by Matt Sutton
While not busy watching the libertarians skewer Harvey for daring to give us his take on a new book’s strengths and weaknesses (which last time I checked is what you are supposed to do in a book review, right libertarians?) or witnessing the continuing implosion of my fantasy football team (thanks for nothing this week Cedric Benson) I am finally catching up on some old reading. In the May issue of Harper’s Jeff Sharlet (of The Family fame) has a fascinating article entitled “Jesus Killed Mohammed.” In it he examines the continuing problem of hyper-Christian rhetoric and ideology in the U.S. military, which is a particularly troubling phenomenon in the context of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. I have two problems with the article; one petty and one more significant. First, the petty. He writes:
“Every man and woman in the military swears an oath to defend the Constitution. To most of them, evangelicals included, that oath is as sacred as Scripture. For the fundamentalist front, though, the Constitution is itself a blueprint for a Christian nation. ‘The idea of separation of church and state?’ an Air Force Academy senior named Bruce Hrabak says. ‘There’s this whole idea in America that it’s in the Constitution, but it’s not.’” Sharlet then condescendingly points out: “That’s technically true; it’s in the First Amendment of the Bill of Rights.”
This, of course is both inaccurate and not the issue Hrabak is raising here. As all readers of this blog—and Jeff Sharlet—are well aware, the establishment and the free exercise clauses have been interpreted in different ways over the centuries. The First Amendment may have meant “separation of church and state” in Thomas Jefferson’s mind, at least when he was writing to Danbury Baptists, but it has not always meant that and it has certainly never been consistently interpreted that way by American courts. Americans United for the Separation of Church and State can happily provide legions of violations of the supposed “high wall of separation.” Hrabak is not an idiot in making the claim above; Sharlet does him a disservice by not unpacking his statement in the context of the culture wars and competing views of the American past. It is not as if we good humanist liberals all agree on the meaning of the First Amendment while the fundies keep making stupid sh*t up.
The larger question (problem?) I have with Sharlet’s work is the representativeness of the people he profiles. He certainly finds tantalizing handfuls of rogue nuts and dozens of their asinine statements. Furthermore, he rightly points out that evangelical and conservative Catholic proselytizing of Jews, Muslims, and secularists in the military is a serious problem that needs to be taken seriously. But I am not sure that his evidence is sufficient to build the case that a secret group of behind-the-scenes and off-the-record fundamentalists lurking in the hallways of power (in Congress in his previous work, in the military here) will soon dominate the nation. Maybe he is right, but I suspect that most of the people, most of the time—even soldiers and former Republican presidents—know better than to tell Muslims that Jesus killed Mohammad. If they don’t than we really are in for a world of trouble.