VA Secretary Slams Obama Admin's Restrictions on Religion: 'They Did Not Know the History of This Country'
Department of Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert Wilkie has a perspective of the armed forces few can share.
The son of an Army artillery commander, Wilkie himself served in the Navy Reserve before joining the Air Force and is now a colonel in the Air Force Reserve in addition to his VA responsibilities.
But, as The Washington Times describes it, one of the highest-profile fights he’s facing now is against the remnants of the Obama administration’s efforts to rid the VA system of religious symbols.
“The last administration … had a very ahistoric approach” to the Department of Veterans Affairs, Wilkie told the newspaper in an interview published Tuesday.
“They did not know the makeup of the force. They did not know the history of this country when it came to religious foundations, the religious support for those in uniform.”
Under a policy announced in July, the VA has made it clear that religious content such as Bibles are acceptable in displays at VA facilities.
To most Americans, that might seem like a no-brainer, but a federal lawsuit filed in May by a legal advocacy group called the Military Religious Freedom Foundation is challenging a Bible’s presence in a display commemorating POWs in a lobby in a Manchester, New Hampshire, VA medical center.
That case is set to go to trial Sept. 16, according to the New Hampshire Union Leader.
The Bible was removed from the display in January, shortly after it was first installed on the “Missing Man Table,” because of numerous complaints from veterans of various faiths, according to the New York Daily News.
It was returned in February, however, with a spokesman for the Manchester medical center vowing it would not be “bullied” into removing it, the Daily News reported.
In his interview with The Washington Times, Wilkie said he could understand the confusion that led to the Bible being removed from the New Hampshire display in the first place.
“I think the leadership of the VA hospital was still not sure how to act given the directives of the last administration,” Wilkie said.
The Obama administration, he said, had taken numerous steps against the open display of religion in the department.
The last secretary of veterans affairs under President Barack Obama, David Shulkin, was an Obama administration holdover remained in the post until March 2018, when he was fired amid a scathing inspector general’s report and numerous feuds in the Trump administration.
But the Obama administration’s controversial attempts to regulate religious expression in the military were a source of friction for much of Obama’s presidency, as a 2013 Stars and Stripes article reported.
“The underlying notion here is that there is a group of people who want to eliminate all indicia of religion and spirituality from the public square,” Wilkie told The Washington Times.
“And they’ve used the military as their hobby horse, and that, to me, is a great disservice to the vast majority of those who served.”
Naturally, the Military Religious Freedom Foundation has a different view.
The group’s executive director, Mikey Weinstein, told USA Today in May that an item like the Bible in the Manchester hospital lobby is “repugnant.”
“That is stamping it with the approval of raising one faith over all the others,” he said. “From our perspective, it’s a repugnant example of fundamentalist Christian triumphalism, exceptionalism, superiority, and domination, and it cannot stand.”
Amid all the problems the VA has faced in recent years, including a scandal over long waiting lists and falsified records that forced the resignations of former Secretaries Eric Shinseki and Robert McDonald in succession, a Bible in a New Hampshire hospital lobby might seem like the least of the agency’s challenges.
But Wilkie told The Washington Times that acknowledging the spiritual aspect of care is inseparable from the VA’s overall mission.
And he mocked the idea that that hospital Bible could be as problematic as the advocacy group claims.
“What I consider to be the bizarre argument that men and women who’ve been sent to the most dangerous corners of the Earth, the most miserable places on the planet, would walk by a Bible on a table dedicated to missing men and go to pieces by the sight of that Bible when so many of them have been under fire in Iraq, Afghanistan, Somalia, Liberia, [just] goes counter to all logic,” Wilkie told the newspaper.
Of course, Wilkie has a lifetime of service in the military, but that’s a perspective even civilians can understand.
Truth and Accuracy
We are committed to truth and accuracy in all of our journalism. Read our editorial standards.