The first response to Dave Swanson’s “Drones for Christ” report in Sojourners magazine this month is to rub your eyes. This can’t be real, it’s too satirical — a Christian university, sitting on $1 billion of assets in the conservative belt of old Virginia, run by a drawling evangelical preacher with big friends in Washington and the governor’s mansion, offering a concentration in Unmanned Aviation Systems (aka drones)? Calling Slim Pickens!
It gets worse when Swanson gets people on campus to lob on-the-record nuggets like this one: “We want to have graduates serving the Lord in this area of aviation.”
That’s right, Liberty University, founded by televangelist Jerry Falwell and now run by his son Jerry Falwell Jr., is the richest and biggest Christian university in the world and now bills itself as one of the “top military-friendly schools” in the country:
Liberty has been turning out “Christ-centered aviators” for a decade. In fall 2011, Liberty added a concentration in Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS, aka drones), making it one of the first handful of schools to do this. Now at least 14 universities and colleges in the U.S. have permits from the Federal Aviation Administration to fly drones, and many institutions, including community colleges, offer drone training.
If one chooses to concentrate studies on piloting drones, the load will include a half dozen courses on “intelligence.” Liberty students can also pick up a minor in strategic intelligence and take courses in terrorism and counterterrorism. (Liberty’s school of government brags that Newt Gingrich helped develop its course on “American exceptionalism.”) …
Liberty’s School of Aeronautics has six faculty members, five of whom have spent 15 to 30 years in the military—four in the Air Force, one in the Navy. Dave Young, dean of the SOA, spent 29 years in the Air Force and retired as a brigadier general. Last summer, Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell appointed Young to serve on the Virginia Aviation Board.
That Liberty is churning out warriors for Christ is not a surprise, of course. For years, described even on these pages, we have known that there is a pretty sophisticated evangelical cabal mustering at the highest levels of the U.S military (Mikey Weinstein over at MRFF calls it the “Fundamentalist-Christian-Para-Church-Military-Corporate-Proselytizing-Complex”). Once in a while one of them gets in front of a camera, and we are reminded that there are a great many men fighting overseas who think they are on a mission from God, vanquishing his enemies and spreading his word. They’ve carried rifles like crusader swords, inscribed with the verses of the lord. They have proselytized among the heathens. They boast purity and dedication, patriotism and blessings from the only commander who counts. When former Gen. Jerry Boykin (now at the uber-evangepolitical Family Research Council) decided to enter the Delta Forces as a young man, he recalled: “There are times when God speaks to you in an audible voice. He spoke to me that morning because I said, ‘Satan is gathering his forces.’ He said, ‘Yes, son, but so am I.’ And I knew I was to be there.”
Liberty feels the (lucrative) burden of training those forces. Getting into the drone business is the latest example of Falwell’s flair for making serious business look and feel like moral revelation (here’s where the “corporate” in the complex comes in). We know drones are a hot market in Washington. They are being manufactured, regulated and gobbled up by not only the states but by other countries. Law enforcement loves the idea of incorporating drones into their arsenal of crime fighting tools. No doubt this meshes well with the puritanical nature of the Liberty ethos. They go together, in fact, like eggs and Virginia pork bacon. Like Archangel Michael and his indefatigable armor of shining gold.
Of course Liberty is promoting the UAS program as preparation for “employment” in a competitive world. Another skill set the school can provide. It is sure to talk about the “many potential applications where drones can be used,” including “law enforcement, agriculture, border enforcement, power and oil pipeline control, search and rescue, and transportation of materials to remote construction sites.”
When Swanson asks quite directly, how the school might square lethal drone use with the teachings of Christ (peace, turning the other cheek, forgiveness), school spokespersons do their best to evade the question.
“I can only offer my perspective as a Christian,” says Young. “UAS are like any other aerial vehicle that can be used for a variety of missions including law enforcement, aerial surveillance, search and rescue, and crop spraying as well as for military reasons. As a former military combat aviator, I believe that UAS can be employed just like a manned aircraft and that there should not be a distinction between the two.”
Sounds about right, because whether you’re dropping bombs manually from aircraft or from a cubicle in Reno, you’re playing God. The real cynical thing here is Liberty University is making a fortune teaching people how to do it.
Swanson’s piece is instructive and well worth the read. And sadly, no joke.