For 15 years, the Military Religious Freedom Foundation has been defending the men and women who defend America when their First Amendment religious freedom comes under attack from fundamentalist religious zealots. The close-knit tribal, hierarchical culture of the military makes it virtually impossible for individual servicemembers to stand up for themselves, which is what makes MRFF an invaluable life-saver in countless incidents—hundreds every month that never see the light of day—as well as a handful every year that do gain attention, but are rarely well understood by those outside of the military.
But that's about to change. On March 18, MRFF Founder and President Mikey Weinstein announced a deal with screenwriter and producer Jesse Maiman to tell MRFF's story in a feature film or tv series.
"I am just thrilled to be able to announce this," Weinstein said in a press release. "Jesse is a genuinely gifted young screenwriting talent. He has been able to grasp and capture the raw essence and myriad complexities of the often brutal MRFF civil rights advocacy mission as no one else in Hollywood has ever done before."
"Mikey’s tireless advocacy on behalf of service-members and their families is not only an inspiration, but also a wake up call," Maiman said. "It demands we ask the question, ‘Do we know what’s happening in our military?’ His stranger- than-fiction battles with politicians, pundits, power brokers, and zealots provide an entertaining tapestry for examining that core question."
Religious coercion is a serious problem—and not just for religious minorities. Indeed, 95% of MRFF’s clients over the years have been Christians. MRFF’s struggle is not—as the religious right would have it—a battle of unbelievers against Christians. It’s a battle of all sorts of believers—and non-believers—in defense of religious freedom for all, and against coercion for anyone. It’s a struggle going on all across America, but with particular intensity inside the military, where dissent is especially difficult.
Now, that struggle will be seen as never before. “When you have a movie that comes out, it can be an extraordinary transformative transcendent experience,” Weinstein said.
Maiman isn’t new to the subject of how religious manipulation hurts people. He wrote screenplay adaption of Being Christian a novel about a modern-day Elmer Gantry-type figure, whose author played a key role in paving the way for this new project. “She had introduced me to Mikey's work,” Maiman told Crooks and Liars, “But one day she mentioned that he had always wanted a movie to be done on the topic, and I told her to absolutely put us in touch.”
The key in that conversation was “realizing that he really wanted to take a wider angle lens… that this is systemic and not just interpersonal,” Maiman said. Once he realized that Weinstein wasn’t just looking for “a keyhole story about a single cadet or recruit,” that’s when he started seeing the potential of something like Dr. Strangelove or Thank You For Smoking “that really takes on an issue from every angle. That's what really got me excited,” he said.
“Every angle” means different perspectives, different specific battles, and different tones, as well. While the subject is deadly serious, absurdist humor—he also cites Catch-22 as well—clearly will play a role. “These are movies that deal with the absurdity of the discourse, they deal with the absurdity of our time, in a way that has humor to it, and I absolutely want to do that,” Maiman said. “One way to do that I think is to really play the politics for its absurdism.”
While he’s drawn to the subject of religious manipulation—“it’s in my DNA,” he confessed—it’s character that matters most to him. “I consider myself a character writer, I like to do character studies,” he said. In the case of Being Christian “resisting the temptation to make that character evil was very important thing to me,” he stressed. “Trying to get at what makes that character tick, trying to get at what we have in common with that character, and where the sort of inflection points are, where he took a different path than you or I. That’s what really drew me to that script,” he explained. “I like to call Being Christian ‘The Wolf of Wall Street in the mega-churches.’”
Maiman also loves movies about how “uniquely American unscrupulous business practices work,” citing There Will Be Blood as “one of my favorite films of all time.” So all that attracted him to the Being Christian project.
With the MRFF project, “Think of everything I just said, but Balkanized,” he said. “It is much more of an ensemble piece, it is much more 360° in the sense that we're looking at many different types of people, but I’m doing that same thing, I’m asking the questions, ‘What motivates this person? “Where are those inflection points where they chose a different path than the other guys? and ‘How does that inform this system that is invested in tearing down the First Amendment?”
Although it's an ensemble story, Weinstein’s role in it looms large, and clearly excites Maiman. “One thing I love about what Mikey does is the cliché is ‘defending the First Amendment.’ We always talk about ‘defending the First Amendment,’ But what I love about what Mikey does is he goes on the offensive for the First Amendment,” Maiman said. “He fights battles on enemy territory on behalf of the First Amendment. And I think that’s something that’s a fascinating thing for people to see.”
