The state of siege the country has been in since Donald Trump took office is nothing new to the Military Religious Freedom Foundation, which has been on the receiving end of almost constant venomous attacks since its founding in 2005—in the press, in public attacks and private conversations, and in an unending flood of [mostly] electronic hatemail, much of it directed personally at MRFF’s leader Mikey Weinstein, an Air Force Academy graduate, whose fight to defend religious freedom in the military is not only rooted in his own experience, but in his family history of military service as well.
You don’t get into battles like this one—and certainly don’t last—without creativity and humor to keep you going, and thus we have the second book of hatemail, criticism and threats they’ve been subject to, along with responses: When Christians Break Bad: Letters from the Insane, Inane and Profane, edited by MRFF co-founder Bonnie Weinstein, Mikey’s wife.
“We respond to every single email, nice or nasty,” she explains in the book’s introduction, which, along with her chapter introductions, provides much-needed context to help make sense of the biblical flood of nonsense the letters contain. She also provides sparing back-up comments along with the full-length responses from MRFF staff, volunteers and board members, whose collective capacity to cope is an inspiration for all in dark times.
While religious minorities—Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, atheists and agnostics, etc.—are most intensely discriminated against in the military, the vast majority of MRFF’s clients have consistently been Christians who understand our constitutional system, and, more fundamentally, the underlying ethos of respecting individual conscience. At bottom, MRFF’s struggle is a simple one: defending individual religious freedom against the power of institutional coercion. If the military’s own regulations were self-enforcing, or if its oversight systems worked as intended, MRFF would have never been needed. But because of those failures, thousands of servicemembers every year find themselves with nowhere else to turn.
“Your organization stinks” reads the subject line of the first letter in the book. Tellingly, there is no text.
“Unfortunately, I am at a loss as to how to respond to such a juvenile taunt as ‘’Your organization stinks,’” MRFF Legal Affairs Coordinator Tobanna Barker responded. “After all, despite the long hours necessary to fight for the religious freedom of all our brave men and women in uniform, all of us at MRFF still shower regularly and are generally minty fresh.”
The juvenile taunt is a soft opening: much of what follows is similarly developmentally stunted, but a good deal more hostile and vile. The second chapter focuses on the anti-Semitism which fuels a good deal of the hostility directed at MRFF, but anti-Semitic fragments of half-formed thoughts can be found freely scattered elsewhere throughout the book as well. Dominisist-inspired Christian nationalist hatred of all sorts can be found in these letters, along with predictable thematic myths and lies, and unpredictable bolts from the blue.
”You're just flat wrong about so many things it's hard to know where to start,” MRFF Advisory Board member Mike Farrell (yes, that Mike Farrell, from M*A*S*H) responds to one letter-writer. But it could well be a keystroke macro—so many letters are simply super-saturated in errors, some more sinister than others.
The chapter “Burn, Burn and More Burning,” where sadistic fantasies run wild has some letters that begin with concentrated drunken concatenations, such as the following:
You, Michael Weinstein are a Jesus hating faggot who is communist and a atheist and a husein obama kissing leftist jew bastard islam loving kike feminist lawyer.
It then settles down into what passes for a more “normal” vein:
You will burn for eternity in hell for your many crimes against Jesus Christ and our national armed forces.
But another that begins somewhat similarly:
"Hey Kikey jew Mikey. Yo! You are a dirty filthy faggot leftist atheist communist lying clever Christ-killing raghead-loving socialist tool of-Satan lying scumbag.”
quickly plunges into ancient blood libel territory:
“Drained the blood out of any Christian children lately for your matzoh snacks?”
Mischaracterizing MRFF as “atheist” is another common theme.
“Many people rail [at] MRFF as an atheist organization and nothing could be farther from the truth,” MRFF Special Projects Manager Paul Loeb wrote in response to a typically misguided, but atypically civil correspondent. “96% of our over 39,000 clients are practicing Christians who come to us for help because they are afraid their careers we put in jeopardy should they seek help through official channels,” Loeb explained. “The vast majority of the time our clients are being religiously discriminated against by extremist Christians for not being the ‘right kind of Christian.’ This is something we do not tolerate, the Constitution does not tolerate and that commanders should not tolerate but often do because it is the status quo.”
But there are atheists in MRFF, just like in the military itself—even in proverbial foxholes, or….
“I would like you all at the MRFF to know you will never find an atheist in a fire fight,” one supremely self-confident writer opined. “Men who have never called on the name of the Lord will do so in a hurry and be saved in an instant.”
Naturally, he was answered by an atheist veteran.
“Nearly the entire staff of MRFF is former service members, including many war veterans,” MRFF Atheist’s Affairs Advisor Dustin Chalker replied. “I was an Army combat medic and Iraq veteran with a Purple Heart for injuries sustained in combat and the Combat Medical Badge for providing care under fire. And I'm an atheist, just like ~ 20% of the unit that I fought with, and the numbers are similar throughout the rest of the Armed Forces,” Chalker explained. “Now that you’’ve been corrected, I would appreciate it if you NEVER lie and insult the character, virtue, and service of atheists in US Armed Forces EVER again.”
In response to another letter, Chalker cut to the quick. “You wrote: ‘I can't think of any overt act of violence perpetrated in the name of Christ". You could've stopped with that sentence at ‘I can't think’ and we would've gotten the point,” Chalker noted.
There is, in fact, a great deal to think about here. How angry people are about things they completely misunderstand. How many different forms their misguided anger takes. How bad their spelling and grammar tend to be. How they manage to tie their own shoes.
Naturally, the book also sheds light on the kinds of controversies that MRFF deals with—ones that are generally not well-explained in the press. For example, efforts to insert the bible into POW/MIA Missing Man displays, like the one in Sioux Falls I wrote about here in March. Another whole genre of controversies involve activities that would be perfectly acceptable if carried out through the military’s chaplaincy service, targeting those who’ve expressed their willingness to be involved, but that instead are used to coerce in the name of religion.
Bonnie provides the text of an article from Military.com to set the framework for correspondence about one such example, called “Operation Christmas Child.” As the article itself explains:
“There's no problem with this [campaign] if it's done to the chaplain's office,” Weinstein said.
But MRFF’s critics predictably misunderstood. “How incredibly sad that you went after a guy trying to help orphans have a nice Christmas,” one remarkably restrained critic wrote. To which Mikey himself replied:
“I think you have us all wrong… We did not stop that program at all, good ma’am..… We simply required that the program be administered by the military chaplains and not the commanders.”
Another critic was not so restrained:
“You people have a lot of balls trying to shut down a Christian toy drop for children….”
To which Mike Challman, a self-identified Christian MRFF supporter, responded, first by similarly correcting the misperception, then by adding more context, going on to say:
Make no mistake, Operation Christmas Child exists for the primary purpose of Christian evangelization, it's not a nonsectarian effort.
There are many such illuminating examples throughout the book. I’ve barely scratched the surface here. But one thing should be clear: MRFF’s staff, volunteers and supporters provide an inspiring example for all us in how to survive Trump’s America. They’ve been doing it since 2005, in the frontline foxholes, as it were, showing grace—and good humor—under pressure. Which makes this a particularly inspiring book about religion in a very dark time.