By Jim Belshaw
Thursday, February 23, 2012
After a 32-year newspaper career, Jim Belshaw retired in 2009. He wrote a metro column for 28 of those years at the Albuquerque Journal. He now writes a weekly column for The Guadalupe County Communicator in Santa Rosa, N.M. This column appeared in “The Communicator” on Thursday, Feb. 23, 2012.
It’s not there in black and white but the Constitution has two First Amendments. The first is the theoretical one, the one people say they like. Freedom of this and freedom of that. You know what it says. We’re all for those things.
The second First Amendment, the one that shows up when a person decides to put the theoretical one into practice, is an altogether different animal. That one can anger us, frighten us, make us take a step back and question the wisdom of that theoretical First Amendment.
Throw in religion, patriotism, the armed forces, politics, and especially someone’s livelihood, and pretty soon we’re taking two or three steps back and wondering whether those Founding Fathers knew what they were doing.
Which brings us to today’s First Amendment practitioners — Mikey Weinstein, an Albuquerque man who probably is not the Air Force Academy’s favorite son; and Bookworks, a small, independent bookstore in Albuquerque that wondered whether it wanted to have anything to do with an author such as Mikey Weinstein.
At first, the bookstore decided it didn’t; then the bookstore changed its mind, which can be a hard thing to do, no matter the reason or rightness of the decision.
In 2005, Weinstein’s name was featured prominently in the media bulls eye, put there by himself. He had chosen to challenge the Air Force Academy for what he then called “systemic” religious discrimination practiced by some Christian cadets and staff at the Academy.
“Anti-military” is not a label that attaches itself to Weinstein. His connections to the military run deep. He graduated from the Academy, as did his two sons. He served in the Air Force for 10 years and worked in the Reagan White House. A brother-in-law, daughter-in-law and soon to be son-in-law graduated from the AFA. His father graduated from Naval Academy. His daughter works for the Air Force as a civilian. (There’s more. The list of military roots goes on much longer.)
Weinstein says: “I love the Air Force Academy.”
But he didn’t care for it too much when one of his sons, then an AFA cadet, reported that he was tired of being called “a (expletive) Jew who killed Jesus.”
In 2005, Weinstein said: “I’m saying embrace and love and practice your religion as vividly and colorfully and comprehensively as you want, but don’t have government pointing out which religion is favored over another religion. This is an issue of law, not religion.”
He formed an organization called the Military Religious Freedom Foundation. He found himself in the pages of newspapers all over the country; national TV networks called. He found himself denounced, too, called all manner of names. Then, of course, came the death threats and such.
This year, he published a book: “NO SNOWFLAKE IN AN AVALANCHE: The Military Religious Freedom Foundation, Its Battle To Defend the Constitution and One Family’s Courageous War Against Religious Extremism in High Places.”
He started lining up appearances at bookstores. One such place was Bookworks, for many years a fine example of the “indie,” that dwindling breed of independent bookstores fighting their own battles against the Internet and “big box” bookstores.
Bookworks said thanks but no thanks to Mikey Weinstein.
The bookstore told Weinstein’s publisher: “Based on what we know about our customer base and the political climate of Albuquerque at the moment, we don’t feel this event is a good fit for our store …”
It worried about its Kirtland Air Force Base clientele; it worried about the “evangelical community.” It did not want to “alienate” anyone.
It wrote: “We are not at all sure that it would benefit the store or our community of customers to foment this kind of discussion …” (An editor might have written in the margin: “We should chat about that word foment.”)
The bookstore then heard from customers, many who thought fomenting discussions was the reason bookstores got up in the morning, especially these days when religion is much in the political news.
One such customer is a New Mexico Court of Appeals judge who wrote of the First Amendment: “The first of those Amendments is a commitment to ideas – published, spoken, and believed that Bookworks and other independent bookstores continually maintain they represent as well … To stand up for books should employ commitment to stand up for ideas – even ones that might be scary or might ‘foment’ discomfort or discord.”
The bookstore heard from other like-minded customers. The bookstore changed its mind. It said it made a mistake. It will hold an author event for Mikey Weinstein.
Good for Bookworks. The First Amendment is always the best way to foment.