Can a Bible be a “threat to national security”?
For years, the government has employed the risk of “national security” excuse to infringe on a wide range of freedoms — like the right to pass through an airport security checkpoint unmolested, or read library books without Big Brother peeking over your shoulder.
Michael L. “Mikey” Weinstein is trying to prove that there is more than one way to put the country at risk, and he’s found it in a heretofore unlikely place: the Bible.
Well, the Holman Bible. To be more exact, a version of the Bible that, for reasons still undetermined, was authorized with the trademarked official insignia of the U.S. Armed Forces emblazoned on the front cover. There is The Soldier’s Bible with the Army’s seal, The Marine’s Bible with the Marine Corps seal, The Sailor’s Bible and The Airman’s Bible, both with their respective insignia. The books have been sold for nearly six years throughout Christian bookstores, commissaries and PXs on U.S. military installations — and are still available on Christianbook.com, Amazon.com and Barnes & Noble.
It’s not the King James Version that the Gideons leave behind in hotel rooms drawers. The Holman Bible was commissioned and published by LifeWay Christian Resources, a subsidiary of the Southern Baptist Convention, the largest Baptist denomination in the world, in 2003.
In a 1999 press release announcing the edition’s progress, Broadman & Holman Publishers called the new version “a fresh, precise translation of the Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek of the Old and New Testaments.” LifeWay President James T. Draper Jr. weighed in, saying there was a “serious need for a 21st-century Bible translation in American English that combines accuracy and readability,” adding, “the Holman Christian Standard Bible is an accurate, literal rendering with a smoothness and readability that invites memorization, reading aloud and dedicated study.”
The Holman Bible, or HCSB, has been popular with evangelicals for its references and study tools. Someone convinced each branch of the service they’d be perfect for the military, too. So the HCSB became the “official” Bible of the Army, Air Force, Navy and Marines in 2004, complete with reader-friendly text and custom “designed to meet the specific needs of those who serve in the most difficult of situations,” according to the publishers.
In other words, aside from the text, the books are filled with “devotionals” and “inspirational essays” tailored to each branch of service. I was unable to get my hands on a copy by press time, but Amazon’s “peek” inside the book and several positive reader reviews confirm some of the contents, revealing what could only be described as a guileless conflation of both Christian and American military iconography. War and service as religious devotion.
In addition to the Pledge of Allegiance and the first and fourth verses of the Star Spangled Banner, there are excerpts from one of George W. Bush inaugural addresses and the Republican president’s remarks at a National Prayer Breakfast. Gen. George S. Patton’s famous Christmas prayer card from the field of battle 1944 is also included, as is “George Washington’s Prayer,” which has been widely circulated (and debunked) as proof of America’s Christian paternity.
These Bibles also feature “testimonials and encouragement from the Officers’ Christian Fellowship,” which has approximately 15,000 members across the military and whose primary purpose is “to glorify God by uniting Christian officers for biblical fellowship and outreach, equipping and encouraging them to minister effectively in the military society.” In other words they proselytize within the officer corps as part of an evangelical “parachurch” within the military.
A largely unfettered one, apparently, as one watches Pentagon officers commenting freely on camera — and in uniform — for this Bush-era promotional video for Christian Embassy, another federal government-wide “fellowship” with similar missionary goals.
One officer, Air Force Maj. Gen. Jack Catton, who said he worked on the Joint Staff at the Pentagon, described himself as “an old fashioned American and my first priority is my faith in God.” Pointing to his meeting with other officers under the auspices of Christian Embassy, he said, “I think it’s a huge impact because you have many men and women who are seeking God’s counsel and wisdom as we advise the Secretary of Defense.”
Then U.S. Brigadier Gen. Bob Caslan (currently promoted to lieutenant general as the commanding general at the U.S. Army’s prestigious Combined Arms Center at Ft. Leavenworth, Kan.) went so far as to say he sees the “flag officer fellowship groups … hold me accountable.”
“We are the aroma of Jesus Christ,” he added.
Something smells, all right, said Weinstein, who heads the Military Religious Freedom Foundation (MRFF). The roles of the officers in the video were later deemed improper after MRFF demanded an investigation in 2007. As for the Bibles, Weinstein said he received some 2,000 complaints about them from service members over the last year. Weinstein, a former Air Force Judge Advocate (JAG) whose 2005 charges against the Air Force Academy in Colorado led to an investigation that officially found religious “insensitivity” against non- fundamentalists there, has gone on to expose a much wider climate of “top-down, invasive evangelicalism” at the institution and throughout the military as a whole.
“We’re fighting a Fundamentalist-Christian-Parachurch-Military-Corporate-Proselytizing-Complex,” Weinstein said told Antiwar.com last week, “and we have been fighting this for some time.” MRFF just posted a video montage, which could easily be called the military evangelicals’ greatest hits, here.
He said aside from “prostituting” the military insignia, the military’s endorsement of the Bibles violated federal separation of church and state, and continue to sanction an insidious culture of radical evangelicalism and discrimination throughout the services (as a Jew, Weinstein said he felt the sting of prejudice when he attended the Air Force academy in the late 1970s; his sons had it even worse, he claims, prompting his first formal complaint seven years ago).
