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Sioux Falls VA Joins Legislature in Promoting Universal Christianity

The South Dakota Legislature passed Senate Bill 55 forcing every public school to tell its students that we’re all Christian. The Sioux Falls VA hospital is apparently saying the same thing about all missing American soldiers.

The Sioux Falls VA has placed in its lobby a “Missing Man” display (as if women haven’t also gone MIA) which includes a Christian Bible. A local Buddhist veteran who served in Vietnam complained about the lack of inclusivity and got some backup from the Military Religious Freedom Foundation. According to Crooks and Liars, Sioux Falls VA Acting Director Barbara Teal responded by replacing the Bible with “a donated artifact belonging to a former WWII POW”—another Bible:

Original Missing Man display at Sioux Falls VA
Original Missing Man display at Sioux Falls VA
Altered display in response to complaint about Christian exclusivity (screen caps from Crooks and Liars, 2019.03.31).
Altered display in response to complaint about Christian exclusivity (screen caps from Crooks and Liars, 2019.03.31).

I wish I could look to Sioux Falls as an island of progressive urban inclusivism (since every great city is built on immigration and diversity), but hey: this is the town that elected Paul TenHaken mayor. Even in burgeoning and bustling Sioux Falls, the Buddhist vet feels he must remain anonymous about his complaint, lest he face small-town backlash:

He first tried to get the VA to correct it themselves, but he couldn’t even get an email address to communicate his complaint.

“I called the director’s office to get an email to send an email complaint, and I was basically told by the secretary that she wouldn’t give it to me, and that I should tell her my problem that she could take care of it,” he said. “But she wanted my name and everything else first.”

That’s a problem anywhere, as anonymity is essential for the complaint process to work, especially where religion is concerned, especially in a place like Sioux Falls. “It’s a beautiful place, but the only trouble is, is also very insular and very Christian,” he said. “I’m fairly active in the veterans community here, and if it came out that I was doing this, my kids would be in trouble, I would be in trouble, probably drummed off of the few of the veterans things that I do…. There definitely would be some retribution” [Paul Rosenberg, “Sioux Falls VA Respects the Dead—As Long As They’re Christian,” Crooks and Liars, 2019.03.30].

For the umpteenth time: we non-Christian South Dakota aren’t asking all the Christians in South Dakota to stop being Christian. We would just like Christian South Dakotans to stop acting like they’re the only South Dakotans.

Non-believers like me, Buddhists like the veteran in Sioux Falls, and other non-Christians don’t need the government to put up posters and displays to affirm our religious beliefs or lack thereof; why do majoritarian Christians who control powerful institutions like the Legislature and the Sioux Falls VA, need to use their public power to prop up their beliefs?


  1. Richard F Schriever 2019-03-31 09:52

    You ask why they do these things. The emotional reason is that they are insecure in their faith – therefore they feel a need to seek affirmation. They do this by making public displays of their beliefs in the hope that they will be affirmed by others. They feel weak – and they seek strength in community. The less the community reflects their (tenuously held) beliefs, the more tenuous their “feel” will become and the more they will display. There is a correlation here with the mating displays of peacocks.

  2. Bruce 2019-03-31 10:02

    The way to get Veterans Administration (VA) action is to start here, the VA Inspector General Office. From their website:

    Submit an on-line complaint:

    By Phone:
    1 (800) 488-8244
    [Monday–Wednesday and Friday between 9:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. (Eastern Time) or Thursday 9:00 a.m. to 1:00 p.m. (Eastern Time]

    By FAX: (202) 495-5861

    By Mail:
    VA Inspector General Hotline (53E)
    810 Vermont Ave., NW
    WASHINGTON, DC 20420

  3. grudznick 2019-03-31 10:25

    Mr. Schriever is indeed correct. Religion is a crutch for the weak minded. See you at breakfast!

  4. mike from iowa 2019-03-31 10:58

    Stoopid is as stoopid wingnuts do. Soldiers overseas aren’t even all Americans as those with brown skins can be shipped across the southern border on a Drumpf whim.

  5. Cory Allen Heidelberger Post author | 2019-03-31 13:06

    Grudz, you overread Richard’s comment. I invite Richard to clarify if I misread him, but he does not appear to be saying that religion is the crutch of the weak-minded. Richard appears to be saying that public affirmation is the crutch of people who are insecure in their beliefs.

