Just about a year ago, one of our more news-savvy members of Congress showed off his discerning assessment of news sources by posting a very important article on his Facebook page. The article, revealing the shocking news that Planned Parenthood had opened an "$8 Billion Abortionplex," was from one of the nation's most highly respected and reliable news source -- The Onion! The congressman was Rep. John Fleming (R-LA).
Well, it seems that Congressman Fleming's ability to separate fact from fiction hasn't improved much in the past year. The stories he's now believing might not come from The Onion, a site that anybody with half a brain would immediately recognize to be satire, but the headlines are just as far-fetched and the stories just as fictitious.
Here's what Fleming had to say last week in Congress:
Transcript of above video:
Mr. Speaker, I want to be certain that the administration and Pentagon leadership do not deny our men and women in uniform one of the very freedoms they are fighting to protect. On Monday I led on a letter sent to Defense Secretary Hagel demanding details about a meeting between Pentagon officials and ant-Christian extremist Mikey Weinstein. Weinstein has spent nine years at war -- those are his words -- at war with evangelical Christians who he says are committing "spiritual rape" against the U.S. military. Christians who are merely exercising their First Amendment right or primary duties in the case of chaplains. Mr. Weinstein exploits freedom of speech to name call and to label Christians as the "Christian taliban" and "al Qaeda," but he seeks to shut down the religious freedom of expression of service members in the process. I have trouble with several anti-Christian steps the Pentagon has taken in recent years. That is why my colleagues and I seek answers from Secretary Hagel on this important question now.
I know it's becoming increasingly hard to tell if a headline is from a less than reliable alarmist news site or a satire site like The Onion, but you'd think a member of Congress who has already embarrassed themselves once by falling for a fictitious story would at least check to see whether or not another seemingly unbelievable story is true before repeating it -- and especially before repeating it on the floor of the House of Representatives. But not Congressman Fleming! He's apparently fallen hook. line, and sinker for the rapidly spreading, but completely untrue, story that the Department of Defense has decided to start court-martialing Christians to rid them from the military.
Where did such a ridiculous story come from? Breitbart.com, aided by FOX News and a whole bunch of fundamentalist Christian websites and organizations, particularly the Family Research Council.
Almost immediately after it was reported by the Washington Post that Mikey Weinstein, the president of the Military Religious Freedom Foundation (MRFF), along with MRFF board member former ambassador Joe Wilson and MRFF advisory board member Col. Larry Wilkerson, Colin Powell's former chief of staff, breitbart.com went into action. The meeting took place on April 23 and was reported on by the Washington Post on April 26. On April 28, breitbart.com came out with the headline: "Pentagon Taps Anti-Christian Extremist for Religious Tolerance Policy."
Other articles quickly followed:
And those are just the ones from breitbart.com!
FOX News also joined in, of course, as did other right-wing media outlets.
WorldNetDaily, in one of its articles, quoted Kelly Shakelford of the The Liberty Institute, which has launched an "Armed Forces Religious Liberty hotline," saying: "They are about to implement a new policy under which any members of the military 'caught' talking about their Christian faith will be subject to court martial or imprisonment!"
To list all of the articles that have come out spreading this ridiculous claim, not to mention the petitions that have been launched to fight this fictitious threat of Christian persecution, would turn this into a 20,000 word post. (Just do a search of Google news on "Christians" + "court-martial" to get an idea how far the lies have spread, as well as what the DoD and others are doing to try to combat these lies.)
In an unexpected twist, Glenn Beck's The Blaze, after interviewing Mikey Weinstein, actually put out an article debunking some of the claims coming from other right-wing sources. C'mon, if even Glenn Beck isn't buying a conspiracy theory, it must be a pretty over-the-top conspiracy theory, right? And yet millions of people are actually believing it, including Congressman John Fleming and fifty-eight other members of Congress who signed onto Fleming's letter to Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel demanding answers about this "scandal."
But what I want to focus on here is breitbart.com, not only because that was the website responsible for launching the manufactured scandal, but because of the obvious connection between breitbart.com and the Family Research Council (FRC), an organization whose executive vice president is none other than Jerry "my god is bigger than your god" Boykin. For those who don't remember, Boykin's "holy war" and other Islamophobic comments, made in uniform when he was an Army general, were even denounced by the Bush administration.
The author of all the breitbart.com articles listed above is Ken Klukowski. And who is Ken Klukowski? Well, he just happens to be the director of the FRC's Center for Religious Liberty. So, what we have here is not news reporting, but a representative of Jerry Boykin's organization using a pseudo-news site to push a conspiracy theory to further his organization's agenda.
