Good Religion Gone Bad

The revelation that Donald Rumsfeld appended Bible verses to secret Iraq war memos is problematic on many levels, write Sally Steenland and Susan Thistlethwaite.

Then-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld talks with reporters at a Pentagon news conference in 2003. (AP/Dennis Cook)
Then-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld talks with reporters at a Pentagon news conference in 2003. (AP/Dennis Cook)

Bible verses on Pentagon briefings. Now that’s an example of good religion gone bad. And then-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld did just that during the Iraq War. The covers on his secret presidential briefings were decorated with pictures of fighter jets, tanks, machine guns, soldiers in full battle regalia, and—Bible verses.

On the cover of one memo is a passage from the book of Daniel that says, “….God has numbered the days of your reign and brought it to an end,” accompanied by photos of U.S. soldiers in Saddam Hussein’s marble bathroom and an American tank parked in the courtyard of his palace.

If Rumsfeld’s Pentagon had just stuck with the more apocalyptic biblical texts, that would be bad, as in “justifying Holy War” bad. But the passages he chose actually managed to make it worse.

A beautiful passage from Psalm 139 about God’s ever-abiding presence has been twisted into a pep phrase for fighter pilots on an aircraft carrier. And a text from Ephesians about putting on the full armor of God comes with a tank, gun blazing, even though the armor in the Bible consists of truth, faith, prayer, and peace.

Evidently, the idea came from Major General Glen Shaffer who decided that something “inspirational” was needed on the daily briefings to counter the growing body count. Voila—Bible verses.

These verses were a bad idea on many levels. First it is offensive to people of faith to take biblical texts out of context and slap them alongside pictures of tanks, fighter jets, and aircraft carriers.

But it’s also a stupid, even dangerous move to make in terms of foreign policy. Imagine the response if the images had surfaced during Rumsfeld’s tenure in the early days of the war. It would have been like pouring kerosene on a burning fire. In fact, one Pentagon staffer worried that if the Bible verses were leaked, the fallout "would be as bad as Abu Ghraib." Even now, they reinforce fears in the Muslim world that our invasion of Iraq was a 21st century crusade against Islam.

Of course, we’re assuming here that the verses were intended as reassurance for former President George W. Bush who evidently needed daily spiritual boosts from Mr. Rumsfeld regarding his Iraq adventure—er, mission. God forbid that the texts did anything more—that they actually influenced military policy and tactics. After all, if God was on our side, even with insufficient troops and no coherent plan, we would prevail.

Given these biblical daily briefings and what we’re learning about torture, secret renditions, and abuse of habeas corpus—what’s next?

Sally Steenland is Senior Policy Advisor for Faith and Public Policy at the Center for American Progress. Susan Thistlethwaite is a Senior Fellow in the Faith and Public Policy Initiative at the Center for American Progress.  To read more about the program, please go to the Religion and Values page of our website.

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Sally Steenland

Former Director, Faith and Progressive Policy Initiative

Rev. Dr. Susan Brooks Thistlethwaite