Establishing a Christian Nation? Tony Perkins and Military Bibles

June 16, 2012 | 18 comments
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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!

18 Responses to Establishing a Christian Nation? Tony Perkins and Military Bibles

  1. themormonbrit on June 16, 2012 at 7:18 am

    Brilliant post. I think there is always a danger when the government begins endorsing religious things in the form of logos and seals, etc. Interesting thoughts.

  2. Julie M. Smith on June 16, 2012 at 9:00 am

    Thank you.

    I think one of the biggest threats to religious freedom today is people who claim that their freedom is threatened in situations like this . . . making the entire project of protecting religious freedom look foolish, which damages the cause, making it less credible in times when it is really warranted.

  3. Michael H. on June 16, 2012 at 10:48 am

    If Mitt gets elected, I move that we start printing the seal of the President of the United States on every copy of The Book of Mormon.

  4. Michael H. on June 16, 2012 at 10:49 am

    And sell them at all DC gift shops.

  5. E on June 16, 2012 at 11:33 am

    Lets put the angel Moroni on all the military bibles.

  6. Jax on June 16, 2012 at 11:43 am

    One might wonder why Christians want a military logo on the Bible, actually

    Perhaps for the same reason kids doodle personal symbols and such on textbooks throughout the country. People like to design personalized messages about themselves on the things they own. Military members are proud of their military service and like to show that by having the logo on the things they own. Even off duty they wear the logos on their clothing, cars, and tattoos – the military men and women aren’t distinct in this. It is just like sports fans who buy clothing, notebooks, bumperstickers, because they want to show their support for a team. Military members want to show support for their branch.

    They not only want their military logo on their bibles, they color pictures of themselves in them, they tape family photos onto them, they scribble personal messages, etc. Is there an acceptable answer to “why do [sport team]‘s fans want there logo on their wall?” or is it simply, “because they do…”.

    So why want the military logo on their bibles? Perhaps it is so that they don’t have to try to doodle that logo on themselves, thereafter to be sued for copyright infringement. I see no reason for disallowing the printing of military logos on bibles, korans, BoM’s, etc. It doesn’t in any way reflect a support for that particular religion, it shows a willingness to provide to their military they things that the military members want.

  7. wreddyornot on June 16, 2012 at 12:57 pm

    Are the logos affixed subsequent to manufacture of the bibles? If so, why not just sell logo stickers, and if someone wants to put one on their bible, or whereever else they wish, they can have at it. Were logo-less bibles available when they were offering the logoed bibles or were all of the bibles logoed?

    Personal religious expression is usually free speech. Government sponsored religious expression is not. The way to establish a Christian nation is to act like a Christian.

  8. Jack on June 16, 2012 at 3:50 pm

    Tony Perkins once again has demonstrated that he is a weenie.

  9. Ben Huff on June 17, 2012 at 1:37 am

    Contra Jack (#8), I have a generally positive impression of Tony Perkins, as a man of intelligence and integrity. Part of why this email bothered me enough to want to post about it is that I think he (or his ghost writer) is usually better than this. When he and the FRC get off-track, though, it seems to be in this sort of partisan way, and like Julie, I think it undermines their case when they do. Politics is a tricky business because so many citizens do think in somewhat crude, us-vs.-them terms, and so much political energy is coming straight from the viscera. But those in a position to do so need to not simply motivate people, but educate and guide their thinking, too, if we are going to have anything resembling a healthy political life.

    For what it’s worth, I suspect their may be another wrinkle or two to the situation that would be interesting to draw out. For example, is the logo on there because that is how they build the Bible into their supply program, by designating an official military-issue Bible? If there weren’t one, would it be dicey whether they would make it into the exchanges? Are there other things about this edition that make it particularly suitable for military personnel, such as portability and durability? Presumably they can’t afford to stock a wide variety of editions of the Bible, the way a Christian bookstore might have a few dozen different ones. If the exchange doesn’t carry Skittles, it matters a lot less than if they don’t carry Bibles. But again, these issues are not addressed in the email, and so it comes across as merely a call to partisanship.