Then, on May 14, Congressman Fleming went on the FRC's "Washington Watch" radio show, and was asked by FRC head Tony Perkins why he wrote the letter to Hagel demanding information about Mikey Weinstein's meeting with Pentagon officials. Fleming's answer? He said they "got a report" saying that "Christians could be brought up on charges for evangelizing" and that this even "included chaplains." They "got a report?" And who was reporting this? Why, the FRC's own Ken Klukowski on breitbart.com, of course!
By the time Fleming went on the FRC's radio show, the lies started by Ken Klukowski and picked up by FOX News and others had been debunked by a number of other sources, including the Department of Defense itself, which had put out several statements saying that what breitbart.com had reported was not true.
The U.S. military has no plans to start court-martialing Christians just for being Christians or simply talking about their religion.
Is Mikey Weinstein really an anti-Christian extremist?
Over the past few weeks, MRFF's Mikey Weinstein has been called a lot of names, ironically by people who like to criticize him for name calling. Weinstein has been called an "anti-Christian extremist," an "anti-Christian crusader," a "militant atheist," and many other similar names. Congressman Fleming, during his appearance on the FRC's radio show, claimed that Weinstein "hates people who believe particularly in Christianity but also in other faiths." Tony Perkins, on the same show, called MRFF "one of the most anti-Christian organizations I've seen." FRC vice president Jerry Boykin has been an enemy of Weinstein for years, publicly calling him names like "demon," and in the recent brouhaha claiming that "anti-Christian and left-wing activists met at the Pentagon with military leaders."
So, is it true? Are Weinstein and MRFF anti-Christian? Absolutely not! Is MRFF a left wing-organization? Again, absolutely not!
Not only are 96% of MRFF's clients are Christians, but MRFF's staff and volunteers are probably the most diverse group out there -- both religiously and politically. Mikey himself is a Republican who, after graduating from the Air Force Academy and serving as a JAG officer, served as a White House counsel in the Reagan administration. MRFF's Advisory Board includes members of all religions, including several Christian ministers who served as military chaplains.
But to those who take the word of the FRC and breitbart.com as gospel without bothering to check the facts, Weinstein is the "spawn of Satan" (another name he's been called), a man out to rid the U.S. military of all vestiges of religion -- with the help of the Obama administration, of course.
What's really behind the attacks?
Why has a single meeting between Weinstein and Pentagon official sparked such outrage and become a viral story in right-wing circles? Well, it seems to be as much an attack on the Obama administration as it is on Weinstein and MRFF. It is not Weinstein alone who, according to the FRC, breitbart.com, et. al., is trying to cleanse the military of Christians -- it is all part of a diabolic plot being carried out by the Obama administration!
Weinstein has also been labeled "intolerant" and a "bigot," ironically by the likes of the FRC's Jerry Boykin, a man who claims that Islam -- not radical Muslim extremists, but the religion of Islam itself -- "should not be protected under the First Amendment."
Congressman John Fleming has displayed his brand of religious "tolerance" by doing things like barring Muslims from the Subway restaurant that he owns in Louisiana.
Yes, these are the people who are calling Mikey Weinstein a "bigot" and claiming that it is he who is "intolerant."
While the FRC has been the most visible of the fundamentalist Christian organizations pushing this manufactured scandal, a number of other organizations, including the American Family Association and Wallbuilders, the organization of infamous pseudo-historian David Barton, have also been playing a big role.
Barton's organization, for example, put out an article on his website in February 2012 titled "America's Most Biblically-Hostile U.S. President," which is periodically updated with what Barton claims are examples of Obama's "hostility toward Biblical people of faith" and "preferential treatment of Muslims." The examples in Barton's article, which includes a section titled "Acts of hostility from the Obama-led military toward people of Biblical faith," has been repeatedly quoted and cited as evidence by other organizations and right-wing news outlets who seek to manufacture yet another Obama "scandal." (A Google search on the title of Barton's article currently returns 121,000 hits.)
The repeal of Don't Ask Don't Tell is also fueling the fire. Part of the fear-mongering consists of spreading lies that under the "Biblically-Hostile" Obama, not only will the rights of all Christians in the military to practice their religion be taken away, but military chaplains will be forced to perform same-sex wedding ceremonies against their will. The incessant claim from certain members of Congress that legislation is immediately necessary to "protect" military chaplains is ridiculous. No such legislation is necessary. Under already existing regulations, no military chaplain ever has, or ever will be, forced to do anything that goes against their beliefs.
What is Mikey Weinstein really talking about?
