An email I received the other day illustrates some of the most pressing questions facing our nation. How can government support individuals and voluntary associations in maintaining the strong moral underpinnings needed for a healthy society, without taking sides in a way that may ultimately be destructive? Simultaneously, how can we keep conflicts over the proper role of government (in this and other respects) from themselves destroying political community?
Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council writes that the Military Religious Freedom Foundation recently “threatened a class-action lawsuit,” after which “the Pentagon conspicuously revoked approval to use the logo of each service branch on the covers of Bibles sold in military exchange stores. Weinstein (representing MRFF) even insists that all the remaining copies be purged from the store shelves.”
So, Bibles were being sold in military stores with official military logos on them. On the one hand, it seems to me dead obvious that the Bible should be available for purchase at military stores, which exist precisely because members of our military are often posted where it is not easy to find things they need through local channels. Perkins makes it sound like Weinstein objects to having the Bible for sale. Whether that is true or not in Weinstein’s heart of hearts, evidently the basis of Weinstein’s objection for public purposes is that the official logos were on these Bibles, not merely that they are Bibles.
Perkins continues, “Let’s be clear here: The Bibles were sold at no cost to the government, and service members voluntarily purchased them. At no point were military members coerced or encouraged by their superiors to buy the books. They were simply for sale in the military exchange stores. Yet Weinstein told Fox News that their mere presence on the shelves constitutes a religious endorsement by the Department of Defense.
Again, Perkins suggests that Weinstein objects to the selling of the Bible, as though if the DoD sells Skittles in military exchange stores, that is an endorsement of Skittles. But as he quotes Weinstein, the concern is actually the logos: “If their logos are being placed on a particular version of Christianity… when we are engaged in a war with fundamentalist Muslims — it’s a security threat.”
I’m all in favor of members of our military reading the Bible, and having it readily available, but printing military logos on Bibles does look to me like an official endorsement of religion. Someone might propose remedying this by printing other books, like the Koran, with military logos . . . but actually there might be a lot of Muslims who would find that upsetting. Since when does the U.S. military get to put its mark on the Koran? they might ask. One might wonder why Christians want a military logo on the Bible, actually. More to the point, I don’t want to get into a legal dispute over any number of other books that someone might want that logo on. If our political order is intended to be independent of and neutral regarding particular religious affiliations, it seems to me the military should emphatically not be selling Bibles with its logos on them. If it does, who knows what other moral and religious messages it may start pushing with its quasi-ecclesiastical authority? Our government is not qualified to play the moral role of a church and needs to steer well clear.
Oddly, after first seeming to invoke the freedom of the troops in defense of the Bibles, Perkins in fact goes on to defend something like an ecclesial role for government, or government figures: “Months before the start of World War II, President Franklin Roosevelt actually wrote the prologue to the Gideon Bibles given to the Armed Forces, encouraging them to draw courage from its contents. ‘As Commander-in-Chief, I take pleasure in commending the reading of the Bible to all who serve in the armed forces of the United States. Throughout the centuries, men of many faiths and diverse origins have found in the Sacred Book words of wisdom, counsel, and inspiration. It is a fountain of strength, and now, as always, an aid in attaining the highest aspirations of the human soul.’”
The problem with Perkins’ analogy is that the Gideons are a private organization with a clear religious mission, so there is a huge difference between a Gideon Bible and a Bible with a U.S. service logo on it. Similarly, there is a huge difference between a statement by an individual, such as Franklin Roosevelt, who happened to be President at the time, and the endorsement of a government institution such as the Army or Navy. FDR may have been pushing the envelope by mentioning his role as Commander-in-Chief in his endorsement, but there is a major difference between a questionable verbal fudge in the course of a clearly legitimate activity and an official, ongoing institutional policy like the use of the logo.
Perkins and his group are legitimately concerned to maintain religious freedom and prevent efforts to use government to suppress or discourage religion (and they often produce much better analysis than this). There certainly are people who have tried to use government policies as a tool to undermine religion. But if Perkins and company are prepared to simply endorse any policy that favors their religion, they have stepped outside the bounds of the American project, and indirectly legitimate the efforts of others to use government to suppress or even rewrite religion.
Further, by intentionally obscuring the distinction between neutrality and favoritism regarding religion, which Weinstein apparently was respecting, an email like this undermines the basis of our Republic, pushing political conflict toward the same kind of irresolvability we see in religious conflict. I thought our founders were brilliant to distinguish the two, and articulate principles for political union that did not require agreement in matters of religion. To maintain this union, we have to be able to set limits on our partisanship, sustain distinctions between religion and politics, and help our fellow partisans to keep those distinctions in mind, too. When we blur those distinctions for purposes of political mobilization, we ultimately undermine the basis of peace. This is true at home, as well as abroad, especially when those military logos are on our troops, trying to establish peace in societies where most are not Christian. I wish confusing, partisan messaging like this were more of an exception!