Sixteen words may be all that stand right now between the apparatus of government and the Founding Fathers' worst nightmare. And those words are starting to give.
"Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof . . ."
When George Bush, in the wake of 9/11, puffed himself into Richard the Lionheart and declared he would lead the country in a "crusade" against terrorism - you know, crusade, as in slaughter of Muslim infidels - turns out . . . oh, how awkward (if you're on White House spin duty) . . . he may have been speaking literally.
What's certain, in any case, is that a lot of people in high and low places within the Bush administration - and in particular, the military - heard him literally, and regard the war on terror as a religious war:
"The enemy has got a face. He's called Satan. He lives in Fallujah. And we're going to destroy him," a lieutenant colonel, according to a BBC reporter, said to his troops on the eve of the destruction of that undefended city in post-election 2004.
"I knew my God was bigger than his. I knew that my God was a real God and his was an idol," Deputy Undersecretary of Defense Jerry Boykin notoriously boasted a few years back, speaking of a Muslim warlord in Somalia. And by the way, George Bush is "in the White House because God put him there."
And, of course, just the other day, Lt. Col. Ralph Kauzlarich, who conducted the first official investigation into Pat Tillman's death, opined that Tillman's family is only pestering the Army for the, ahem, truth about how he died because their loved one, a non-believer with no heavenly reward to reap, is now "worm dirt."
Until I read the newly published "With God on Their Side" (St. Martin's Press), Michael Weinstein's disturbing account of anti-Semitism at the U.S. Air Force Academy, I shrugged off each of these remarks, and so much more, as isolated, almost comically intolerant noises out of True Believer Land. Forgive them, Lord, for they know not what they do . . .
Now my blood runs cold. Weinstein, a 1977 graduate of the Academy and former assistant general counsel in the Reagan administration, and a lifelong Republican, has devoted the last several years of his life to battling what he has come to regard as a fundamentalist takeover of the Academy, turning it, in effect, into a taxpayer-supported Evangelical institution. He charges that the separation of church and state is rapidly vanishing at the school, which routinely promotes sectarian religious events, tolerates the proselytizing of uniquely vulnerable new recruits and, basically, conflates evangelical interests and the national interest.
If you think this is just a fight over some abstract principle, with ramifications only for atheist, Jewish, Buddhist and other cadets who may be "offended" by fundamentalist God talk, I urge you to check out Weinstein's book or website. He documents a chilling phenomenon: The whole U.S. military, up and down the chain of command, is coming to be dominated by members of a small, characteristically intolerant sliver of Christianity who truly regard themselves as Christian soldiers, on a God-appointed mission to harvest souls and battle evil.
Weinstein, whose family tradition of national service is pretty impressive, does not do battle lightly with those who now run his alma mater. One of his sons is a recent graduate of the Air Force Academy and the other is still a cadet there. The fact that both of them endured anti-Semitic harassment initially spurred him to take action. But this goes deeper than disrespect for other faiths. The attitude he has encountered in his attempt to hold the institution, and the rest of the military, accountable smacks of a coup: "The Christian Taliban is running the Department of Defense," he told me. "It inundates everything."
Can you imagine a contingent of religious zealots, with their contempt for secular values (and such manifestations of secular order as the U.S. Constitution) - and with their zest for holy war - in control of the most potent fighting force and weaponry in human history? Is this possible?
Well, said Weinstein, consider the 523rd Fighter Squadron, based at Cannon Air Force Base, N.M., which calls itself The Crusaders, and whose emblem consists of a sword, four crosses and a medieval knight's helmet. Check 'em out at globalsecurity.org, which reports that the payload on the F-16s they fly consists of "a wide variety of conventional, precision guided and nuclear weapons."
And listen once again to Commander-in-Chief Bush, speaking in 2003 to Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas, according to the Israeli newspaper Haaretz: "God told me to strike at al-Qaida and I struck them, and then he instructed me to strike at Saddam, which I did, and now I am determined to solve the problem in the Middle East."
If this is a religious war - a "clash of civilizations," waged by competing agents of God's will - victory may be indistinguishable from Armageddon. God help the human race.
Robert Koehler, an award-winning, Chicago-based journalist, is an editor at Tribune Media Services and nationally syndicated writer. You can respond to this column at firstname.lastname@example.org.
© 2007 Common Wonders