    I contend a strong-minded person can profess and practice strong religious beliefs. Neither Pope Francis nor SD-ELCA Bishop David Zellmer appear to be particularly weak individuals hobbling about on the crutch of their religion.

  6. David Hubbard 2019-03-31 13:59

    Funny, I thought my brother was the Acting Director. Anyway, McCarthyism is alive and prospering in South Dakota.

  7. jerry 2019-03-31 15:07

    So then, what will be the “correct Christian religion”? We have seen in Northern Ireland how Christians behave towards one another, now think of how that would be when every strip mall in America has a religion that is “better” than the other guys. “Tastes Great!, Less Filling” What will be the catch phrase for the sale of the best? What will Consumer Reports say about it? How will it be presented at the Super Bowl?

  8. Donald Pay 2019-03-31 16:45

    It’s an interesting installation, subject to interpretation. The white table cloth, the salt (white), the white candle, white plate, can’t tell what color the flowers in the vase are, yellow ribbon around the vase, upside down champaign flute, and the flag, or course. It’s hard to tell what is on the plate. The Bible is black.

    There’s an emptiness about the installation that one might think that black book might fill. All that empty white space and a black book, which many believe to possess power and soul. But, is that black book signifying something less obvious? Is it signifying that black people are the soul of the country, that all the whiteness gives you nothing but some nondescript unappetizing morsel that no one wants to sit down to eat?

    You can look at a piece of art in lots of ways.

  9. jerry 2019-03-31 17:14

    Mr. Pay, I read this today. This is regarding trump voters and expectations, much like the view of that picture and what it signifies…White Christian Nationalism. This speaks of those expectations.

    “They believed in the great white hope of the benevolent billionaire who would champion the white working class and put China in its place, who would bring back the lost factory jobs and redo failing road and bridge infrastructure. White racist discourse about minorities would be rehabilitated after decades in which it was something to be ashamed of. Immigrants would be rounded up and sent back before they could take the job of a white person (immigrants almost never do, since white people don’t pick strawberries).
    Bob Mueller is not going to save you, America.
    It isn’t even Trump you need to be saved from, but the American white nationalist plutocracy, of which he is merely the symptom.”

  10. Curt 2019-03-31 21:03

    I hesitate to pour cold water on the flames of secularism, but SB 55 may not say what you are claiming. It directs schools to display “prominently” the motto “In God We Trust”. That may be interpreted to imply some decree on behalf of Judeo-Christian dogma, but it is just “God” in whom (which?) we are now required to proclaim “Trust”. It may be splitting hairs, but I think there is a significant distinction between belief in some Higher Power (or God) and an avowedly “Christian” faith in New Testament Bible stories.

  11. Roger Cornelius 2019-03-31 21:54

    This “installation” as Don Pay calls it, offers a different interpretation.
    The white altar linens, the white plate, the silverware and then a very “black” bible.
    Isn’t black considered to be an evil color in some circles and often associated with Satan?

  12. Debbo 2019-03-31 22:36

    I remember when conservatives believed the US Constitution was the centerpiece of this nation. Now I don’t think it’s even an afterthought.

    21st century conservatism seems more like a petulant toddler, led, of course, by the Toddler/Liar-in-Chief. They want what they want the instant they want it. If they are not immediately gratified a tantrum ensues.

  13. Roger Cornelius 2019-03-31 22:48

    Debbo, the only part of the Constitution republicans concern themselves with is the 2nd Amendment.

  14. Cory Allen Heidelberger Post author | 2019-03-31 23:08

    Curt, I won’t let the Legislature or Governor Noem with such nuanced and deep-thinking parsing. When they say “God,” they mean their God. SB 55 is no nod to ecumenicalism. The proponents were all Christian. No one testified in committee from any group other than Christians. Even if we grant them some leeway (though I would welcome a similar analysis of the legislative intent behind Congress’s declaration in the 1950’s of this new motto, which I suspect will show similar Judeo-Christian intent), the declaration still leaves out non-monotheists, atheists, and anyone whose “higher power” is not called “God” with a capital G.

    To declare trust in X requires belief in X. SB 55 forces every school to say to every child, “You have to believe in God,” with the implication that deviation from that belief and trust makes you a bad American and a bad person.

