Religious Advocacy Group Behind V.A. Bible in a Box Scandal Has Ties to Trump

The religious liberty advocacy group that backed up the false story of Manchester, New Hampshire’s V.A. Bible in a Box has strong ties to President Donald Trump. It may also be actively collaborating with Department of Veterans Affairs Robert Wilkie to promote a religious agenda that boosts Trump’s standing amongst Evangelical Christians and veterans.

First Liberty Institute represents the Northeast POW Network that set up the POW/Missing Man Table at the Manchester V.A. Medical Center that was unveiled at a September 2018 ceremony attended by many elderly veterans, including centenarian Herman “Herk” Streitberger. During World War II, Herk Streiterger served as an air crew member on a B-24 Liberator bomber. It was Streitberger’s family Bible that wound up displayed on the Missing Man Table, before being removed after veterans aired objections to it and then returned to the table in a locked Plexiglass box.

Mike Berry, the group’s director of military affairs, had lobbied Wilkie back in in May, requesting an agency-wide policy “that permits Bibles to be included in POW/MIA remembrance displays.”

First Liberty Institute was involved in the Blandensburg Peace Cross case, recently decided by the U.S. Supreme Court. The decision limited the application of the Establishment Clause of the Constitution to ban public displays of religious objects.

After Wilkie implemented a new policy allowing religious displays at veterans healthcare facilities, Berry issued a statement praising his action.

“The Supreme Court recently upheld the constitutionality of religious displays with historic roots such as those commonly found in VA facilities. We commend the VA for taking this necessary and positive action.”

The question is whether the Trump Administration and First Liberty had a hand in creating and manipulating the Prisoner of War/Missing Man table at the Manchester VAMC as part of advancing the political agenda of the Evangelical Christian right. It was the placement of a Bible on the Manchester Missing Man table, backed by a false narrative as to its historicity, that triggered the first lawsuit of its kind.

First Liberty

Northeast POW Network Bob Jones told Manchester Veterans Medical Center officials and the public the false story that the large altar-sized book that morphed into the V.A. Bible in a Box was carried by Streitberger during his internment and escape from a German POW camp in Hungary. That story was used by the Department of Veterans Affairs to justify putting the Bible back on the Missing Man table after Manchester VAMC staff removed it when informed of complaints by outraged veterans by the Military Religious Freedom Foundation.

First Liberty Institute’s senior counsel and director of strategic affairs Ken Klukowski was a member of Donald Trump’s presidential transition team, with the portfolio of developing ideas on “Protecting Americans’ Constitutional Rights.” President Trump attempted to elevate former First Liberty General Counsel Jeff Mateer to the federal bench, along with former Deputy General Counsel Matthew J. Kacsmaryk. While the U.S. Senate confirmed Kacsmaryk, Mateer’s nomination to the District Court foundered after the revelation he had called transgender children part of a Satanic plan during a 2015 speech.

It is probable that the Bible in the Box placement and the false narrative that has now disgraced the honor of a centenarian member of the “Greatest Generation” was engineered by the Trump Administration and its evangelical Christian allies for political purposes. If such machinations indeed were behind the Bible in the Box placement, the intent seemingly would be to bind Trump closer to both the Evangelical Christian community and to veterans.

A Charlottesville type incident triggered by an explosive wedge issue in New Hampshire, where the First-in-the-Nation presidential primary already is underway, also would provide Trump with the media circus he thrives being the ringmaster of. A showdown over veterans religious rights under the glare of the Presidential primary process would put in Trump’s hands a rhetorical “Big Stick” to wail away at his rivals for the presidency, enabling him to portray his rivals as ungodly and un-American.

False Narrative

The V.A. Bible in a Box that was touted as an “historic artifact” by the Northeast POW Network and the Manchester VAMC to legally justify its placement on a POW/Missing Man table was never with World War II veteran Herk Streitburger during his military service, let alone with him in a German POW camp. The edition of the Bible in a box indicates it might not have even been published until after World War Two.

When the Bible was officially placed in a locked Plexiglas box on the table in the Manchester VAMC main foyer, across from pictures of President Donald Trump and Director of Veterans Affairs , the placement was justified on the grounds that it was not a religious artifact. There was a legal need so as not to violate the extant prohibitions on displaying religious objects in a federal facility, and thus the fake pedigree of the Bible was presented to show that it was a war artifact, not solely a religious artifact.

