Imagine a village that has been told of a terrible dragon that is trying to tear down the village walls and carry away the inhabitants. The townspeople gather a bag of gold coins for a hero, the fairest maiden in the village offers herself to anyone strong and brave enough to slay the dragon, and Mikey volunteers for the task. He rides to the dragon’s lair and finds the dragon already dead. What to do? There is that bag of gold to be had, not to mention the fair maiden. So he goes back to the village and reports that his mission was successful: the dragon has been slain.
The people go out to the lair and finds the dead dragon. But the village doctor’s autopsy finds no sword wounds, and determines that the dragon’s time of death was before Mikey ever left the village. “Doesn’t matter,” responds Mikey, “the mere word of my brave mission was enough to cause the dragon to have a heart attack and die. Now, I have a maiden to kiss!”
One hill over is another village. The people there revere the dragon. Even though it occasionally swoops in and carries off one of their cows, it drops massive piles of excrement from the sky, that makes for good fertilizer for their crops. Alan, the local deacon of the Church of the Flying Dragon, hears of Mikey’s boast of slaying the dragon. He gathers the town together and delivers a sermon which decries dragon slayers in general, Mikey in particular, and says the whole endeavor is an attack on their religion and on the agriculture that the village depends on. Someone in the back of the crowd whispers that there will be more cows now, and cows produce lots of excrement, so fields will hardly go unfertilized. But never mind pesky details like that; the deacon is busy whipping the villagers to a frenzy. Sunday is coming, and the collection plate needs to be filled.
Now Mikey didn’t really slay the dragon, and Alan didn’t really slay Mikey, but both of them won what they were after.
Something very much like that has been playing out in American politics recently.
On June 11th, Mikey Weinstein, President and Founder of Military Religious Freedom Foundation (MRFF), put out a press release noting that the Pentagon had licensed a fundamentalist Bible publisher to put the official seals of each of the military services on their Bibles and sell them in base exchanges. The MRFF, he said, had sprung into action. “Upon investigation, each branch of the military responded in succession with the notification that permission to use each branch’s imagery had been revoked . . . . Once again our foundation has decisively beaten back those who would see the wall separating church and state reduced to rubble.” The dragon – elements of the United States Government who were attempting to endorse a particular form of the Bible and pro-Christian organizations – had been defeated.
Reaction was swift. The very next day a commentator for Fox News got most of the elements of the story correct, but enhanced it by stating that the MRFF was calling the the Bibles a “threat to national security.”
The head of The Chaplain’s Alliance was in fine rhetorical form as he inveighed:
“Why should these Bibles be removed because of the demands of a small activist group?” COL Crews said. “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 leave it to the politicians to really take the rabble rousing over the top. Kansas Representative Tim Huelskamp apparently has noted that no Kansas politician has ever lost votes by attacking “the atheist threat”, so he took it a lot farther, linking the action to claimed suicide attempts by military members:
““Suicide is a real concern. When you separate people from their faith and separate people from their Creator, you expect bad things to happen. Tony is definitely right, the real folks that lose out on this are the men and women that need this truth and need this faith.”
Now, it’s important to note that nobody had taken Bibles off the shelves of base exchanges. In fact, the publishers of The Soldier’s (and Marine’s, and Airmen’s) Bible simply replaced the official seals with generic ones, and report that their Bibles continue to sell well. And yet, Rep. Huelskamp somehow knows that the fact that the new bibles won’t have the official seals of their branch of service on them will cause suicide rates to rise.
Rep. Huelskamp was speaking on June 12th, the day after Mikey’s press release, so perhaps he can be forgiven for taking the MRFF claim at face value, even if not for linking it to suicides. But a month later, when the full facts of the incident were well known, Rep. Alan Nunnelee, a deacon in his church, felt the need to fan the flames of that particular fire all over again. On July 12th he said on television, “this is just another example of government assault on religion.” Waving his rhetorical sword in the air, he went on to explain that “to say that you can’t link your service in the United States Military and the comfort that you find in the Word of God is just absurd.”
Now, nobody is saying that military members can’t feel a link between their service and their religion, and in fact many do. The issue is that the government can’t legally make that link for them. Imagine, for instance, the reaction if service members had found “The Soldier’s Koran” complete with the official seal of the Army on the cover on the shelves of their local exchange. If someone expressed outrage and wanted the Department of the Army to withdraw the publisher’s trademark license, would Representatives Heulskamp and Nunnelee have been in full throat about an “attack on religion” or “raising the suicide rate of soldiers” because the seals had to be removed? It seems unlikely in the extreme. This wasn’t about “an attack on religion” but an attack on an attempt to create the appearance of an official sponsorship of one religious sect by the military.
Lawyers appointed by the MRFF had expressed the danger well in their June, 2011 letter to the Department of Defense: “Given the prominent placement of the Army emblem in three distinct locations in the Holman Bibles, an objective and reasonable observer could only conclude that the Holman Bibles are officially endorsed by the Army.”
And given that, a slippery slope was created that could result in events that even deacons of the church might find objectionable:
“The danger posed here is that, by providing authorization to use official Army images on Holman Bibles in this instance, the Army has set itself up as the future arbiter of approval over other religious publications For example, if Army officials receive requests in the future to use official images on other religious texts (such as the Koran or Torah), unless approval would be automatic, the Army will have to establish criteria that will give the appearance of preferring certain religions.”
And that, in addition to being in violation of Department of Defense ethics regulations, would be a clear violation of the establishment clause of the First Amendment to the Constitution. That amendment was devised, among other things, to keep Islamic, Buddhist, and Flying Spaghetti Monster (among others) holy books from being endorsed by the US government. Representatives Huelskamp and Nunnelee should be pleased. Apparently they are not. The coming elections argue more for whipping up the passions of their constituents against imaginary threats than for a dispassionate lecture on the virtues of separation of church and state.
Now, as to that dragon, how did it really die?
As we have already seen, the MRFF press release made masterful use of the post hoc, propter hoc fallacy to give the impression that they had been the cause of the government withdrawing the trademark license. Well, maybe, but it sounds an awful lot like our village hero’s claim that the dragon died out of sheer terror at the prospect that he may come to slay it.
What really seems to have happened is that in June of 2011, the military exchanges were finding that there was resistance from some of the troops to the official seals on bibles. Shortly thereafter, the MRFF sent a Freedom of Information Act to the Department of Defense to ask for documents about the issue. Some three months later, in September 2011, the Department and its various services acted to withdraw the trademark licenses from the bible publisher. Then in January, 2012, the MRFF’s lawyers sent a letter to the Department, demanding that the licenses be withdrawn. In February of 2012 the Department replied by letter that they had reviewed the issue several months before the MRFF request, had acted on their own accord, and the issue was now moot.
Those who have had experience with large government bureaucracies may wonder at the claim that the mere indication of interest in an issue by an activist group would be sufficient to cause them to reverse a long-standing policy in less than three months. It could happen, but it seems something of a stretch to claim that it did. The military’s own explanation is that the reversal occurred as a result of a larger internal review of trademark licenses and policy, unrelated to the MRFF action.
Well, who’s to know what the truth is? And who’s to care, as long as there are votes to be won and maidens to kiss?