I am a Fan of Military Religious Freedom Foundation

To Whom it May Concern:

I am a retired Air Force officer, pilot, a United States Air Force Academy classmate (1977) of Mikey Weinstein.  I am a huge fan of the Military Religious Freedom Foundation, and I’d love to explain why

Here’s my history:  I entered the USAF Academy in 1973 as a political and religious conservative.  Back then, mandatory chapel attendance had just been eliminated.  Worship service had just become optional, and as an occasional attendee at “someone else’s church” I was strongly in favor of not being coerced.  I received audio cassette tapes (this is 1973!) from a minister back home, and I quietly worshiped the way I was comfortable with.  Back in the 1970s at the Academy, I think they had it almost right.  I could plainly see how different we all were…religious expression, or the lack thereof, was very obviously a personal, private matter.  I graduated from the Academy in 1977 and went to pilot training in Oklahoma.  There, on my own, I joined a church in the local community.  My faith was my own business.

Fast forward a few years:  in the 1990s I was a reservist living at the edge of an ethnically diverse community.  Both at my civilian job and at the reserve unit we learned about harassment in the workplace.  “Who, us?”  Yes, it was there in varying degrees of subtlety.  At first the topic was racial or ethnic discrimination, then sexual harassment became more topical.   As I sat in class after class I became aware that two things were happening:  first, many in the chain of command were not entirely comfortable discussing this with us, and second, much of the material in a predominantly white male crowd was met with snickers and sarcasm.  We learned about hostility in the workplace but then continued to tell the same jokes and stash the same porn under the seat cushions on our planes.  Behavior changed only superficially at best.  Funny, at the church I went to on my own time, we actively engaged with all manner of different ethnic groups and sexual orientations.  Our faith community embraced diversity in a loving, positive way.  But at the same time we respected the dignity and independence of all we interacted with.

So there was a huge disconnect between the ideals of respecting the individual identities and dignity of all in the greater community, and the lip service paid to same at the military unit.  Diverse voices were not encouraged among the “band of brothers.”  Oh, some people in the unit tried to “walk the walk”…often eliciting eye rolling and head shaking among their comrades.

Then came the War on Terror, and the elevation of absolutist thinking.  I was respectfully skeptical when my commander-in-chief said “you’re with us or against us,” thinking that that was probably “mostly true” and likely a rhetorical necessity to galvanize support…but it sure seemed unnecessarily heavy handed.  Surely, behind the scenes there was room for discretion and nuance…wasn’t there?  Then came General Boykin at the top of the chain of command, and outcries from my alma mater about religious intolerance.  I became very concerned that the religious/nonreligious tolerance I had enjoyed many years ago had been corrupted, that the “band of brothers” had a new religious norm that they’d pressure, ridicule, goad, etc, non-conformists into conforming to.

First, General Boykin:  Here is a DoD undersecretary publicly stating that his god is bigger than the enemy’s god, that our army was fighting Satan, that our president was appointed by God to prosecute this war.  Not my version of Christianity, to say the very least.  Whether Boykin meant something less crusader-like or not, the words were out there.  I was appalled that my faith would be contorted into a weapon of war.  It sickened me that the message of love, acceptance, service to others that was the message of my faith could be so turned on its head and perverted.  And on behalf of the US military?!  Boykin’s remarks were a watershed moment for me.  He was wrong on so many levels to create the impression that our military was the new Knights Templar, fighting infidels for Christ.