Since then, “(MRFF) has had 28,000 clients and a hundred more each month,” said Weinstein, rejecting claims by his critics that they are all atheist. He insists that 96 percent of his clients are Christians (Catholic and Mainline Protestant) and that his is not a religious crusade. On the other hand, some 33 percent of chaplains are now evangelical Christians (Weinstein’s MRFF places that number at 84 percent), while only 3 percent of service members describe themselves as such.
“They are spiritually raping the U.S. Constitution, the American people and the men and women who are fighting for us,” said Weinstein, who never, ever minces words.
MRFF’s lawyers sent a formal letter to Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta’s office in January. In it, MRFF charged that authorizing LifeWay to print its Bibles with the service insignia “is in violation of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment of the United States Constitution … and several regulations,” and that the authority should be withdrawn immediately or face legal action from MRFF.
Interestingly, according to the documents now available online, the Army, Navy and Air Force responded to the letter in February, insisting that the summer before Weinstein’s lawyers at Jones Day contacted the Pentagon, they had already pulled their trademark authorizations to LifeWay, for “unrelated reasons.” So, in effect, according to the military, the Southern Baptist Convention subsidiary no longer had use of the trademarks and the question was moot.
Weinstein responded with one word: “lies.” He told Antiwar.com that they were just informed of the letters in June, not in February. Furthermore, according to MRFF senior research director Chris Rodda, MRFF has obtained documents through Freedom of Information (FOIA) requests that indicated the “AAFES (the Army and Air Force Exchange Service, which runs the BXs, PXs, and other stores on military bases) was clearly concerned about the complaints about the Holman Bibles, with emails as early as June 6, 2011 from AAFES to LifeWay saying that these Bibles had ‘become a hot issue,’ and referencing and linking to a June 2, 2011 article on MRFF’s website as the reason they were becoming a hot issue.”
Nevertheless, according to a Fox News Radio story, LifeWay insists it’s “sold” all existing copies of the military Bible in question, and instead is printing the same Bibles with “generic insignias, which continue to sell well and provide spiritual guidance and comfort to those who serve.”
The AAFES told Fox News Radio it has 961 copies of the Bible left on shelves at 83 facilities. Weinstein doesn’t know how many are out there but contends that until each and every one is gone, “they’re still aiding and abetting the cause of al- Qaeda.”
Why? Because it is a national security issue if America is perceived as waging a religious war against the Muslim world. One can’t help but get that impression reading the added material in these Holman Bibles, suggesting that that God has blessed the American warrior for his existential struggle of good versus evil.
A crusade — and one playing right into the religious extremism on the other side, putting Americans overseas, and at home, at risk, said Weinstein.
His approach — which is as fiery and combative as the preachers he rebukes (he’s taken to calling the Pentagon, “Pentacostal-gon,”) — has drawn fire from a number of conservative Christian organizations and websites, which have labeled MRFF a bunch of zealous atheist agitators.
“Why should these Bibles be removed because of the demands of a small activist group?” Ron Crews, head of The Chaplain Alliance for Religious Liberty, asked last week, adding in an interview with Fox News Radio that the Department of Defense was acting “cowardly” by backing down to MRFF.
“MRFF must cease and desist their reckless assault on religious liberty. The Chaplain Alliance for Religious Liberty calls on Congress to investigate this frivolous threat and apparent discrimination against religious views by the DoD.”
But this “reckless assault” has offered the public a window into how much evangelicalism threads through the military ethos today — from the Pentagon buying guns with sights outfitted with biblical references, to born-again chaplains directing soldiers to hand out Bibles and proselytize among the Muslim locals in Afghanistan.
MRFF has accused Army chaplains of using religion in lieu of mental health counseling to aid battlefield stress, and drew attention to provocative displays of religious murals and crosses sprawled on walls at U.S. bases and on vehicles driven through the urban battlefront. MRFF has protested the taxpayer-funded “Spiritual Fitness Concert Series” performed on bases here in the states, and followed up on complaints by service members at Fort Eustis in Virginia who said they were punished by a superior officer for not attending. MRFF also helped put the brakes on an Air Force training program in 2011 that used the New Testament and the insights of an ex-Nazi to teach missile officers about the morals and ethics of launching nuclear weapons.
More recently, MRFF criticized a fighter squadron’s decision to switch back to its old “Crusader” moniker, complete with a Knights Templar red cross emblazoned on its planes. Under pressure, the Marines have since reversed that decision, returning to its old World War II-era “werewolves” nickname, earlier this month.
Weinstein said “predatory” evangelicals in the military “believe the Separation of Church and State is a myth, like Bigfoot and the Loch Ness Monster,” and he doesn’t mind putting his own reputation and safety on the line to smash that myth to pieces.
“If we’re catching them on things like this Bible, what the hell else is going on? Well, we know,” he said. “The Bible situation is not innocent, it is not innocuous, it is another raging example of this cancer.”
Follow Vlahos on Twitter @KelleyBVlahos.