I deliberately waited until the conflict between the MRFF and Trijicon was settled, because I expected it would be resolved quickly. Now let’s look at what it means.
Earlier this week ABC’s Nightline reported a story initiated by the Military Religious Freedom Foundation (MRFF), stating that Bible verse citations were used as part of a product code for rifle sights supplied to the military by Trijicon of Wixton, MI, a company that did about $66 milion in sales last year to the Marine Corps alone.
According to Tom Munson, Trijicon’s sales and marketing director, the company had incorporated scripture citations in product codes for nearly 30 years, a practice initiated by company founder, Glyn Bindon, and continued by his son, Stephen, who is now president.
The Army and the Marine Corps use two tritium rifle sights to pinpoint targets day or night. Tritium is a radioactive form of hydrogen that creates light to aid night vision. The Advanced Combat Optical Gunsight is standard issue for special operations units. Their other product is the Tricon Reflex Sight.
The issue of the Bible verse codes was raised by “Mikey” Weinstein, founder and head of the MRFF, who considers the practice both a form of religious proselytizing, which is prohibited in the U.S. military, as well as a source of potential danger to troops.
He argues that awareness by our enemies of this use of Christian scripture may reinforce their perception that we are engaged in a Holy War against Islam. This could provide adversaries like the Taliban with a potential recruiting tool, unnecessarily endangering our military. In addition, the practice contradicts stated American policies emphasizing that current conflicts are not religious wars.
This concern was voiced last year by Jeff Sharlet, an investigative writer who now serves as an advisor to the MRFF. Writing in Harper’s Magazine last May, he noted that the slogan “Jesus killed Mohammed” was chanted and painted on military vehicles by some U. S. forces in Iraq.
Concern has also been voiced by the Baptist Joint Commission on Religious Freedom, They raise the question of separation of church and state.
Reaction by the military to this news item was mixed but rapid. The U. S. Central Command managing military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan says there has been no violation of the ban on proselytizing, since the equipment is not distributed beyond our own troops.
A spokesperson for the Marine Corps, Capt. Geraldine Cary, reported that “we are aware of the issue and are concerned with how this may be perceived,” and cited plans for discussions with the supplier.
Spokesman for the Air Force, Maj. John Redfield, took a more assertive posture. “This situation,” he said, “is not unlike the situation with U. S. currency. Are we going to stop using money because the bills have ‘In God We Trust’ on them? As long as the sights meet the combat needs of troops, they’ll continue to be used.”
As of yesterday, the MRFF and The New York Times reported, it was decided the citations would be removed from product codes.
In retrospect, this issue was not “major international news” as the MRFF claimed on January 18th nor is the favorable outcome “monumental,” as yesterday’s MRFF notice of victory claimed. However, while its resolution has minor impact in itself, it illustrates how practices once taken for granted even a decade ago now require reevaluation.
True, the enemy does not see these biblical citations and would probably not know what they were if they did. And, true, Americans acknowledge our religious heritage in various ways, since the public square should be inclusive, but it need not be empty.
We are not inclined to scrub references to the creator from our money, our pledges or our oaths, despite the objections of some. But increased wisdom is needed to avoid unnecessary confrontations or insults. As our awareness grows, our sensitivity in proclamation change.
We in Pennsylvania owe a great debt to our Quaker founders for recognizing the right to “affirm” instead of “swear” in court proceedings, consciencious objection to war, and marriages solemnized without religious or civic officiants. Today their prescient concerns about individual conscience need to be expanded.
The world has become increasingly small, requiring us to be aware of the effects may have on others. At first, the gunsight issue reminded me of inspecting the Budweiser label for arcane clues (a favorite game in tavern challenges) or interpreting the Ivory Snow logotype.
But religious objections can be raised to the citations themselves and their context:
The Optical Gunsight is marked JN8:12, in which Jesus in John’s Gospel tells his followers they will not walk in darkness but have the light of life if they follow him. 2Cor4;6 on the Tricon Reflex Sight, is from Paul’s second letter to Corinth; he says God announced “let light shine out of darkness.”
These quotes about light and darkness seem to highlight the advantages of Trijicon’s products for day and night vision, rather than Christian enlightenment. Associations with these gospel verses are tangential, and seem at odds with the purpose of the gun sights, which is hardly intended to give the light of life to our enemies.
It’s fortunate this issue has been settled so quickly and painlessly. In itself it doesn’t scream military abuse of religious freedom. If anything, it points out the difference between an insular past when many practices could be taken for granted, and the current need to change to a more inclusive future.
MRFF has been described as a “watchdog group” for protecting individual religious rights in the military. This time the watchdog bared its fangs at an innocuous and aging intruder. That in itself should serve as a warning to bigger dogs with more sinister aims.
For more info: The MRFF Web Site ( [email protected]) has provided numerous links to press and television coverage of this issue. One useful posting was by Richard Lardner, Michigan defense contractor has God in its sights, Washington Post, Tuesday, January 19, 2010, 9:29 PM.
See Jeff Sharlet, Jesus killed Mohammed: the crusade for a Christian military. Harper’s Magazine, May 2009, pp. 31 -43. His book, The family, is a must-read for anyone seeking to understand religious extremism.