  10. Bob on June 17, 2012 at 2:40 am

    “I suspect their may be another wrinkle or two to the situation”. I do too.
    I was given a pocket NT when I went into the military, but it was not forced on me. Did they sell the BoM or Koran? I don’t think so. These are very thin-skinned areas given what has happened with the Koran, etc. I would give the military a little space in working this out.

  11. Jax on June 17, 2012 at 4:21 am

    I’m a vet. Their is no official military-issue bible. In the exchanges their are many bibles for sale, only a few with the branch logos for those who want them with it. Other things that make it suitable? I have most often seen the logos on the smaller versions with only the New Testament with the camo covers, making it lighter to carry and potentially safer to use in the field. I think your presumption is incorrect that they can’t carry a “wide variety”. Most on base exchanges I’ve been to have 10 or so different versions if that qualifies as “wide variety”.

  12. Ben Huff on June 17, 2012 at 5:29 pm

    Thanks for filling in more detail, Jax! It really helps to round out the picture. I would imagine that the number of different editions available varies a bit by post, depending on the size of the post, etc., but it is particularly important to know both that there is some real customization involved in these editions with logos, but also that they are not the only ones for sale.

  13. Raymond Takashi Swenson on June 18, 2012 at 12:25 am

    Obviously it is better to just let soldiers put service logo stickers on their own copies of the particular Bible version they want to use. The Base exchange sells lots of service branch logo stickers for cars, motorcycle helmets, briefcases, luggage, etc. And there are lots of different translations. The BX can even display logo stickers next to the Bibles.

    As for service endorsement of Christianity, though, that is a well-establ:shed tradition. The chaplains wear.on their uniforms logos of major religious traditions. The Jewish chaplains haveba metal badge over their left pocket on the uniform jacket that shows two tables of the Ten Commandments surmounted by a Star of David. The Christian chaplains (including the Mormons) wear a standard Protestant cross badge. The rest if tgeir uniforms is standard issue, associating the religious symbols with the uniform–a distinctive “logo” of the military service.

    Military chapels have crosses inside, but they can usually be covered and logos if Judaism set out for Jewish servics. At the AFnAcademy, the main chapel is for Protestants and it has auxiliary Catholuc and Jrwish chapels in the lower level. The LDS cadets usually belong to an off-base ward, but have church activitiesnand firesides at the chapel during the week.

    Military chaplains are commisdioned in proportionnto the percentage of denomination members in the service, but they get assigned all over the place, and conduct generic Protestant services if they are LDS. Of course, unlike most other service members, LDS soldiets.don’t need a chaplain, LDS or not, to conduct church meetings. Branches or even wards on military bases are authorized by the Church, and some service members in forward ateas are authorized to act as group leaders to conduct mertings when enough members are available on a given Sunday, or even.on a Friday in a.Muslim country if that is the best day to gather. The main function of LDS chaplains is to “show the flag” so that Mormon service.membets get equal access.to chaplain facilities. At a lot of oversras basrs, the LDS branches are the largest Sunday gathering. Local chaplain budgetsbare based on attendance at all meetings, and a typical LDzs block is cpunted asnthree meetings, so Mormons are often the largest single contributor to base chaplain funding and number of chaplains assigned. Make no mistake that the chaplain program is official endorsement, funding and staffing for many diffetent American churches, including Budfhists and Muslims.

    The action by Congress in the post 2010 lame duck days to enact open military service by gays, and Obama’s refusal to enforce the Degense of Marriage Act and specific endorsement if dame-sex marriage, is making many chaplains concerned that they will be censoted by the government if they teach their denomination’s religious views either to individuals or groups. There is also the issue of freedom of religious expression for individual service members, who will be put through “sensitivity trainibg” to indoctrinate them in the notion that being gay is a legitomate moral lifestyle.

    These are difficult questions which do not have the same answers as in a civilian context.

