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Michael Kessler Michael Kessler is managing director of the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs at Georgetown University, a visiting assistant professor of Government, and an adjunct professor of...

Ethical values, based on religion and reason, shape the kinds of law and policy citizens desire to govern their community. At the same time, the law shapes how we become moral persons and the kinds of communities we hope to build. Law, morality, and religion are intertwined. Yet ideologically-charged policy debates, the grittiness of political compromise, and the impersonal rule of law often don't correlate with--and can even damage--our deepest religious and moral commitments. We talk about law achieving a just order, but we too often struggle to develop notions of justice that rise beyond "efficiency" measured by markets and the "balancing" of preferences. Just Law and Religion rejects the cynic's reduction of law and politics to an amoral arena of clashing interests. It recognizes the crucial role of law and policy in achieving social stability, but focuses on how fundamental rights and moral values both shape and are shaped by contemporary legal and political institutions. Just Law and Religion will take the "moral temperature" of current events and issues across a vast array of political institutions, law, and culture in order to comprehend the ethical stakes, and the promise and perils, of our common life. Just Law and Religion asserts that law and politics can only be âœjust❠when they concede there is more to human value and meaning than legal and political institutions can achieve.


Keeping the Real Threat in View

September 11, 2010

What would George Washington say about Islam in USA?

July 28, 2010

Religious freedom to exclude

June 28, 2010

The dignity of pedestrians

June 11, 2010

An oil-driven Memorial Day

May 28, 2010

Cross purposes

April 28, 2010

National day of prayer w/ caution

April 24, 2010

National day of prayer confusion

April 16, 2010

The religious neutrality of Justice John Paul Stevens

April 9, 2010

No Sabbath rest for job weary?

April 2, 2010

Silencing student religious beliefs

March 20, 2010

Establishment Clause doesn't limit foreign policy

February 26, 2010

The dignity of snow shovelers

February 10, 2010

No room in health reform for Mary?

December 17, 2009

Best and worst of humanity on Bravo

December 8, 2009

Jefferson's Thanksgiving wish

November 25, 2009

>> more


Holy wars and weapons

January 20, 2010

As ABC News first reported, Trijicon, a Michigan company, has been supplying rifle scopes to the U.S. military with serial numbers containing scriptural citations. (Thursday, the company decided to stop doing that and to help erase the existing cites.) Was it a stupid practice? Probably. Unconstitutional? Not likely. More interesting to me is how responses to story reflect some fundamental divides among Christians about how they reconcile their religious convictions with military action.
As ABC reported, "the sights are used by U.S. troops in Iraq and Afghanistan and in the training of Iraqi and Afghan soldiers. The maker of the sights, Trijicon, has a $660 million multi-year contract to provide up to 800,000 sights to the Marine Corps, and additional contracts to provide sights to the U.S. Army."

Among the references encoded in the serial numbers are: 2COR4:6 ("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") and JN8:12 ("Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life").

"Trijicon confirmed to that it adds the biblical codes to the sights sold to the U.S. military. Tom Munson, director of sales and marketing for Trijicon, which is based in Wixom, Michigan, said the inscriptions 'have always been there' and said there was nothing wrong or illegal with adding them. Munson said the issue was being raised by a group that is 'not Christian.'"

The short controversy led to the company's voluntary offer to stop the practice and offer serial number alteration kits to remove the citations at issue.

ABC was tipped off by the Military Religious Freedom Foundation. The President and founder of MRFF, Mikey Weinstein, deplored the practice: "Trijicon's outrageous practice of placing bible verse citations on military-issued gunsights for weapons was an unconstitutional disgrace of the highest magnitude to our military and an action that clearly gave additional incentive and emboldenment to recruiters for our nation's enemies. It is nothing short of a vile national security threat that, despite our nation's efforts to convince the Muslim world we are not pursuing a holy war against them, our military and its contractors time again resort to unlawful fundamentalist evangelical Christian practices, even on the battlefield."

Weinstein claimed to ABC that the practice "violates the Constitution, [and] it violates a number of federal laws." He went on to claim that the practice: "allows the Mujahedeen, the Taliban, al-Qaeda and the insurrectionists and jihadists to claim they're being shot by Jesus rifles," and that the practice confirms the claims of "those who are calling this [war in Iraq and Afghanistan] a Crusade."