This argument seems to have occurred in tandem with the transit of the Bladensburg Peace Cross case through the current term of the Supreme Court. The logic behind the false narrative coincides with legal precedents that would justify the placement of the Bible in a public facility, if indeed Herk Streitberger had had it with him during the war. But the fact is, he hadn’t.

Such displays at veterans facilities were rare before a lawsuit seeking the removal of the Bible in the Box was filed by the Military Religious Freedom Foundation on behalf of one of 14 Manchester VAMC users who objected to what they saw as the government establishment of Christianity as the official religion of the V.A. Complaints across religious displays generally were taken down soon after objections were made.

In the wake of the MRFF lawsuit and the Bladensburg Cross decision, the Department of Veterans Affairs subsequently changed V.A. policy to allow religious displays and religious proselytizing at veterans medical facilities.

Bad Faith

An analysis of the timeline of events and a perusal of the web site of the Northeast POW Network suggests that the display was erected as part of an effort to promote religion. Bob Jones of the Northeast POW Network insisted when the Bible placement became a controversial, that Streitberger’s Bible was an historic artifact. He claimed that a Bible was not a religious artifact.
His website now celebrates the Blandensburg decision that loosened prohibitions against religious displays on public property, suggesting that the Northeast POW Network considered the Bible a religious display all along.

The Northeast POW Network seemingly was acted in bad faith in its relations with the Manchester VAMC personnel. There seems to be a distinct difference in behavior between local leadership, which took away the Bible immediately after it was requested, and the national V.A. leadership serving directly under President Trump.

Symbol of Freedom

In an interview with a Manchester online newspaper, Bob Jones stated that the Bible on the Missing Man table was Steinberger’s. “It’s the Bible he had while locked up in a prison camp. He escaped after 18 months and made it through enemy lines, and that Bible was with him, all the way. It’s important, not because it was used as a religious symbol. But it was a symbol of freedom, of family, of hope, of America. He had to keep it hidden. If they’d have found it, they probably would have taken it away, or shot him or something.”

In fact, under the rules of war agreed to in 1929, Bibles were available to Allied POWs in German camps. Herk Steinberger would not have been shot if he had a Bible. Bob Jones’ story was fabricated, as Steinberger had never made such claims.

The Manchester VA Medical Center, when putting the Bible back on display, issued the following statement: “Manchester VA Medical Center consulted with appropriate legal counsel before placing this treasured WWII artifact, which happens to be a Bible, with the display, and is confident that this does not impinge on Constitutional protections.”

The Steinberger Bible is not an historic artifact. It was the family Bible of Herk Steinberger, given to him when he returned home after the war.

After the Military Religious Freedom Foundation sued to have the Bible removed, the religious right counterattacked. Fox News in its coverage called the MRFF an “atheist organization” in its original coverage, which was false. MRFF President Mikey Weinstein claimed that Fox News contacted him via an email sent at 2am in the morning before a Liberty spokesman went on the program to chastise the lawsuit.

The Liberty activists were backed up the Veterans Administration, led by Robert Willkie, who has been the third and fifth of Donald Trump’s five Secretaries of Veterans Affairs. Interestingly, at his swearing in ceremony, Willkie was sworn in on a 100-year-old Bible allegedly carried by a relative of his wife into combat during World War One. He also chose to take the oath of office from Vice President Mike Pence rather than Donald Trump.

Whatever critics might think of his motives, Donald Trump has proven himself to be the president most actively committed to promoting veterans affairs since Harry Truman after World War Two. Perceived as a great friend and benefactor of vets, it would seem natural for the president to do the honors. Instead, Vice President Pence — who was born Roman Catholic but converted to Protestantism and is a stalwart of the Evangelical Christian community, did the honors. It is not unlikely that the Vice President has ties to active or former First Liberty Institute personnel.

As the fallout over a Bible in a Box continues, one remembers Bob Jones defense of its placement that it transcended religious as “it was a symbol of freedom.” Unfortunately for the besmirched honor of Herk Streitberger, his family Bible is now the symbol of the cupidity of the Trump Administration’s allies in the Evangelical Christian right.

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