exercise, unless you’re making a “public spectacle?”

Weinstein’s pseudo-spokesman Bruce Wilson was more specific in the article:

Lt. Col Kaifesh’s prominent presence and high-profile participation at the mass baptism seems to indicate endorsement not just of Christianity but also of claims that Christian indoctrination, and building something called “spiritual fitness,” are valid and even indispensable to training American troops for combat.

So the problem is a military officer’s “prominent presence and high-profile participation,” according to Wilson.  “Prominent” and “high-profile” are Wilson’s own machinations, so the less florid accusation is an officer’s “presence and participation” in a religious event is somehow illegal.

And revealed therein is the goal of Michael Weinstein, because there is only one “solution” to Wilson’s allegation of misconduct, consistent with the anonymous but “extremely devout (evangelical)” MRFF supporter:  Prohibit military members from being present at, or participating in, religious ceremonies.  No endorsement.  No enemy propaganda.  Problem solved.

Naturally, Weinstein would make the same demand of all religions, right?

Actually, no.

He has yet to complain about US military associations with publicized Jewish, Wiccan, Islamic, or Buddhist ceremonies (or “spectacles”).  This is despite the fact uniformed and in some cases armed senior ranking military officers participated in these sectarian ceremonies (the MRFF previously highlighted Christians holding their weapons during religious events).

This is also despite the fact these other ‘non-Christian’ sectarian ceremonies occurred not on a California beach, but in Iraq and Afghanistan.  (“Mass baptisms” have even been conducted in Iraq, and the Washington Post even videotaped a Marine baptized in a ditch in the Helmand province of Afghanistan.)  There are even photographs to prove these other events (some here), while the LA Times blog contained only a picture of men standing in the surf in civilian attire.

Apparently, Weinstein takes his cue from al Qaeda and needs a press release saying “US Zionists take over Baghdad,” or “Idolaters meditate in Kabul” before he’ll make a statement – if he even does at all.  Remember, al Qaeda and the Taliban have destroyed ancient Buddhist statues without regard to global outcry, and they have decried Judaism (in re: Israel and American support for it) far more than they have American Christians.  Surely, by Weinstein’s standard of “offense,” if something was going to “magnificently” advance enemy propaganda it would be events like those.  In fact, anything not consistent with extremist ideology contributes to their “propaganda,” not just Christianity — and no one with a shred of foreign policy credibility (or human decency) would suggest America surrender to the Taliban so as not to upset them…except perhaps Weinstein.

One wonders what Weinstein will say if the Taliban starts “propagandizing” off the discussion to allow homosexuals to openly serve.  After all, while Christians are tolerated even in the version of Islam practiced by the Taliban, homosexuality is not.  Will the need to prevent propaganda cause him to reverse his opposition to DADT?

This standard of “the offense of others” was dismissed as unfathomably irrational long ago in Christian Fighter Pilot is not an Oxymoron:

How protected [from exposure to an officer’s religion] did I need to be?  If I saw my Jewish commander walk out of a Sabbath service, I could be just as uncomfortable as if he’d announced it from his position of authority.  Does that mean my commander should not be allowed to attend religious services to protect me from discomfort?  Even if he was prevented from attending religious services, I could still find out that he had a religious belief by a variety of other means.  To foster a religiously tolerant atmosphere, should my commander be required to have no religious beliefs?  If so, wouldn’t military policy then favor those with no religion over those [with]?

Those who wish to address the offense of others by restricting human rights begin a slide down a slippery slope.

In short, when speaking of human liberties and natural rights, another person’s offense is insufficient cause to restrict an individual’s freedom.  Freedom is by its very nature offensive, but the heart of America, encapsulated in the Constitution, would not only allow it but also defend it.  In addition, religious freedom in the US military is sacred even in war, and the Constitutional protection of that liberty dictates that military members be allowed their free exercise as the mission allows.

Instead of adhering to the Constitution, however, Michael Weinstein would hire al Qaeda as consultants on what constitutes freedom, and he would sacrifice – not defend – US troops’ religious freedom to placate their sworn enemy.  Michael Weinstein would undermine the goals and morale of US troops to surrender their freedoms.

Weinstein’s ultimate goal is both asinine and unConstitutional.  There is nothing wrong, illegal, or even questionable about military members participating in religious ceremonies, even if their military affiliation is known, and even if that information is published — no matter what their faith.  Their free exercise should be lauded and defended as an example to follow, not surrendered.  Weinstein should be encouraging the propagation of religious freedom, not the restriction of it.  Then again, some have long maintained religious freedom was never his goal to begin with.

Military chapels and even many civilian churches, synagogues, and mosques are staffed by military members who act as deacons, lay leaders, teachers, and even preachers — and, of course, many military members attend as congregants.  To even imply they should be banned from public worship due to potential foreign perceptions is the height of obtuse presumption and Constitutional ignorance.  It is contradictory – and pathetic – that a man who claims to “defend” the Constitution should criticize the open practice of religion, criticism made more egregious because his targets are US citizens in the United States.

In this article Weinstein continues his “willing self-contradiction” with his organization’s stated goals of “promoting freedom of religion.”  In short, his claim to the “defender of religious freedom” phrase is a sham.  It semantically cloaks him in a Constitutional mantle while his actions and statements to date, including his vitriolic criticism of the baptism of US Marines, demonstrates the farcical nature of that claim.  Still, it enables him to raise money as a “charity;” after all, many might donate to someone who “defends religious freedom.”  Few would likely do so to “stop the baptism of US Marines in California” – yet that is exactly what he wants to do.