Weinstein is undoubtedly correct to argue that this practice fuels the fires that the military actions in Iraq and Afghanistan are somehow civilizational conflicts, pitting righteous Christians against infidel Muslims. Notwithstanding the sheer diversity of the U.S. military, and the fact that Saddam Hussein's Iraqi regime was a thoroughly non-religious governmental structure, this claim also misconceives the objectives of the Afghanistan conflict, which is to topple the Taliban in order to disrupt further terrorist activities and safe havens. (Whatever the original intent of the Iraq invasion, this has now also become a central mission of the Iraq conflict).

More difficult, however, is the assertion that this company's practice is a Constitutional violation. It seems clear that the military did not request this engraving; rather, a private actor supplied the weapons system with these letters and numbers tacked on. If the military had placed the reference, perhaps a case for unconstitutional endorsement could be argued.

Further, it is not immediately obvious how the practice violates either the free exercise or establishment clauses. It's not clear that any soldier's religious practice was impeded by the practice. If the government had specifically requested these citations, and soldiers were forced to use weapons that purported to impose a specific religious worldview based on the scriptural passages, then perhaps their personal religious free exercise rights might be violated. But the military spokesperson quoted by the Post claims they had no prior knowledge of the practice: "It is not the policy of the Army or the Department of Defense to put religious references of any kind on its equipment." Once the practice was revealed, the military is taking corrective action to mitigate any potential harm that the government did not impose in the first place. Without citizens' rights being impeded--through some mode of direct government endorsement--this imprudent and otherwise foolish practice would not rise to the level of a Constitutional violation.

More telling, though, is how the responses to the rifle scope story reveals different American views how religion, politics, and military action should or should not mix.

Weinstein, cited above, represents the strict Separationists--any appearance of religion is not only a constitutional violation, but is a government endorsement of religion.

The pacifist crowd--whether motivated by abhorrence to war or reluctance to legitimate the baptize and bless the messy affairs of the world--condemn the rifle scope verses because they adulterate what they see as Christ's message of peace. Consider a blog post by Scott Gunn, an Episcopal priest, at Seven Whole Days: "to speak as a priest, I am further outraged by the perversion of the faith to which I devote my life. Jesus surely wants us to share the Good News with the whole world, but not in the side of deadly weapons....killing in Christ's name violates every teaching of the Gospels...Every war, every weapon, and every death in battle represents a tragic sin. To mock Jesus Christ by stamping 'the light of Christ' on a rifle scope is to engage in deadly blasphemy."

Others are exhilarated by the triumphalism displayed by the Christian message proclaimed on the weapons used to fight terrorism (or, as it is put in many other comments and blogs, to fight Islam itself). This triumphalism was exemplified by FoxNews host Steve Doocy, who said on air this week: "'Hey, wait a minute, the Taliban and the extremists -- what is it they say just before they blow themselves up which kills somebody, they say, 'Allahu Akbar.' So if anybody's making this a religious thing, they started it." That is, terrorists proclaim religion before attempting to blow us up, so our religion--the right one--can be legitimately proclaimed when we retaliate with military force. The military becomes an arm of righteousness, deployed with certainty and assurance that we fight God's wars.

Finally, there are those who are reluctant and humble to proclaim that any war is ideal and pure in motivation, even when it is necessary. This old strand of Realism--dating back at least to Augustine and theorized by Reinhold Niebuhr more recently (and referenced throughout President Obama's Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech)--argues for the unalterable tragedy of power and violence and the sometime necessity of using force to stop further violence. In spite of this necessity, a nation, its leaders, and its soldiers can never be certain they're on the side of pure righteousness. Even if violent actions, and war, are well-justified in order to stop aggression and prevent harm to the dignity of persons and the well-being of nations, the actions always run the danger of corrupting those who must undertake violence to defend the dignity and well-being of others. Since we always run the real risk of failing to live up to ideal (indeed, it is our constant threat of failing that defines us imperfect humans), we must act with humility. If we must kill those who would cause injury and harm to the well-being of others, we do so not with righteous assurance but with a recognition of the tragedy of the human situation, that we are all in need of God's reconciliation, and with the humility to know that we, too, fall short of the pure and holy.

The Christian realist probably would counsel against any engraving on the instruments of war, but if they did, it might simply say: "aim well, but pray for the soul of the one you had to kill, as well as your own."