This article has been updated to correct an error in Josh Creson’s occupational specialty in the Army.
An activist hopes to remove a small Christian bookstore operating in an exchange mini-mall on Fort Liberty, N.C. claiming a violation of separation of church and state.
The Faith2Soar store has operated as a concessionaire in an Army and Air Force Exchange Service mall location for eight months after previously opening from kiosks.
“We have no trouble with any of these stores at all if they’re in some local mall. But it’s about the time, place and manner. This is on U.S. military property,” said Mikey Weinstein, founder of the non-profit Military Religious Freedom Foundation. “We would be just as upset if it were another religion.”
Weinstein said “the Constitution makes it clear that [the government] will not establish religion. This is the epitome of establishing religion, in a post exchange.”
“We’re not stopping anybody’s free exercise” of religion, said Weinstein, an Air Force Academy graduate who has sparred with a series of Christian organizations and military commands for nearly two decades. His organization boasts 85,000 members, including currently serving military, veterans, civilians and others, of various faith and non-faith groups.
“The obvious COMMAND endorsement and favor of fundamentalist Christianity, to the exclusion of all other faith and non-faith traditions of your subordinate U.S. Army soldiers, by the Fort Liberty command structure is unmistakable, untenable, illegal, immoral, and unethical!!,” Weinstein wrote, in an Aug. 31 letter registering his complaint with Lt. Gen. Christopher Donahue, commanding general of the 18th Airborne Corps and Fort Liberty.
“It represents the heinously un-American, unconstitutional epitome of unlawful, ‘in-your-face’, fundamentalist Christian nationalism, triumphalism, exceptionalism, domination, bullying and supremacy,” Weinstein wrote.
Weinstein calls for AAFES to investigate the store, and to remove it, saying his group “will exhaust all remedies.”
A Fort Liberty spokesman referred questions to AAFES. The store owner, Josh Creson, said local AAFES officials had met with him to look at the items in the store since Weinstein’s complaint.
No action has been taken against the store.
“The Exchange has thoroughly reviewed all aspects of the issues that have been raised,” said AAFES spokesman Chris Ward.
Weinstein “is flat-out wrong on the law,” said Mike Berry, director of military affairs at the non-profit First Liberty Institute, which is providing legal representation to the bookstore. “It would be unconstitutional and illegal for the government to exclude a bookstore or any other type of business from operating in an AAFES area simply because they are a Christian or other faith-based business.
Blindsided by complaint
The owner of Faith2Soar, Josh Creson, told Military Times he was blindsided by Weinstein’s comments.
“We’ve never been approached by anyone complaining about our presence here at all. We’ve received a tremendous amount of praise and appreciation from people saying they are so thankful we are here, but nothing ever negative,” Creson said.
“We’re a for-profit organization. We’re not tied to the military,” he said.
Like any vendor, the company went through the process for AAFES’ approval to operate as a concessionaire. As with other vendors, more than 20% of their sales goes to AAFES in support of morale, welfare and recreation programs for troops and families, he said.
He also operates a store in the civilian community outside the gate, in Spring Lake. N.C..
In addition to Christianity-based products, the store also sells inspirational and self-help books on a variety of topics as well as some products related to Judaism or other religions, per requests.
Christian nationalism on base?
Weinstein described the store as “Christian nationalist”. Although there are varying definitions of the term “Christian nationalism,” the most common descriptions involve Christianity playing a dominant and institutionalized role in society, according to a survey of U.S. adults conducted in September, 2022 by the Pew Research Center.
Creson disputed Weinstein’s characterization. “I don’t post things about politics, or argue for one religion over another,” he said. While he sells patriotic items, he stressed he offers “nothing negative, nothing that bashes other political parties or bashes any other religions.”
Creson served in the 82nd Airborne Division, he said, and left the Army in 2004. He was a logistician in the Army, he said, and after leaving the Army, worked with a program that involved deploying linguists of multiple religions alongside military and diplomats, for almost 12 years. “I believe in freedom, the right to choose your religion,” he said.
“We don’t preach to people, or try to convert people.”
Weinstein said he was alerted to the store’s existence in late August, when a soldier emailed his organization about the bookstore in an AAFES mini-mall, “selling t-shirts reading ‘Salvation is Found in JESUS’ and other very exclusively Christian messages.
Weinstein said he contacted a senior Army official, “who told us we were being punked, that it wasn’t true.” He later verified the details with some of his organization’s members at the post.
AAFES hasn’t received any negative customer feedback specific to this concession operation, Ward said.
Authorization for concessionaires to operate in an AAFES complex is provided in a commodity concessions contract “which stipulates all merchandise displayed by concessionaires should be appropriate for sale and representation in military markets,” Ward said.
Asked about whether AAFES guidelines for concessionaires address religious items, Ward said AAFES products and vendors “are reviewed to determine compliance with the prohibitions regarding the sale of items that are illegal, promote the use of drugs, or include words, symbols or scenes that are lewd, profane or vulgar. If a product or vendor is determined to be in violation of these restrictions, the Exchange takes corrective action.”
Asked if any businesses selling religious items related to the Jewish faith, Muslim faith, or others have ever asked to be a concessionaire at a military installation – and whether AAFES sells these items inside the stores, Ward said “Customer demand determines product and service availability. The Exchange provides a diverse and inclusive assortment of religious-themed merchandise.”
A few examples of merchandise not authorized for sale by a concessionaire include the Confederate flag and related products, items containing racial or ethnic slurs, official military uniform items, and items that include words, symbols or scenes that are lewd, profane or vulgar.
Meanwhile, Creson said Weinstein’s efforts have spurred a response that has caused him to be concerned about the safety of his family, and the negative effects on his business. He’s received vulgar phone calls, and has seen posts on social media suggesting that people damage his store.
“I’ve asked for prayers for the opposition,” he said. “We believe in the goodness of all people. We believe the way things are spiraling out of control is not good, it’s not healthy for anybody, especially for military men and women,” he said.
Karen has covered military families, quality of life and consumer issues for Military Times for more than 30 years, and is co-author of a chapter on media coverage of military families in the book "A Battle Plan for Supporting Military Families." She previously worked for newspapers in Guam, Norfolk, Jacksonville, Fla., and Athens, Ga.