The antics and lies of President Trump have for three years distracted Americans—including me—from better use of our time. I established this blog in the pre-Trump bliss of mid-2013 chiefly to address church/state issues and the immorality of religion. The 2016 Trump invasion of lies, errors of fact, mean-spirited politics, and assault on American rule of law jarred me into political commentary, resulting in a little more than 14% of the 207 posts (essays) so far being Trump-related. “Sad.”
Last week I became aware of an incident combining Trumpian lies and religious dishonesty. Frankly, religious fraudulence and deceit occur with stunning frequency, so they aren’t hard to find. I plan to write a post demonstrating that widespread condition soon, but this one got my attention just last week. The matter concerned Vice President Pence’s statements during an August 28, 2019 speech at the American Legion National Convention. It regarded a Veterans Administration issue, about which VP Pence said:
“This administration will always make room for the spiritual needs of our heroes at the VA as well. You might’ve heard even today that there’s a lawsuit to remove a bible that was carried in World War II from a missing man table at a VA hospital in New Hampshire. There’s a lawsuit underway. It’s really no surprise because under the last administration, VA hospitals were removing bibles, and even banning Christmas carols in an effort to be politically correct. But let me be clear: Under this administration, VA hospitals will not be religion-free zones. We will always respect the freedom of religion of every veteran of every faith, and my message to the New Hampshire VA Hospital is: The bible stays!”
That evening, Pence sent the following tweet, thereby carrying his remarks to a far, far larger group:
Mike PenceVerified account @mike_pence During the last Administration the VA was removing Bibles & even banning Christmas carols to be politically correct, but under President @realDonaldTrump, VA hospitals will NOT be religion-free zones. Message to the New Hampshire VA: the Bible STAYS! 1.31M views 9:31 PM 28 Aug 2019
I learned of the Pence messages when they were reported by the Freedom from Religion Foundation (FFRF), a well-established, nationwide nonprofit dedicated to the Constitutional requirement that keeps religion out of government and government out of religion. FFRF found Pence’s statements to be “troubling on several counts,” as presented in the following five paragraphs [numbering mine, JBC] of the FFRF release:
- “First, he [Pence] misrepresented the lawsuit that he referenced. Actually, an Air Force veteran is suing to remove a bible from the POW/MIA table at the Manchester VA Medical Center in New Hampshire. In the lawsuit itself, the veteran explains that he is ‘a devout Christian,’ and ‘as a Christian, he respects and loves all his military brothers and sisters and does not want to be exclusionary by the placement of the Christian Bible.’ In other words, this is not an anti-Christian attack. It’s simply one patriot’s admirable attempt to uphold the Constitution.
- “Second, the tradition of POW/MIA tables was started by Vietnam combat pilots as a memorial to all who have served, regardless of religious belief, and did not ‘customarily include a bible. The original POW/MIA table at the Manchester VA Medical Center did not contain a bible; it was added later. The VA has secured a special place of prominence for this bible while denying other religious groups equal opportunity to place their own texts on the table. To defend the Manchester VA Medical Center’s actions is to defend Christian privilege, not religious freedom.
- “Third, contrary to Pence’s claims, the previous administration did not ban Christmas carols. In reality, a VA center in Augusta, Ga., asked high school carolers not to sing overtly religious Christmas carols in the public areas of the hospital. This VA hospital should be commended; instead, Pence distorted the hospital’s honorable intentions in an effort to fearmonger and peddle a Christian persecution narrative that is demonstrably false.
- “Finally, the VA policy that Pence complained about was most recently revised in July 2008, not during the Obama administration, as Pence implies, but actually under George W. Bush’s administration. The VA’s 2008 policy reflects the mandates of our godless Constitution. VA hospitals are not, and never have been, ‘religion-free zones,’ as Pence claimed. Veterans are free to practice their own religions in their own ways; the VA respects that freedom by not endorsing any religion. The 2008 policy drew the line in the correct place, but even the new policy states that passive displays should respect and tolerate differing views and should not elevate one belief system over others. The bible display at the Manchester VAMC fails even under this newly watered-down policy, because it elevates Christianity above all other belief systems.
- “No Christian is prevented from the free exercise of their religion when a bible is not displayed on a public table or religious carols are not sung in a public space,’ FFRF Director of Strategic Response Andrew L. Seidel concludes his letter to the vice president. ‘Those Christians can still read their bible and hear those carols, it’s just that the VA is not imposing the bible and carols on everyone else. Sadly, it seems that the lack of imposition, which is required by our Constitution, is precisely what upsets you. And for that, you should be ashamed.’”
Ashamed, indeed, Andrew Seidel [author of The Founding Myth: Why Christian Nationalism is Un-American, 2019], though don’t hold your breath. Pence, having merged fundamentalist arrogance with Trumpian refusal to admit errors, is unlikely to exhibit or confess to shame, at least publicly.
The most advantageous environment for religious persons and groups (churches and other organizations of believers) is that government be required to stay out of their theology and religious practices. The necessary swap, though, is that religions are not to call upon government for funds, backing, or other supportive interactions. That is what Thomas Jefferson meant by a “wall of separation.” However, as U.S. history shows repeatedly, religions have a habit of accepting the freedom while demanding government endorsement or aid, resulting in blurring of the distinction laid out in Article 1 of the Constitution.
Further, individual politicians make it worse by currying favor from religious voters. Religionists routinely expect politicians to pay homage to religion or, more accurately, to their specific religion. Enough national self-discipline to maintain a respectful separation has not been easy to maintain. It has been made even more difficult by the unfounded claims that the U.S. is a “Christian nation,” so that not only is government to give favorable treatment to religion, but to do so for Christianity above other religions. Indeed, a number of Christian writers have gone so far as to argue that freedom of religion applies only to Christians, even then perhaps only to specific denominations of Christians.
I’m indebted to the Freedom from Religion Foundation for its report of Pence’s spreading misinformation. FFRF is a nationwide nonprofit dedicated, in its words, “to fighting Christian Nationalism and its push to undermine the religious freedoms of all Americans, including the more than 110 million who either practice a minority religion or no religion at all.”
Disclosure: I have long been a Life Member of FFRF and have great respect for the years of dedication by its founders and staff. It is a foremost organization in the struggle to respect and defend the 1st Amendment of the United States Constitution.