  14. palerobber on June 18, 2012 at 10:53 am

    One might wonder why [some] Christians want a military logo on the Bible, actually.

    um, because they want their brand of Christianity to be the de facto official religion of the United States?

    further, FRC’ interest in “religious freedom” is a sham since it doesn’t extend to any religion other than their own. surely, you’ve noticed this pattern before now.

  15. Jason U on June 18, 2012 at 11:00 am

    I am an active duty LDS chaplain, so let me throw in my 2 cents.

    Every Soldier who would like a Bible can get one (or 20) free from her/his chaplain. As a chaplain, I have loads of Bibles (multiple translations from multiple publishers), JPS TANAKH, copies of the Koran in English (some Arabic), copies of the Book of Mormon, and other world scripture. All of these are free to any Soldier or military dependent who comes to my office wanting them.

    Many of these copies of Scripture have a camouflage cover, but no actual Army seal. I receive these through various organizations (Open Window Foundation’s “Operation Worship” and Biblica are the two organizations I receive the most Bibles from) who want to donate Bibles to military personnel and perhaps put on the camouflage covers to make them more appealing to young Soldiers.

    I do have a copy of “The Soldiers Bible” which I purchased from some Post-Exchange (store run by the Army). This is a New Testament with Psalms and Proverbs and is published by Holman Bible Publishers and is their own translation. This bible does indeed have the Department of the Army seal on its cover and additionally has within its contents – The Pledge of Allegiance, The Star Spangled Banner, The Oath of Allegiance for Enlisted Personnel, The U.S. Armed Forces Code of Conduct, Onward Christian Soldiers, and America the Beautiful.

    I agree that the conflating of patriotism and military allegiance with Christian spirituality can be theologically problematic at best. As most of these Scripture volumes with the Army seal and/or camouflage covers are Jewish/Christian and seem to exclude the Koran or other world scripture, then the theme of religious favoritism (nationalism?) is present in what is offered to our Soldiers (whether offered freely or sold to them).

  16. palerobber on June 18, 2012 at 11:16 am

    @ Ben #9

    wow, you have a “generally positive” opinion of a guy who’s best known for his frequent appearances on cable news to lie about and dehumanize gay people in his capacity as head of a SPLC-designated hate group?

    please tell us more about Perkins’ integrity, Ben.

  17. Ben Huff on June 18, 2012 at 10:48 pm

    RTS (#13), you’re right of course that having chaplains implies something like official endorsement of religion, and we have chaplains for many different religions. To me this seems entirely appropriate . . . why? I suppose because where the military goes, it has to bring some essential elements of human community with it. We need chaplains a bit like we need doctors.

    Obviously there is some care exercised in the way the chaplaincy is framed, to preserve religious autonomy and minimize anything that could be construed as favoritism. Basing the number of chaplains and the budgets on membership and attendance numbers is one of these mechanisms for essentially deferring judgment to the individual choices of military personnel. It seems to me that these mechanisms are pretty substantial grounds for saying that while the chaplaincy represents “something like” endorsement, it really isn’t. It is probably endorsement of religion generally, in the sense that military organization and budgets are designed to support religious worship and devotion, but it is pretty neutral regarding specific faiths. I’m sure others have analyzed this issue in great depth.

    Given that there are chaplains who wear military uniforms, draw military salaries, have their own official insignia, etc., perhaps it is small potatoes to have Bibles with a military logo. I kind of think it really is small potatoes.

    However, I do think that it is important to be attentive to issues of religious endorsement/establishment, and to take them seriously. It bothers me that this message from Perkins obscures the point at issue and turns the legal battle into a partisan issue with no room for the legitimate arguments about neutrality.

    As you say, RTS, recent developments surrounding marriage are testing the separation of church and state in a military context, in a way that makes logos on the Bible *really* seem like small potatoes! It will be very interesting to see how this stuff plays out.

  18. palerobber on June 20, 2012 at 11:26 am

    no reply, Ben?

    Tony Perkins, MSNBC, 11/29/2010:
    “The research is overwhelming that homosexuality poses a danger to children.”

    yeah, it’s too bad he’s wasting his high moral standing on this government-endorsed bible thing.