War Room is No Place for Bible Study

That Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld supplied President Bush with Bible-laced Pentagon intelligence briefings might only seem like more Bush-era loopiness, but wait a minute. The deeper, and still current, question is: What in heaven (or, what the hell) is going on inside the US military?

A Robert Draper article in Gentleman's Quarterly revealed that some of the top-secret "World Wide Intelligence Briefings" that Rumsfeld provided to Bush were covered with photographs of Americans at war, and captions taken from Scripture. In one, above a huddle of GIs apparently at prayer, is the question famously put by God, "Whom shall I send and who will go for Us?" Over the soldiers is the answer from Isaiah: "Here I am, Lord. Send me." Above a trooper hunched over a machine gun is this promise from Proverbs: "Commit to the Lord, whatever you do, and your plans will succeed." Another cover shows Isaiah-inspired US tanks: "Open the gates that the righteous nation may enter."

Sent by God. Protected by God. Sure to succeed. The righteous nation. A war defined not merely as just, but as holy. Such manifestations are one thing from eccentric religious groups operating on the fringe of the US military, in space guaranteed by freedom of religion. It is another when they show up at the peak of the chain of command - and from inside the intelligence community, which is charged with nothing less than defining the character of America's wars.

Those downplaying the significance of Draper's revelations suggest the wily Rumsfeld was just indulging the born-again commander-in-chief. Others merely blame the Bible-thumping Air Force general who prepared the briefing documents for the secretary of defense. (Once, that general would have been my father, the director of the Defense Intelligence Agency. A convinced Catholic, yet he would be appalled and alarmed by this business.)

No matter what the down-players say, Draper's revelation is only the latest of many that show a US military unduly influenced by an extreme kind of Christian evangelicalism.

Why should that appall and alarm? Let me suggest a biblical seven reasons:

  • Single-minded religious zealotry bedevils critical thinking, and not just about religion. Military and political thinking suffers when the righteousness of born-again faith leads to self-righteousness. Critical thinking includes a self-criticism of which the "saved" know little.
  • Military proselytizers use Jesus to build up "unit cohesion" by eradicating doubt about the mission, the command, and the self. But doubt - the capacity for second thought - is a military leader's best friend. Commanders, especially, need the skill of skepticism - the opposite of true belief.
  • Otherworldly religion defining the afterlife as ultimate can undervalue the present life. Religion that looks forward to apocalypse, God's kingdom established by cosmic violence, can help ignite such violence. Armageddon, no mere metaphor now, is the nuclear arsenal.
  • Religious fundamentalism affirms ideas apart from the context that produced them, reading the Bible literally or dogma ahistorically. Such a mindset can sponsor military fundamentalism, denying the context from which threats arise - refusing to ask, for example, what prompts so many insurgents to become willing suicides? Missing this, we keep producing more.
  • A military that sees itself as divinely commissioned can all too readily act like God in battle - using mortal force from afar, without personal involvement. An Olympian aloofness makes America's new drone weapon the perfect slayer of civilians.
  • A bifurcated religious imagination, dividing the world between good and evil, can misread the real character of an "enemy" population, many of whom want no part of war with us.
  • The Middle East is the worst place in which to set loose a military force even partly informed by Christian Zionism, seeing the state of Israel as God's instrument for ushering in the Messianic Age - damning Muslims, while defending Jews for the sake of their eventual destruction.

The Pentagon is the wrong place for unbound Christian zealotry, not just because it violates the separation of church and state (and the rights of non-believers in the chain of command), but even more because it is inimical to the prudent use of force. When the history of America's failures in Iraq, and now Afghanistan, is written, expect to find that US military decision-making was made blind by faith.

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