The Unintended but Predictable Consequences of Bad God-talk

May 2, 2013

So, this is how it works.

1.  Start with unreconstructed conservative Christianity, which takes as one of its premises that it possesses a uniquely true creed which offers the only genuine salvation in a world where every human being is headed to either damnation or salvation.  Then, roaming among the enormous and highly varegiated world of Christians, find some Christians who sincerely believe that being a Christian obligates them to offer their proprietary “salvation solution” to everyone who is not a Christian.  Then note that, with the stakes as high as eternal-life-or-eternal-suffering, the question of what it actually means to be a Christian is freighted with angst.  So some of these Christians feel anxiety, not only about the easily-identified damned (e.g. atheists, witches) but those whose piety is too lukewarm or not Christ-centered enough, or not belonging to the right tradition.  

2.  Now take a man who’s an unreconstructed conservative patriot.  His father graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy.  He himself was an honor graduate from the U.S. Air Force Academy.  For ten years, he serves as a Judge Advocate General in the Air Force.  He’s a White House lawyer for Ronald Reagan for over three years, and also serves as general counsel for Ross Perot.  When his youngest son goes to the Air Force Academy, he’s the sixth member of the family to attend.  (At one point he does the math: in his immediate family, there are over a hundred years of combined active-duty military service from every combat engagement from World War I to Iraq/Afghanistan.)

3.  Make the man – we’ll call him Mikey, because that’s what everyone calls him – Jewish.  Then let his kids, as they attend the Air Force Academy, encounter some of these Christians who don’t understand the discourtesy involved in telling someone, “Your whole family is going to hell, and unless you join Team Jesus, you will, too.”

4.  That, in and of itself, may not have been enough to start the shitstorm.  But then it turns out that Mikey’s kids are hearing overtly anti-Jewish theology, not only from fellow cadets, but from some of their teachers, and others in the military hierarchy who don’t seem to realize that their highly authoritarian roles might make it ethically problematic for them to share their faith in certain contexts.  Even as a public school teacher, I understood that it would be problematic for me to use my classroom to proselytize, in spite of the fact that my students’ default position was NOT to listen to their teachers.  But military cadets are trained, with some severity, to take even the mildest suggestions of their superiors very, very seriously.  That’s what you sign on for in the military.  And that’s fine.  As long as you don’t run into some of these superiors who don’t have a particularly good understanding of the separation of Church and State.

5.  So Mikey becomes an irate patriot, who is also a well-connected lawyer, and naturally enough decides he’s going to do something about this state of affairs.  So he starts a foundation with a mission of making life a lot more difficult for Christians in the military who, wittingly or not, are using their positions of government-sanctioned authority to beat a drum for Jesus.

6.  Even then, maybe it would have petered out, or failed to get much traction.  But this is now 2005.  Culture warriors have been egging on evangelical Christians to “take back the culture” for years.  And the ranks of people who don’t particularly want to be evangelical Christians and have been less than impressed by the winsome, loving quality of these Christians’ witness for their faith are considerable.  It turns out that there are a lot of people in the military who have been the unhappy recipients of ill-conceived “good news,” and (here’s the kicker) most of them are Christian.  Yes, it turns out that some of these evangelicals are still telling, say, Roman Catholics, or liberal Presbyterians, that they don’t really know what it means to love or follow Jesus.  Oops. 

6.  Mikey, it turns out, is an impassioned crusader, and develops a vivid and highly aggressive rhetoric for taking on this issue:

These are the people who, when I talk to senior members of the military at the flag-level rank … that have looked at me and said, “Come on, Mikey, what’s your problem? We have the cure to cancer. If you had the cure to cancer, wouldn’t you want to spread the word?” They don’t realize when they say it, they don’t have the mental wherewithal to understand that to a person who isn’t an evangelical Christian, you’re calling our faith a cancer.

7.  Again, the shitstorm builds, not just because Mikey is a passionate advocate with some serious firepower, but because there’s a lot of bad theology going on.  Even Joe Carter at the conservative Catholic journal First Things, after saying some mean things about Mikey, has to acknowledge that the kind of combination of military authority and theological advocacy that gets Mikey so irate, is genuinely disturbing.

The Air Force has suspended a training course for nuclear missile launch officers because it used Bible passages and religious imagery to teach them about the ethics of war…

The problem with the religious section of the ethics training—dubbed by the attendees as the “Jesus loves nukes speech”—is that it appears to present a truncated and distorted view of just war thinking, particularly as it applies to the use of nuclear weapons.

The PowerPoint presentation briefly lists “Augustine’s Qualifications for Just War” as “Just Cause” and “Just Intent.” Although these are a couple of the qualifications for jus ad bellum (“right to wage war”), there is no mention of jus in bello (“justice in war”). Instead, the presentation merely lists a few Old Testament figures who engaged in war (Abraham, Samson, David) and a handful of verses from the New Testament that present a positive impression of soldiers.

