ABC News reported yesterday that Michigan gunsight manufacturer Trijicon is inscribing references to Bible verses on sights it’s supplying to US troops in Iraq and Afghanistan. The company, which has a $660 million contract to provide illuminated targeting reticule systems to the Marine Corps, has been printing chapter and verse numbers at the end of their serial numbers—for example, “2COR4:6,” which refers to the verse in Second Corinthians, “For God, who commanded the light to shine out of darkness, hath shined in our hearts, to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.” Contemporary theologians have historically interpreted that verse as being about using hydrogen isotope phosphorescence to shoot an Afghan goatherder in the face.
Military rules of operation prohibit proselytizing for any religion in Afghanistan and Iraq, specifically to avoid the impression of a religious crusade against the Muslim world. Until last year, that strategy was undermined somewhat by a Commander-In-Chief who claimed to converse directly with the Christian god, but you can see how—on a mission whose objective is to make people in the Muslim world stop wanting to kill us by going over there and blowing a bunch of stuff up—that kind of thing would be important. The Pentagon has yet to decide what to do about this revelation,* in part because it seems, well, slight. It’s a bunch of numbers and letters at the end of another bunch of numbers and letters, and it’s not even on the gun part of the gun. Despite the Military Religious Freedom Foundation’s assertion that “It’s wrong, it violates the Constitution, it violates a number of federal laws,” one gets the sense that few US servicemen are being converted to the Prince of Peace by reading the serial number on their gunsights. So why is this story so disturbing?
Part of the problem is that it reminds us of an association that we have come to take for granted, despite its being utterly baffling. People who are into guns also tend to be into Jesus. The founder of Tijicon, Glyn Bindon—who died in 2003 when his plane crashed near Gunsight Mountain in Alaska—was a devout Christian in addition to being a large-scale arms dealer. In American politics, the overlap among fundamentalist Christians, opponents of gun control and war hawks is near-total, which is kind of odd for a religion devoted to the teachings of a man known as the Prince of Peace. If you type “Thou shalt not kill” into Google, as I did earlier today, the first result is from BibleStudy.org, explaining that the prohibition against killing does not apply to hunting, accidents, the death penalty or war. It turns out that murder is the only kind of killing Jesus is against, which doesn’t really distinguish him from Hammurabi or, for that matter, Mussolini.
This sort of reasoning is obvious hyperbole and probably repugnant to any believer—making it all the more saddening that it describes the largest and most active bloc of Christians in America today. The military industrial complex that Eisenhower warned us about has come to fruition; the only thing Ike forgot was the church. Since Reagan, the evangelical vote has gone overwhelmingly to the Republican Party, which has enacted Christian principles primarily through war, massive defense spending, laissez-faire economics and, occasionally, reduction in aid to the poor. Stamping Bible verses onto gunsights is particularly grotesque, but it’s the cherry on top of a big, gooey hypocrisy sundae. For a lot of Americans who identify as Christian, abortion and kids learning about evolution are much greater threats to this country’s soul than a few dozen thousand dead Arabs. If you like guns, preemptive war and unrestrained profiteering, you’ll love Jesus Christ.
If you’ve lived in the United States within the last fifty years, none of this should surprise you. What is surprising is that we continue to treat this sort of political Christianity as a religion at all. There is a healthy tradition in America of treating religious beliefs with particular respect. Argument ends when someone says his religion orders him to do something, which is probably good. If we subjected other people’s religious beliefs to the same kind of argumentative rigor we use to conduct, say, our judicial system, the end result would surely be some sort of logical Inquisition. As fun as that sounds, it’s not how we do things here. There comes a point, though, when belief stops transcending logic and begins running counter to it. In contemporary America, at this moment in our political discourse, evangelical Christianity does not substantively differ from the Republican Party. The Bible may advocate peace and charity toward the least among us, but so-called Bible-believing Christians have no interest in either. The state of their souls is their business, but the state of discourse is ours. For millions of Americans “Christian” has become a political position. It so happens that it’s a particularly stupid and vicious one, and it shouldn’t be protected.