Activist blasts Air Force officer & his commander for Jesus comments -- again

by Gregory Tomlin, |
U.S. Air Force A-10 Thunderbolt II fighter jets (foreground) are pictured at Incirlik airbase in the southern city of Adana, Turkey, in this December 11, 2015, file photo. | REUTERS/Umit Bektas/Files

INCIRLIK AIR BASE, Turkey (Christian Examiner) – The Military Religious Freedom Foundation's Mikey Weinstein is angry again that the organization's demands haven't been met to his satisfaction.

This time he's angry over the official response to his complaint about an officer in the medical unit of the 39th Air Base Wing at Incirlik Air Base in Turkey.

Earlier this month, MRFF demanded that Lt. Col. Michael Kersten be admonished for what the organization called his "improper, coercive" comments, in which he said in an online publication that Jesus Christ has influenced the way he makes decisions.

In an Oct. 6 letter to Col. John Walker, commander of the 39th, Weinstein – a former Air Force lawyer and president of MRFF – said Lt. Col. Kersten violated military regulations when he answered.

Weinstein claimed he had received nearly 100 complaints from other airmen about the comment and that its publication ran the risk of offending America's Turkish allies on the base. That is a real possibility in a country that has been known to have systematically eliminated Christian seminaries and looked the other way while Christians are persecuted for their beliefs.

As a Christian, my example is to be like Christ. He is my guide and affects all of my decisions. He teaches to do all things as unto the Lord and I believe this is synonymous with integrity first and excellence in all we do.

Lt. Col. Kersten was asked in the article titled, "Meet your leadership," if there was a leader from his career that influenced him the most and how that leader affected his leadership style.

"There's no ONE in particular," Kersten said. "As a Christian, my example is to be like Christ. He is my guide and affects all of my decisions. He teaches to do all things as unto the Lord and I believe this is synonymous with integrity first and excellence in all we do."

On Oct. 13, Col. Walker responded to the Weinstein's claim. In a letter to the activist, he acknowledged receipt of the letter and thanked him for his "concerns regarding our service members here at Incirlik Air Base, Turkey."

"The Air Force places the highest value on the rights of its personnel in matters of religion by its members. Our Airmen are sworn to protect our rights and liberties as Americans, including the right of all Airmen to practice their religious faith of to practice no faith at all," Walker wrote in the short response.

Weinstein has since fired off another letter to the colonel, demanding clarification and restating his demand Lt. Col. Kersten should be punished. He said Col. Walker's response was "the equivalent of a signed glamour shot sent by a celebrity to everyone who writes to them, regardless of the content of the correspondence."

"Perhaps you misunderstood our position concerning Lt. Col. Kersten's statements and our demand for appropriate and visible consequences," Weinstein wrote.

"This demand is a matter of ensuring that all religious expression – particularly by military leaders – conforms to the mandates of the Constitution and Air Force Regulations. While Lt. Col. Kersten certainly has the right to share his religious beliefs, he is not entitled to publicly declare that all of his decisions are based his personal faith, rather than upon his oath of office and allegiance to the U.S. Constitution."

Importantly, Kersten did not say he is incapable of fulfillining his oath to the Constitution because of his faith, nor did he say he uses Scripture or prayer to determine how his unit should abide by military regulations. He also did not claim, contrary to Weinstein's original complaint, that he would treat Christian airmen preferentially.

For Weinstein, however, a Christian "influence" on the officer's decisions means he is incapable of functioning without imposing those views on others.

"Lt. Col. Kersten plainly undermined the effectiveness of response to command when he announced that his decisions will be based on his personal Christian beliefs, rather than objective merit. He further stated that at least two core Air Force values are synonymous with the teachings of Christ, thus implying that non-Christians cannot adequately exercise those values," he wrote.

Weinstein was miffed at the "boilerplate response" Col. Walker provided. He asked for clarification as to whether or not the officer intended to rebuke Lt. Col. Kersten for his "unconstitutional endorsement" of religion in a public forum and "appropriately and visibly punish" the officer.

Weinstein said the commander should issue an apology to all personnel on the base, as well as to America's Turkish allies (military and civilian). He also said Col. Walker should affirm an air of inclusiveness for the "respect and dignity" of all airmen.

"If you will not take appropriate action, we must take appropriate action on behalf of our clients. Therefore, we must insist, sir, on a real response from you that states unambiguously whether you will take any action concerning our demand," Weinstein wrote.