The Defense Department Gospel

armorofgodDonald Rumsfeld took the Lord’s name in vain. Today at Religion Dispatches, I discuss the documents released by GQ this weekend, cover sheets for 2003 intelligence briefings that Rumsfeld delivered to President Bush. On them, Biblical passages sit suggestively alongside scenes of desert warfare.

With only the most cursory bit of investigation, I was able to show that in their original context, many of the passages mean exactly the opposite of what the documents used them to mean—they in fact undermine the wisdom of military might, rather than secure it. I then go on to explore the eerie resemblance between these cover sheets and the propaganda used by Islamist militants.

These pieces of official iconography—at once digital folk art and presidential artifacts—lay bare that as early as 2003 the self-image of American warmakers at the highest levels had become hardly distinguishable from the enemy’s most populist propaganda. Terrorist creations collected by West Point’s Islamic Imagery Project differ only in that they were broadcasted rather than classified.

Most of the coverage of these documents in the media has dealt with their political significance—they are a sign of Rumsfeld’s manipulation and irresponsibility. But I try to take them for their religious meaning. Believers who take these scriptures seriously should be outraged at their flagrant misuse at the highest level of American power.





10 responses to “The Defense Department Gospel”

  1. I enjoyed reading your article.

    I think there’s one problem in expecting Christians to denounce this sort of “pious” warmongering. Don’t most Christian denominations in America accept some form of Just War Theory? Certainly it appears that large numbers of Christians in America are willing to support warfare. So while many Christians may be appalled that such obvious and specific warmongering, most American Christians don’t reject the very idea of war; most see fighting/supporting war as an acceptable part of a righteous life, or, if you prefer, see war as allowed and occasionally supported by a Christian God. And that may make these uses of scripture less disgusting to a “Just War” Christian than they are to me (and I presume from your writing, to you).

    For Christians who do embrace an ethic of radical nonviolence, of course, the manipulation of scripture in this way is appalling. But “moderate” Christians aren’t necessarily anti-war Christians. I’m also appalled by some of the ways in which I see moderate Christianity sanctifying (or at least tacitly condoning support for) warfare.

  2. Quientin Kirk

    Yes, yes, yes to Joe above.
    Most “Christians” I meet are capitalists and patriots of their nation state first and Jesus followers a distant third. To extend “love,” spiritual concern, to their enemy is the last thing on their mind. The spirituality of Jesus is for them a distant, pleasant self-righteousness.

  3. Helpful comments! In the article, I actually tried not to take a radical non-violence position. Maybe you’re reading in stuff from my other writings? I tried to target not so much violence as aggression, which a just war theorist could also agree not to support. Anyway, just war theory speaks of warfare as a tragic necessity of a world stained by sin, not an exercise of pious crusading. I would seriously question any Augustinian or Niebuhrian just war theorist who thought that misreading the Bible to make a war of aggression seem like a holy war was okay. No war is holy, they should say, though some are justifiable according to rigorous ethical standards.

    But perhaps I didn’t convey this right in the piece. It’ll run again Monday in Killing the Buddha – perhaps I’ll revise somewhat for that. Any more suggestions are most welcome.

  4. Quentin Kirk

    Wait there is more: For me there is soooo much to this subject. The “Old Testament “ does glorify tribal war (as does the Iliad and the Odysseus and most old sacred books). Christianity in a universal religion based around the Sermon on the Mount and should get its own bible from the writing, deeds, scholarship, myths, poems, lyrics, of the last two thousand years.

  5. Hi Nathan,

    I see the distinction you’re making, but I think that distinction frequently gets conflated. Certainly it did in the Iraq invasion: the rhetoric turned an aggressive act of war into a defensive necessity against a threatening evil. And the rhetoric works the other way: a “necessary” war, even one of defense, is easily spun into a crusade of sorts: a moral, righteous obligation (even sanctioned by God). Perhaps I’m too much the pacifist, but I see the “Just War” and the “Crusade” as negligibly different.

  6. I tend to think that you’re right. But if there’s any truth to just war theory, I should hope that its adherents thing you’re wrong.

    Quentin, I was interested to note how many of the Hebrew Bible passages quoted in the documents turned out not to really be glorifying warfare.

  7. Quentin Kirk

    Yes I agree, but Rumsfeld was using the quotes carelessly out of context for their poetic punch. He did take them from one invasion story (in the broad sense) to another.

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  9. Yes I agree, but Rumsfeld was using the quotes carelessly out of context for their poetic punch. He did take them from one invasion story (in the broad sense) to another.

  10. I just don’t think that’s how the Bible should work. Listen to the meaning of the passages, don’t just pull them out of context and use them how you choose! Then again, such careless proof-texting is an old and familiar tradition in American folk-theology.