You could almost call it revolutionary, in a way, as Weinstein’s own comments later revealed. “The idea that we don't have to sit back and wait for incursions, that we can seek out the incursions before they occur, and try and prevent them in real time, I think is really a powerful idea,” Maiman said, “especially in these times where we can fell a little helpless – especially in the middle of our sheltering in place, but even before that, I think that we can feel a little paralyzed by just all the things that we have to fix to get back to the promise of this country.”
There’s an old-fashioned grittiness Maiman keys in on. “I think it's very powerful to see how Mikey goes right into the teeth of it,” he said. “He doesn't wait for the big case. He is quite willing to pound the pavement on the minutia to make sure that we never get to the big case. And I think that's, in terms of a character study, I think that's a very powerful thing.”
His assessment matched my own from have reported on MRFF over the past couple of years. In reporting on any story, there were always references to other cases which were quietly resolved without ever attracting attention, but which shed light on the story I was reporting on. MRFF gets a constant stream of thank-you emails for this sort of work that never gains public notice—so much so, that the military pretends they aren’t even there. For example, s 2009 New York Times story reported that while the Pentagon claimed "it had received 50 complaints of religious discrimination from all of the branches from 2005 to 2007," yet at the same time, Weinstein "said his group now received more than 500 complaints of religious bias a month from members of the military."
Given that volume of unrecognized battles, when I asked Weinstein for a comment, I was amused, but not surprised by his response.
That NYT story reported Weinstein's meeting with Air Force chief of staff, Gen. Norton A. Schwartz, "the first time the group has gotten an audience with a member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff," and Weinstein recalled that encounter in more specific detail. When he me with Schwartz, “He told me, ‘Look, I know you take a lot of flak for being aggressive, and upfront, but,’ he said, ‘Let me tell you something. If you ever lose your vitriol, this five-sided building will stop listening to you.”
That dovetails neatly with how Weinstein sees his mission. “Our civil rights activism…our job is not to be the pearl in the oyster,” he said. “On the contrary, our job is to be the irritant inside of the oyster that causes a pearl to form.” To underscore his point, he added, “The only way to fight back is just like our American colonists found they had to fight a certain way, and that was a lot of times using guerrilla war tactics against the British Empire.”
When asked about the kinds of battles he planned to deal with, the first thing Maiman mentioned was the predatory attitude toward conversions, highlighted in this video with Army Chalain Major Douglas Duerksen. “He was talking about those soldiers being as ripe as black bananas, for conversion, [a prime example of ] the whole government-paid missionary approach,” Maiman said. “That is right out front and center in terms of what animates me about this. Taking advantage of people in a moment of weakness just really riles me up, and the notion that they would be consciously seeking out men and women beaten down by the rigors of training in order to try and convert them just upsets me on a visceral level,” he explained “That's something I definitely want to pick from real life into the movie, the misuse of the chaplaincy to take advantage of kids that the government has taken responsibility for.”
Another example he cites is the Jesus Rifles controversy brought to national attention in January 2010, when ABC News reported that a military contractor, Trijicon, inscribed bible verses on high-powered rifle sights provided to the U.S. military. Weinstein told ABC that many MRFF clients had complained about inscriptions.
"This is probably the best example of violation of the separation of church and state in this country," Weinstein told ABC. "It's literally pushing fundamentalist Christianity at the point of a gun against the people that we're fighting. We're emboldening an enemy."
"It is a rallying cry for the Taliban,” Al Jazeera's Kabul correspondent, David Chater, said at the time. “It gives them a propaganda tool."
That’s what makes it so compelling for Maiman. “I feel like if Joe Public found out about it, even if they were religiously Christian, even if they were politically conservative, they can understand how dangerous these things are,” he said. “And that's an important thing for me, I don’t want this movie to only play to half the country.”
Finally, there’s one crucial question that’s left to be answered. “People have asked, ‘Well who's going to play you Mikey?’” Weinstein said. “As a joke, my children, being somewhat unkind have said ‘Danny DeVito would be great. But he's too tall.’”