Can non-Christians serve in the military? Should they be allowed to? Can non-Christians die in combat? Should their sacrifice be honored?
Does America’s military fight for Jesus? Allah? Moses? Joseph Smith perhaps? Are America’s soldiers sworn to defend the Bible? The Koran? The Book of Mormon? Or is it something else?
Last October, the town of Monument, Colorado, dedicated a memorial to veterans in the town cemetery. Given how many veterans are buried there, this makes sense. What doesn’t make sense is the inscription. Shamefully, it’s unbelievably inappropriate. More shamefully, those few brave men and women in the town who knew this was wrong felt they could not challenge it publicly.
Fortunately, they knew they could rely on the ever-vigilant Mikey Weinstein and the Military Religious Freedom Foundation (MRFF) to protect their anonymity while bringing this travesty to the public eye.
The memorial bears the following inscription, well-known in fundamentalist circles:
“Only two defining forces have ever offered to die for you: Jesus Christ and the American Soldier; one died for your soul, the other died for your freedom.”
What is wrong with this? Let me count the ways. We’ll start with the mildly irritating, and work our way down from there.
The punctuation is atrocious. The semicolon should be a period. The next word should start a new sentence.
The memorial is a blatant government endorsement of a specific sect of a specific religion on government land. You cannot enter the cemetery without passing by it.
The quote is factually wrong. Only two defining forces? Aren’t police officers a “defining force”? How about firefighters? Healthcare workers in a pandemic? FBI agents? America’s intelligence sources in hostile countries? American journalists reporting from totalitarian regimes? In fact, aren’t there lots of professionals who put their lives on the line every day for our safety and freedom? When they die on the job, is their sacrifice any less meaningful?
The cemetery memorial is, I believe, deeply and profoundly offensive to all non-Christians buried there (if there are any). Based on MRFF’s reported client list, I’m confident it offends some Christians as well. But even if everyone buried in that cemetery is Christian, what does the memorial say to non-Christians who have lost loved ones in uniform? No need to ask. Jewish War Veterans of the USA has already called for the memorial’s removal. You can read more about that here.
Did I mention the memorial features the copyrighted logos of America’s armed services? These are specifically forbidden by Department of Defense Instruction 5535.12 to be used “for any purpose intended to promote religious beliefs (including non-belief)”.
Worst of all, the memorial is unconstitutional. It is a blatant government endorsement of a specific sect of a specific religion on government land. You cannot enter the cemetery without passing by it.
According to an MRFF press release, the Town of Monument will shortly be sued in Federal Court. I predict it will lose.
Sadly, this was an Eagle Scout project. I know many Eagle Scouts and their parents, all of them awesome. I’m sure this young man is awesome too. Unfortunately, every single adult involved in the approval and execution of this project failed him badly.
On matters of religion, the First Amendment draws a line. On one side: The Free Exercise Clause, guaranteeing freedom of religion. On the other side: The Establishment Clause, prohibiting government endorsement of it. This line has kept America free and safe from the ravages of religious conflict that have plagued mankind throughout history.
A true defender of the Constitution should support both. That’s why I have not hesitated to invoke the Free Exercise clause in other writing to defend evangelicals, even when they were doing things I disagreed with. This time, it’s the Establishment Clause that cries out “Respect the line!”.
I believe the most principled position on First Amendment questions is to stand on that line, armed with the courage of your convictions, and tell each side “You shall not pass.”. Do that, and you’re on solid middle ground. I think that’s a good place to be.
The Town of Monument can still fix this mess. Replace the quote with a religiously neutral one. Have the town attorney crack open a first year Con Law text to check that the quote passes muster. Get the permission of the Department of Defense to use their symbols. Then you’re good.
As of today, however, the Monument Cemetery Veterans’ Memorial crosses the line so carefully drawn by the Framers. It is a debasement of the United States Constitution, unworthy of those who died to defend it.