If thy rifle scope offends thee, pluck it out

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Jan. 19 2010 12:44 PM

If thy rifle scope offends thee, pluck it out

jesus_with_rifle[Update: In this post I originally said that Biblical passages are inscribed in the sights, however, what is actually inscribed are references to these passages, such as "JN8:12" referring to John 8:12. I corrected the text below. I don't think changes anything but I want to be accurate.]

Phil Plait Phil Plait

Phil Plait writes Slate’s Bad Astronomy blog and is an astronomer, public speaker, science evangelizer, and author of Death from the Skies!  

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There has been a minor uproar over an ABC news report that some rifle sights made by a Michigan company and bought by the US military have Biblical inscriptions in them.

According to the article, the military Powers That Be apparently didn't know about the inscriptions (though apparently some soldiers knew; see below). The military does have rules forbidding proselytizing any religion in Iraq or Afghanistan (where the rifles are used), and this could be seen as such. Certainly it's fodder for the people there to claim the US is waging a holy war, so the inscriptions are a pretty bad idea.

What to do about this?

First, on the military side, they need to sever the contract with the company, called Trijicon. I would hope that there is some other company that can make scopes for the rifles -- if not, then the military needs to tell Trijicon to stop inscribing the ones they buy. The existing scopes are a problem to be sure, but that's already done. Maybe they can be swapped out, or the inscriptions scraped off, though of course the expense in time and money would be huge. As far as the military goes, I think it's almost certainly not worth it; they may simply have to (haha) bite the bullet, continue to use the rifle scopes, and hope for the best.

Trijicon, on the other hand, really screwed this up. They put the U. S. government in a bind here, both financially and perceptually. Whether they did this knowing it would violate U.S. laws or not, they need to be fined at the very least, and publicly humiliated as well.

Why humiliated? One of the Bible passages referenced on the scopes reads, "Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life."

Remember, that's referenced in the scope of a rifle designed to kill people. Unless I have grossly misinterpreted the Sermon on the Mount, I don't think that's exactly what Jesus had in mind.

So Trijicon is icky and weird and allegedly did something illegal. However, Michael Weinstein of the Military Religious Freedom Foundation goes farther. He said: "It's wrong, it violates the Constitution, it violates a number of federal laws..." I agree it's wrong and that it violates laws. I suspect a First Amendment case can be made here, but I'm not sure it's a good one, or that it's worth making. I'm not a lawyer, but it seems to me that an indirect violation of the Establishment Clause has probably occurred, and since it was done unknowingly by the military, the violation of the federal law is a better avenue of pursuit if action is taken to stop the inscriptions. I'm glad the issue has come to light, but I certainly don't think we need to rake the Marines and Air Force as a whole over the coals because of it.

Now, having said that, there's the matter of some soldiers knowing about the inscriptions. Weinstein says that "...commanders have referred to weapons with the sights as 'spiritually transformed firearm[s] of Jesus Christ.'" If that is true, then we have a far clearer problem. Those soldiers have indeed violated the First Amendment, and again, if this is true those military personnel need to be chastised -- at the very least. I am of the opinion they shouldn't be in charge of troops in religious tinderbox areas like Iraq and Afghanistan as well. The idea of religious zealots fighting on our behalf in an area that has been torn apart by religious zealotry for millennia strikes me as a really, really bad idea.

But then, again in my opinion, Weinstein goes too far in his rhetoric:

"This is probably the best example of violation of the separation of church and state in this country," said Weinstein. "It's literally pushing fundamentalist Christianity at the point of a gun against the people that we're fighting. We're emboldening an enemy."

This statement makes me uncomfortable. I suspect Al Qaeda will use this as propaganda against us, but then they do that for everything; they hardly need more fodder for that. But this being the best example of Establishment violation... I think Weinstein needs to take a look at Kansas, Pennsylvania, Oklahoma, and most recently Mississippi. Creationists make bigger violations than this over breakfast every day.

Perhaps he means Iraq when he says "this country", though the context in the article is unclear. Either way, though, I think caution is called for in our rhetoric over things like this. There's a clear path here, and no need to exaggerate the situation.

The image of Jesus with a rifle is everywhere on the web, but I couldn't find the original. If anyone knows who did this, please leave a comment!