From there it shifts to the section on Hiroshima. The presentation mentions that 80,000 were killed instantly and that 200,000 died by 1950 before adding a “However . . .” that points out “Tokyo firebombed 80,000 to 100,000 in one night!” and “If the Japanese or Germans had made the atomic bomb first, they have testified that they would have used it.” Arguing that the people behind the Holocaust and the Rape of Nanking would have done it too if they had the opportunity is not exactly a compelling ethical justification. Sadly, this appears to be the primary mode of reasoning used in the presentation. 

Judging the training based solely on the supporting materials is admittedly unfair. Perhaps the complete presentation was more nuanced and rooted in Christian moral reasoning. That is certainly my hope, though it appears the training had less to do with teaching Christian ethics than with salving the qualms of religious airmen who may have to “turn the key” and launch nuclear weapons against civilian populations.

Therein lies the true problem with this sort of training. If the role of the chaplain in ethical training is reduced to providing Bible verses to support whatever choices are made in warfare, then it is worse than ineffective. And if the chaplaincy is disappointed and considers the training a failure when an airmen decides that maybe Jesus doesn’t love nukes, they have failed to do their duty as religious counselors.

8.  2009.  Jeff Sharlet writes a very nuanced and detailed description of the kind of evangelical subculture in the Armed Forces that gives Mikey hives.

“Under the rubric of free speech and the twisted idea of separation of church and state,” reads a promotion for a book called Under Orders: A Spiritual Handbook for Military Personnel, by Air Force Lieutenant Colonel William McCoy, “there has evolved more and more an anti-Christian bias in this country.” In Under Orders, McCoy seeks to counter that alleged bias by making the case for the necessity of religion—preferably Christian—for a properly functioning military unit. Lack of belief or the wrong beliefs, he writes, will “bring havoc to what needs cohesion and team confidence.”

McCoy’s manifesto comes with an impressive endorsement: “_Under Orders _should be in every rucksack for those moments when Soldiers need spiritual energy,” reads a blurb from General David Petraeus, the senior U.S. commander in Iraq until last September, after which he moved to the top spot at U.S. Central Command, in which position he now runs U.S. operations from Egypt to Pakistan. When the Military Religious Freedom Foundation (MRFF) demanded an investigation of Petraeus’s endorsement—an apparent violation of the Uniform Code of Military Justice, not to mention the Bill of Rights— Petraeus claimed that his recommendation was supposed to be private, a communication from one Christian officer to another.

“He doesn’t deny that he wrote it,” says Michael “Mikey” Weinstein, president of MRFF. “It’s just, ‘Oops, I didn’t mean for the public to find out.’ And what about our enemies? He’s promoting this unconstitutional Christian exceptionalism at precisely the same time we’re fighting Islamic fundamentalists who are telling their soldiers that America is waging a modern-day crusade. That is a crusade.”

9.  For me, when I view the whole arc of Mikey Weinstein’s career, I don’t see an “extremist,” in the sense of a fanatic or dangerous ideologue.  I see someone who’s getting extremely pissed off about things that are extremely worth getting pissed off about.  And when I hear folks like Klukowski (of the Breitbart site) call him an “extremist,” what I hear is a temper tantrum being thrown by people whose journalistic skills have been trumped by their compulsion to keep score in the culture war and feel their side losing ground.  They’re mad because the Pentagon is actually listening to this guy.  Yeah, the Pentagon is now obiged to listen to him, because he took the lead in calling out these Christians on funny business that other Christians should have blown the whistle on long ago.  The rule, as always, “Clean up your own house before someone else decides to clean it up for you.”

10.  Important clarification: I actually don’t have a problem with people being confessional, in the sense of bearing witness to the truth as they see it, in a range of situations.  But the point of being a Christian, to me, is you have the courage to bear witness, and you accept the consequences.  Christians who complain when others raise these kinds of objections to their evangelism drive me crazy.  We are not a persecuted minority, people.  You are not Dietrich Bonhoeffer when others get mad at you for opposing same-sex marriage.  When the “crazy uncle” says something really mean and stupid, and it gets a lot of coverage, that’s not a hostile media, that’s the breaks when you go the mean-and-stupid route.  When a university tells a student group that wants to be a specifically Christian fellowship that, to get funding, they shouldn’t discriminate against GLBT people, that’s not gratuitous interference in something that’s not the university’s business. That you can’t proselytize in the U.S. armed forces with impunity – that you could conceivably be court-martialed if someone can make a case that you were a theological bully –  is not a problem.  It means that the larger society is making you stop and think about  whether or not your evangelism could be considered rude or even coercive – and if every Christian had stopped to think about that in the first place, perhaps you wouldn’t have a Mikey Weinstein to contend with today.



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