Much has been made of Mikey Weinstein's colorful language and use of metaphors, particularly his calling a particular type of Christians "monsters," and describing some of the actions of this particular type of Christians as "spiritual rape." These words, very clearly used by Weinstein to describe only a minority of Christians, usually referred to as "dominionists," have been repeatedly taken out of context to claim that Weinstein has called all Christians "monsters," and said that any sharing of their faith by any member of the military in any way is "rape."
In no way has Weinstein ever said these things about all Christians. He has always made it very clear that he is talking only about those who do things that any decent person would consider "monstrous."
When an Army chaplain serving a special forces unit comes right out and says that he waits until the soldiers are broken down by training and have gone without food or sleep for three days to take advantage of their vulnerability to evangelize them, that chaplain's behavior is nothing short of monstrous. (Need proof? See the video of this chaplain in action and a whole bunch of other equally egregious examples here.)
When a rape victim goes to an Army chaplain for assistance and is told that the rape was God's will and that God was trying to get her attention so that she would go back to church, that chaplain's behavior is monstrous.
When a military youth ministry is allowed to stalk "unchurched" military children by following their school buses, the behavior of that ministry, and whatever chaplains or commanders are allowing this to go on, is monstrous.
Weinstein is in no way calling a soldier who invites their peers to a Bible study, for example, a "monster" or a "spiritual rapist." This label only applies only to those who grossly abuse their position or rank to do monstrous things, as in the examples above.
Let the fundraising begin
As with any good manufactured threat, the "scandal" of the dangerous Mikey Weinstein meeting with Pentagon officials has launched a number of petitions and fundraising campaigns. By May 2, a petition from the FRC, launched on April 29 and promoted by breitbart.com, had over 110,000 signatures. (it's now up to over 167,000.)
The FRC has also created what it calls the "American Hero Defense Fund" to raise money to fight their manufactured threat of Christian service members being court-martialed simply for being Christians.
The May 2 press release put out by the FRC to garner even more signatures on its petition contains a list of unbelievable examples of Christian persecution by the military, using many of the same examples found in David Barton's "America's Most Biblically-Hostile U.S. President" list. On May 15, the FRC's Tony Perkins sent out a mass email with the subject line "We must stop the persecution of Christians in military," which repeated the examples in the press release and added some more.
The examples listed by the FRC and Barton are, not surprisingly, a bunch of wild exaggerations, and outright lies, carefully worded to scare the bejeezus out of their already frightened and outraged audiences.
The FRC claims, for example, that the "Air Force suspended a 20-year-old class on 'Just War Theory' because it included scriptural references." Barton's version of this one is: "The Air Force stops teaching the Just War theory to officers in California because the course is taught by chaplains and is based on a philosophy introduced by St. Augustine in the third century AD -- a theory long taught by civilized nations across the world (except now, America)."
Did the Air Force really stop teaching Just War Theory merely because it came from St. Augustine or because the presentation being used contained a few scripture references? Of course not!
What really happened was that a group of Air Force officers, most of whom were Christians, came to MRFF for help in removing a mandatory part of nuclear missile officer training that the officers (not MRFF) had nicknamed the "Jesus Loves Nukes" speech. This presentation didn't merely include a few scriptural references, as the FRC claims; it included slide after slide of Bible verses, ending with "Jesus Christ is the mighty warrior." The presentation also quite offensively quoted former Nazi and SS officer Wernher von Braun as a moral authority. (More details can be found here.)
Another example used by Barton and the FRC is the "Jesus rifles." Again, it was not MRFF who came up with this name, but what the soldiers who came to MRFF said they were commonly called. The rifles, which were being used both by our own troops and the Afghan and Iraqi forces they were training, were nicknamed "Jesus rifles" because of the Bible verse references stamped on their sights, called ACOGs, made by Christian weapons manufacturer Trijicon.
This is how Barton described list of "Acts of hostility from the Obama-led military toward people of Biblical faith," this was the issue with these rifles: "Because of 'concerns' raised by the Department of Defense, tiny Bible verse references that had appeared for decades on scopes and gunsights were removed." The FRC's list similarly says: "Department of Defense orders removal of tiny Bible references on military scopes and gunsights."
