The U.S. Space Force is real, sort of. The newest branch of the military currently occupies a strange and liminal space; it is no longer just a figment of Donald Trump’s imagination, but it doesn’t do anything, either. It does, however, possess an official Bible, or so a tweet from the Washington National Cathedral suggested on Sunday.
The tweet depicts the Air Force Chief of Chaplains Steven A. Schaick holding up a large Bible for the Right Rev. Carl Wright, the Episcopal Church’s bishop suffragan for the Armed Forces and Federal Ministries, to bless. (The Space Force falls under the department of the Air Force, just as the Marine Corps falls under the department of the Navy.) This sets up several questions for exploration. The first: What exactly does it mean for the Space Force to have an “official Bible?” Are they really going to use it to swear in “all commanders?” And finally: When does the Space Force get an official Quran? The U.S. military might be a conservative institution, but it is secular by law; if the Air Force meant to baptize its new baby into Christianity alone, Schaick risks a lawsuit.
Schaick has invited similar scrutiny in the past. In 2016, Shaick, who was then the deputy chief of chaplains serving under the now-retired Chaplain (Major General) Dondi Costin, attended a private, religious event in uniform. The event was hosted by the Chaplain Alliance for Religious Liberty, which opposed the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell and lists several Christian right groups, including the Alliance Defending Freedom, as coalition partners on its website. The office of the Air Force Inspector General launched an investigation into Costin specifically after receiving a complaint from the Military Religious Freedom Foundation, or MRFF. The group argued that Costin, Schaick, and others had violated military regulations by appearing at the event in uniform, thus giving the impression that the Air Force had formally endorsed the event. An investigation later cleared Costin of any wrongdoing.
But Schaick’s Bible blessing has aroused the ire of MRFF once again. “The Military Religious Freedom Foundation (MRFF) condemns, in as full-throated a manner as is humanly possible, the shocking and repulsive display of only the most vile, exclusivist, fundamentalist Christian supremacy,” the group’s founder, Mikey Weinstein, said in a statement quoted by NPR. MRFF has said it will file a complaint about the event. That the Bible in question was donated by the Museum of the Bible, an Evangelical institution, lends Weinstein’s concerns additional credibility.
In emailed statements to New York, representatives for the National Cathedral said the language in its tweet — specifically the phrase “official Bible,” and the reference to its use by “all commanders” — came directly from Shaick’s office. Lynn Kirby, a spokesperson for the Department of the Air Force, told New York by email that “the Bible mentioned in the tweet will be used during the swearing-in ceremony for the first Chief of Space Operations. This option will remain a personal choice for each individual swearing in.”
Asked if the Air Force planned similar ceremonies to bless a Quran, or another religious text, for use by officers, Kirby was ambiguous. “There is a historical tradition of Chiefs of Staff of the Air Force swearing in using a Bible purchased by the first CSAF Gen. Carl A. Spaatz, but there is no requirement to do so,” she wrote.
“This historical tradition is only related to the swearing in of a new service chief and does not extend to any other personnel,” she added. “There is no official religious or other sacred text nor is there any requirement for a member to use any sacred or religious text during swearing-in ceremonies.”
That answer probably won’t satisfy critics like MRFF, which considers the blessing ceremony an unacceptable violation of the separation of church and state. The Space Force might not be fully launched, but it’s already off to a rocky start.