The American Humanist Organization is demanding that the Missouri National Guard stop the distribution of free Bibles in its recruiting offices (for the details, follow this link). an Ethical Musings' reader sent me the link and suggested that it might provide interesting fodder for a post.
I'm extremely doubtful that distributing free Bibles benefits anyone beyond the person or organization doing the distributing (Bible distributors often feel that they are heeding Christ's call to make disciples of the world by planting seeds, some of which may find fertile soil in the life of a hurting person).
First, recruits often pick up a Bible as a talisman or good luck charm, particularly if the Bible, as in the case of those in the Missouri Guard's recruiting office, have a cover appropriate to the recruit's next chapter in life. Joining the military is often a scary proposition, full of unknown demands and the possibility of failure, injury, or even death. Possessing a Bible is for some recruits and service members akin to carrying a rabbit's foot or other item designed to keep the bearer safe. In fact, the Bible has no value as a talisman or good luck charm.
Stories of a pocket New Testament stopping a bullet and saving a person's life are the result of placing extra padding in a pocket over an especially vulnerable part of the anatomy and totally disconnected from the book's content. Christians have distributed millions of free Bibles to new recruits and service members; it's unsurprising, given the law of averages, that a few of those Bibles have stopped bullets.
Second, in response to my queries, I'm persuaded that few recipients of these free Bibles actually read them once, much less engage with the text in any serious manner. In other words, distributing Bibles is ineffectual evangelism. Furthermore, many of the free Bibles and New Testaments given to military personnel are the King James Version, a difficult English translation to read and yet more difficult version to understand (literally hundreds of the English words in the KJV have changed meaning in 300 plus years since translation). Sadly, I've even met people who are convinced that the KJV is the original, denying history and ignorant of the Bible's long tortured history of transmission and translation.
Third, any recruit or service member who feels pressured – whether from an authority figure, peers, or baggage that s/he brings – to take a copy of the Bible from a display or when offered, can easily and privately toss the offending book in a trash can at some later time. Nobody ever inspects a recruit's or service member's personal effects to see whether the person has a copy of the Bible or New Testament. Thus, any harm that results from the perception of pressure to accept a free copy of a Bible or New Testament appears to be relatively minor if not trivial. Recruits and service members routinely receive voluminous amounts of official material, for which there is official pressure to take and read, that many discard without reading.
In sum, the furor about Bible distribution seems to me a tempest in a teapot. No recruit or service member should ever feel pressure to take religious material of any flavor. However, recruits and service members should have sufficient ego strength to refuse an offer of free materials or to accept the materials graciously (avoiding creating an awkward or uncomfortable moment) and then to discard the item when convenient. Conversely, Christians (and those from any other religious group!) should have the wisdom to recognize both the impropriety of explicitly or implicitly using any form of coercion to distribute their religious materials and the general wastefulness of such efforts. God expects Christians to sow seed wisely, as would a good farmer or a good steward.
Unfortunately, religious discrimination and persecution within the military are sometimes a significant problem. Officers and enlisted personnel have described to me assignments in which a senior openly and consistently pressured subordinates to attend the worship service the senior attended, the Bible study that the senior attended or led, etc. Sometimes, the pressure came from the senior's spouse in an ineffective but blatant attempt to distance the senior from the evangelistic efforts. Most egregiously, the pressure was coercive with the senior linking the subordinate's participation in religious activities to duty rotations, assignments, or personnel evaluations. All of these actions obviously violate the First Amendment protection against the establishment of religion.
In the preponderance of these cases, the offending person was an evangelical Christian trying to save the lost. For example, in my first tour as a Navy chaplain, a Christian petty officer aboard a destroyer was concerned about an atheist shipmate, who lived in the same berthing area. The Christian would occasionally leave Christian literature on the atheist's pillow. The atheist politely asked the Christian to desist; when that failed, the atheist requested me to talk to the Christian and persuade him to desist; when that failed, the atheist started placing satanic literature on the Christian's pillow. At that point, emotions escalated to the point where the chain of command became involved. In consultation with me, the chain of command wisely relocated the Christian petty officer to a less desirable berthing area, ordered both sailors to stop placing literature on the other's pillow, and told the Christian petty officer that any future incident would result in his facing non-judicial punishment at Captain's mast. The Christian was outraged, but did stop trying to evangelize his shipmate. To my great frustration, I failed in every attempt to persuade this well-intentioned but seriously misguided young man that in no way did his actions emulate Jesus' love for others. Would be Christian evangelists do well to consider carefully the question, What would Jesus do?