Now, compare Barton's and the FRC's description of the military getting rid of these "tiny Bible verse references" to what MRFF was hearing from soldiers who were actually having to use the "Jesus rifles." Here's an excerpt from one of the emails MRFF received about them:
Nothing in my first 2 deployments prepared me for what happened with the Trijicon ACOG gun sights during my 3rd deployment to Afghanistan. I will never forget the day it occurred. It was morning and there was a mandatory formation of several companies. A very senior NCO was yelling at us which is not that unusual. He asked a private what it was that he (the private) was holding in his hand and the private said it was his "weapon" several times to which the senior NCO replied "and what ELSE is it"? FInally, the senior NCO said that the private's rifle was also something else; that because of the biblical quote on the ACOG gunsight it had been "spiritually transformed into the Fire Arm of Jesus Christ" and that we would be expected to kill every "haji" we could find with it. He said that if we were to run out of ammo, then the rifle would become the "spiritually transformed club of Jesus Christ" and that we should "bust open the head of every haji we find with it." He said that Uncle Sam had seen fit not to give us a "pussy 'Jewzzi' (combination of the word 'Jew' and Israeli made weapon 'Uzi') but the "fire arm of Jesus Christ" and made specific mention of the biblical quotes on our gun sights. He said that the enemy no doubt had quotes from the Koran on their guns but that "our Lord is bigger than theirs because theirs is a fraud and an idol". As a Muslim and an American soldier I was fit to be tied but I kept it in. There were many Afghans, both civilian and military, on base within earshot of what was being yelled at us and I can only wonder in shock what they must have thought. This senior NCO was apparently also the head person of a conservative, crazy Christian group called the "Christian Military Fellowship" and made a big deal about the importance of joining to everyone. He told us all that we MUST read a book called "Under Orders" in order to make it through this combat deployment and said he had many copies for everyone. Some of my friends went and got their copies. I refused. Finally, this senior NCO ended his yelling by warning us that if we did not "get right with Jesus" then our rifles would not provide spiritual strength despite the bible quotes on our ACOG gunsights and that we would be considered "spiritual cripples" to our fellow units and soldiers. (The soldier's entire email and more details can be found here.)
In addition to emails like the one above, Mikey Weinstein had also received a call in the middle of the night from a very rattled soldier who had just had the business end of one of these rifles stuck up his nose by an Afghan man because of that "tiny Bible verse reference" on it. This wasn't merely a constitutional issue; these rifle sights were putting our troops in danger!
Barton's and the FRC's so-called infringements on the rights of the poor, persecuted Christians also include some outright lies, such as the one about cadets at the Air Force Academy being stopped from participating in the Operation Christmas Child program. According to the FRC,"The Air Force Academy rescinds support for Operation Christmas Child, a program to send holiday gifts to impoverished children across the world, because the program is run by a Christian charity." Barton's list uses the exact same wording as the May 15 email sent out by the FRC.
Did this really happen? Were Air Force Academy cadets really prohibited from participating in Operation Christmas Child? Well, no. The program was merely put under the auspices of the chaplain's office rather than the command structure, in accordance with a memorandum on religious neutrality that had been issued by the Air Force's chief of staff. The cadets could, and did, continue to participate in Operation Christmas Child.
On Barton's list, this lie about Operation Christmas Child is followed by another outright lie: "Even while restricting and disapprobating Christian religious expressions, the Air Force Academy pays $80,000 to add a Stonehenge-like worship center for pagans, druids, witches and Wiccans at the Air Force Academy." The version of this one in the FRC's email is: "The Air Force Academy pays $80,000 for a Stonehenge-type worship center for pagans, druids, and witches."
Besides showing just how "tolerant" Barton and the FRC are of religions other than their own, the claim that $80,000 was spent on this worship area is completely untrue. Seriously, have any of these people believing this talking point actually stopped to wonder how putting a circle of rocks on a hilltop could possibly cost $80,000? Of course not. They just keep repeating this so-called "fact" to shock their audiences. The truth is that this money was already being spent on a project that had nothing to do with the worship area.
The boulders that now form the outdoor worship area were moved from the hillside to the hilltop as part of an erosion control project that was already underway. Erosion had made these boulders a safety hazard, in danger of falling down the hillside and crashing into the Academy's Visitors Center and Cadet Chapel, so they were moved from the hillside to the top of the hill. When the 10th Civil Engineer Squadron moved the rocks to the top of the hill in spring and early summer of 2009, they arranged them in a circle.
Months later, when the pagan lay leader at the Academy was looking for a suitable site for a worship area, he realized that there already was one -- the circle of boulders that had been moved to the top of the hill during the erosion control project. All that needed to be added to the already existing site to turn it into a worship area was some flagstone to make a floor and a small altar in the center of the circle. So, no, the Academy's outdoor worship area didn't cost anything even close to $80,000. The only other significant expense has been the installation of security cameras, made necessary when some nice Christians decided to send a message by placing a large wooden cross at the site.
These are just a few of the lies currently being spread by the FRC and David Barton, aided by their friends in Congress and the right-wing media, to demonize MRFF, Mikey Weinstein (and, of course, our secret Muslim president Barack Obama), and because of these lies, millions of Americans now actually believe what really does sound like an Onion headline -- that the Pentagon is planning to cleanse the military of Christians!