It was just an impression he created, right?  Then I read about life at my Air Force Academy.  During my last few years as an Air Force reservist I helped high school students who were interested in attending the Academy.  I was–and still am–an advocate for service academies and the military profession.  When I learned that cadets were being aggressively proselytized I was again sickened and horrified.  My reaction was complicated, I will admit:  “how can they push this particular version of Christianity?  It is not what we practice at OUR christian church!”  But upon reflection I became less egocentric in my thinking.  If cadets are being pressured into a religious exercise that I have some disagreements with, and if religion is a deeply personal, strongly felt conviction as I have always believed, it is not a great leap to empathize with cadets who were not Christians at all, or not religious at all.  How dare they–other cadets, officers on the staff, whoever–trample upon the individual dignity and independence of anyone to push their own beliefs?  It occurred to me that if their brand of Christianity is such an ideal, then the way they live their lives ought to suffice.  If they can’t shut up and just be a living example of Christ-like behavior,  then it seems to me they’re doing it wrong.  It also reminded me of a story from the life of Rabbi Harold Kushner, who tells us of his introduction to Christianity: as a school kid being beaten up by fellow students who called him a “Christ killer.”  A fine bit of outreach by those other kids. Pushing the message destroys it.  I can only begin to say how outrageously hypocritical it is on so many levels.  We’re fighting for freedom, right?  It is self-evident that that means freedom from religion.  For sure it means freedom from YOUR religion, or MY religion.  I don’t claim to have insider information on which perception of ultimate reality is the correct one, and neither should anyone else. And even if they do, they have no business imposing it on others.  Anyone who has been in a hierarchical organization like the military or specifically the service academies knows what pressure to conform looks like.  It works well to impose discipline and teach professionalism.  But an ugly side is when it’s used to intrude upon the personal dignity of an individual.  A personal choice to be nonreligious or to participate in a certain religion is obviously part of that personal dignity. So I was, and am, disgusted by behavior that condones that pressure to be religious at my Academy and in our military forces in general.  Thank God I found out about the Military Religious Freedom Foundation.

So the impression articulated by General Boykin and pushed, subtly or nor so subtly, in our service academies and in the military as a whole, seemed to me to be pervasive.  But holy cow, the REACTION when someone like my classmate Mikey Weinstein tries to push back against it or at least educate the public about it, is very telling indeed.  I have read many of the emails from those who oppose the work he and his foundation are doing.Unfortunately they have confirmed my worst fears about the religious agenda of the likes of Boykin and others throughout our academies and our military…the messages are filled with filth, obscenities, and ugly personal attacks.  They seem to be all about fear, hatred, intolerance,even plain old antisemitism.  I have to chuckle at that last one.  I am not Jewish myself, nor have I ever been–I belong to a mainline Christian church–yet I support the goals of the Military Religious Freedom Foundation.  So what are the detractors going to say about me?  And oh, by the way, In what way are these detractors furthering the spreading of the gospels…How are they living and breathing examples of Jesus’s teaching?   In those horrific, unprintably vile responses to the work Mikey is doing, we don’t see much love; however, we can see that he’s striking a nerve.

Let me be concise:  I am a Christian.  I am a retired Air Force Officer, an Air Force Academy classmate of Mikey Weinstein.  I fully endorse the work of the Military Religious Freedom Foundation, founded by Mikey.  For those who may not be familiar with the Foundation, a few facts:  the MRFF is legitimately non-partisan, with regard both to politics and religion.  For example, their advisory board is a veritable who’s who among military and political figures: retired generals, a former chief of staff for Secretary of State (and former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff) General Colin Powell, former governors from both political parties (one, Gary Johnson, was the Libertarian Party presidential candidate just last year), and scholars from many diverse religious backgrounds.  The founder, Mikey of course, doesn’t just receive hate mail.  He and his organization have won or been nominated for numerous humanitarian awards, including five Nobel Peace Prizes. Long story short:  the MRFF is a deep, balanced, legitimate organization seeking nothing more than freedom from religious oppression.  For those who seem to become so livid about the Foundation or personal in their attacks on Mikey, I challenge you:  re-read (or read for the first time!) the mission statement of the Foundation.  Ask yourselves dispassionately:  what is it that Mikey WANTS?  What expressions of religious beliefs, or lack thereof, are permitted?  Surprise!  It’s not bad at all:  you can worship or not, read your Bible or not, pray anytime you want to.  Just don’t compel others to, overtly or covertly.  That’s all!  What is so odious, evil, damning to eternal hellfire about that?

One more thing, before I close:  I have seen religious exploitation in our military.  I have seen the ugly, obscene, threatening reaction when we try to push back against it.  If you are a military member who is a victim of overzealous proselytizing or any form of pressure regarding your personal freedom to worship or not to, if you are being bullied or badgered in any way about your personal beliefs, you don’t have to silently “just take it.”  You have an advocate in the MRFF.  Don’t remain silent; contact them now.

Tobias C. Nichols, USAFR (ret)

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