In an era enveloped in large-scale violence and militarism, the popular Oriental Trading Company, Inc. has unleashed a controversial product line designed for young children that combines military paraphernalia with the Christian faith.
Although the company has been selling the “Soldier of God” items for close to a year, it has met with no official complaint, say several call-center representatives located in the company’s Omaha, Nebraska office. According to several call center representatives who relied on dates in the company system, the product line entitled “Soldier of God” made their debut in the “Fun and Faith” catalogue, published and distributed in 2006. In its new catalogue, released to customers during the first quarter of 2007, the Oriental Trading Company has expanded that line.
Timothy Harris, executive director for a homeless advocacy newspaper called Real Change, was one of the first on the Internet to comment on the disturbing nature of the “Soldier of God” product line. “Has the recruit shortage come to this?” he asks in his blog. “There's something about stamping God and crucifixes all over little kiddy war toys that just doesn't sit right. God's Army is getting younger all the time.”
As the nation’s largest direct marketer of party supplies, novelties, toys, children’s arts and crafts, school supplies, home décor and giftware, the Oriental Trading Company is no small contender. It has 18 million customers on file and mails 300 million catalogs annually. The Oriental Trading Company, named one of the fastest growing companies three consecutive years in a row by The Omaha Chamber of Commerce, was also ranked one of the top 50 internet sites by Internet Retailer, and one of the top 50 largest direct marketers by Catalog Age. This means that exposure to these products is very widespread, and while the Oriental Trading Company would not comment on the motivation for offering the “Soldier of God” product line, some suggest that the product line breaks a taboo by militarizing faith.
The concept that many Christians have of being a soldier of God is not usually a violent one. There is a strong metaphorical connection between being a Christian and being a spiritual warrior in the same way that jihad (literally meaning “struggle”) for Muslims is more often a non-violent spiritual fight within oneself to be a better person and to affect the world positively. In the Chabad-Lubavitch sect of orthodox Judaism, a program for kids exists called T zivos Hashem, or “God's Army”, and is used to encourage children to develop the discipline of doing good deeds. These terms are concepts that should not, under most circumstances, inspire fear. Yet there are some Christians who feel that the Oriental Trading company has implied otherwise by directly linking the religious slogan to the innately violent military culture.
According to some consumers, the fact that weaponry and ammunition are largely absent from the product line does little to diminish the underlying message. The company has painted their “Soldier of God” product line with a brush of militarism regardless of the fact that this line has little physical weaponry or ammunition. The exception is a sword brandished by a crusader-knight in the “Foam Soldier of God Photo Frame Magnet Craft Kit”. The kit also comes with a red crucifix.
Rabbi Jack Moline of the Agudas Achim congregation in Virginia frequently does business with the Oriental Trading Company. He notes that it is a fine company with an excellent reputation for producing low-cost bulk items for pre-existing markets. In regard to the demand that exists for the “Soldier of God” product line, Rabbi Moline says, “Oriental Trading did not create this market; they are responding to it. Therefore, I am less concerned about Oriental Trading than I am about the market they seek to tap.”
When asked what comments he has about the product line, he responds, “I think that if I were a Christian, I would be horrified. The symbol of the cross has sacred meaning and generally represents the antithesis of war. Marketing it as a child's plaything is troubling.”
Although Rabbi Moline does not believe that companies should be expected to be more righteous than the traditions that they seek to exploit, he wishes the “Soldier of God” products were not part of their catalog and would encourage them to discontinue it.
He continues, “At this time of conflict, the encouragement of kids to wage God's battle against the unconverted plays not so much into militarization as it does into intolerance and bigotry. If Christians are God's soldiers, then who are non-Christians?”
He feels that a child taught that camouflage means "God's soldiers" may come to associate military service personnel with a particular religion. “That image would be hard to scour from the learning slate,” he says.
Janet, a child development specialist in the San Francisco Bay area who asked to be identified by first name only, says, “These products try to make war seem acceptable, and that God agrees with it. Christian children who are religious will be more likely to believe it.” A previous customer of the company, Janet thinks these products are ill-conceived. “It never benefits children to indoctrinate them for war. It encourages them to form adversarial relationships with people who are perceived as being different.”
The majority of the 31 items in the “Soldier of God” product line are decorated with military camouflage colors. The products are stamped with crosses or crusader crests, as well as the slogan “Soldier of God” amidst stars and stripes. Items include a crusader shield, military-style dog tag necklaces, combat stretch bands for the wrists, canteens, baseball hats and temporary face tattoos. According to the company catalogue, the dog tag necklaces are a best seller.
Several Christians who were interviewed for this article suggest that the “Soldier of God” product line lacks context and that without an appropriate setting in which to envision product use, the Oriental Trading Company is indirectly supporting extremist Christian ideology, which is a segment of the population usually not acknowledged by mainstream media.
“I am quite bothered by how this line of products diminishes the beauty and purity of faith in God,” says Valerie Shriley, communications director for a civil liberties organization in Minnesota. She would like to see the company remove any links between God and the military in their products. She explains, “Being a soldier of God is being one who struggles toward righteousness, stands for justice and strives to be a better contributor to what is good in this world. The job of a soldier in the military is a sometimes filthy, immoral, murderous and unjust position. Many soldiers commit crimes and do not follow God's laws. Linking God to the military is morally degrading.”
Cheryl, a 38-year-old Christian in California who also requested to be identified by her first name only, was also offended by the product line and says that she wouldn’t buy any of the items for the children in her family. She observes, “To me it looks like the company is using Christianity to aid the war movement. I don’t like it.”