INCIRLIK AIR BASE, Turkey — An activist that often works to separate God from the military is seeking the punishment of an Air Force commander who responded to a recent interview question that Jesus is his guide and influences his decisions.
The Incirlik Air Base in Turkey published the interview last month on its website, which recently decided to feature new faces to the base as an introduction to others.
On Sept. 15, the focus was on U.S. Air Force Lt. Col. Michael Kersten, who serves with the 39th Medical Support Squadron. The unit provides “preventative and clinical health and wellness services for U.S. and coalition forces.”
“Is there a leader from your career that influenced you the most?” he was asked during the interview. “If so, who, and how did they affect the way you lead?”
“There’s no ONE in particular, Kersten responded. “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.”
But Mikey Weinstein of the Military Religious Freedom Foundation (MRFF) took issue with Kersten’s response and wrote to his superiors to demand that he be punished.
“[A] number of Turkish military personnel and related Turkish nationals, the majority of whom are practitioners of the Islamic faith, also assigned at Incirlik were, like their fellow American/USAF MRFF allies, extremely offended,” he wrote.
Weinstein asserted that Kersten had violated military rules with his reply, and said that it caused him to wonder if Kersten would be biased against those of other faiths.
“Lt. Col. Kersten willfully and definitively violated AFI 1-1 with his sectarian Christian proselytizing statement. He has proclaimed to the entire Incirlik Air Base community that ALL of his decisions are based upon his Christian faith,” he wrote. “Moreover, and perhaps even more outrageously, he claims that his exclusivist Christian faith is synonymous with two of the three Air Force official core values.”
“He has essentially stated that Christianity (or his particular interpretation/denomination of same) is the guiding policy of HIS command,” Weinstein said. “He has VERY publicly endorsed his singular view of Christian faith supremacy and it is not unreasonable or irrational to think that this widespread endorsement in an official Air Force internet publication could and/or would lead to preferential treatment of those subordinates who share his views.”
He therefore demanded that Kertsen be both rebuked and punished.
“MRFF demands that you (1) expeditiously and publicly rebuke Lt. Col. Kersten’s official statement—as contrasted with his private Christian faith belief which is not MRFF’s concern—(2) appropriately and visibly punish Lt. Col. Kersten for his unconstitutional and UCMJ-violating behavior; (3) apologize to your airmen and our Turkish allies, and; (4) reaffirm an inclusive 39th Air Base Wing command climate…” Weinstein wrote.
Col. John Walker soon replied, thanking Weinstein for his correspondence, but advising that the Air Force protects service members’ rights to practice their religion.
“The Air Force places the highest value on the rights of its personnel in matters of religion by its members,” he wrote. “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.”
Now, MRFF has submitted a second letter, expressing dissatisfaction with Walker’s response, which it characterized as a “signed glamour shot sent by a celebrity to everyone who writes to them.”
“Perhaps you misunderstood our position concerning Lt. Col. Kersten’s statements and our demand for appropriate and visible consequences,” Legal Affairs Coordinator Tobanna Barker wrote on Friday. “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.”
Barker then threatened to take action if the organization’s demand was not satisfied.
“If you will not take appropriate action, we must take appropriate action on behalf of our clients,” she wrote. “Therefore, we must insist, sir, on a real response from you that states unambiguously whether you will take any action concerning our demand.”
It is not yet known if Walker plans to respond.