  15. Debbo 2019-03-31 23:18

    I’m with Cory on this. Even if we go with an indiscriminate god, there are goddesses and no gods. Religious beliefs just don’t belong in public places per our constitution.

  16. Cory Allen Heidelberger Post author | 2019-04-01 00:28

    And the promulgators of the motto have never said, “In some sort of higher power or powers we trust” or “In Gaia We Trust” or “In something bigger than us we trust.” They always use the term “God” as Christian theists have exclusively used it throughout American history.

    “In God We Trust” is an exclusive statement. Representing POWs and MIAs with a Christian Bible is an exclusive statement. We cannot be one nation if we do not recognize and accept the diversity within our oneness.

  17. happy camper 2019-04-01 08:59

    They’re missing a civics textbook.

  18. Ed Arndt 2019-04-01 12:44

    Debbo, the constitution says that the congress shall make no law prohibiting
    the free exercise of religion. Religion kept in the closet serves no good purpose.

  19. Edwin Arndt 2019-04-01 12:54

    Debbo, the constitution says that the congress shall make no law prohibiting
    the free exercise of religion. Religion kept in the closet serves no good purpose.
    We are called to be salt and light.

  20. mike from iowa 2019-04-01 13:08

    I’m with Debbo on the religious stuff. Edwin”s own lord and saviour told him to go to his closet and pray in private so as not to advertise his piety for anyone but the lord. That is a reason public schools are not the place for public displays of religion. Wingnuts have lied about this like forever claiming the ACLU forced religion out of public schools. Kids can pray in school in private anytime they wantl. No religious activities are to be sponsored by the school on school property.

  21. Ed Arndt 2019-04-01 13:38

    Well Mike, glad to learn that you know the bible so well.
    Then you also know that Christ told his disciples to “go
    therefore and teach all nations” etc. You just can’t do that
    from a closet.

  22. jerry 2019-04-01 13:40

    Salt and light regarding Buddhism, indeed…yes indeed. The Pope agrees!!


    The Sioux Falls Veterans Administration has been corrupted. It is no longer a place of healing our sick and wounded, it is now a place of hate and exclusion. Shame on you Mr. Goodspeed for allowing this.

  23. Edwin Arndt 2019-04-01 13:43

    Well Mike, glad to learn that you know the bible so well.
    Then you also know that Christ told his disciples to “go ye
    therefore and teach all nations” etc. You just can’t
    do that from a closet.

  24. jerry 2019-04-01 13:54

    That is Church of England stuff there partner “go ye therefore and teach all nations” didn’t work so good world wide. Buddhism existed long before the Church of England and Henry the VIII and traveled throughout much of the Far East, South East Asia to lands not even heard of by Henry the VIII, preaching peace and love.

    Christianity was taught under the sword.

  25. bearcreekbat 2019-04-01 14:23

    Edwin’s “free execise” post is interesting. The 1st Amendment reads in relevant part:

    Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; . . .

    That language seems like an oxymoron. Why wouldn’t the “free exercise” include freedom of those temporarily holding the power of elected or appointed office to “establish” whatever state religion they might desire at the time? And why wouldn’t the prohibition against “establishment” be a restriction on the “free exercise” of those temporarily in power?

    How can we reconcile the two conflicting prohibitions in the language of the 1st Amendment anyway? ?

  26. Debbo 2019-04-01 14:49

    Mr. Arndt is correct about the command to believers to make disciples. However, coercion, intimidation and force were never part of the example Jesus set. If people at the VA are afraid to complain about the Christian display publicly, then apparently those factors are in use.

    In addition, constitutional laws prohibiting religious displays in a very few, select spaces does very little to limit believer’s efforts to proselytize. I can guarantee there is a chapel in the building and a chaplains’ office, both of which are explicitly and obviously religious, almost certainly Christian. However, any chaplain worth a damn will have contacts readily at hand for other faith communities should their patients request.

    I suggest that if a believer feels he can’t proselytize without the full cooperation of the government, he should get out of the biz.

  27. mike from iowa 2019-04-01 15:20

    Then you also know that Christ told his disciples to “go ye
    therefore and teach all nations” etc. You just can’t
    do that from a closet.

    Wouldn’t that make god a hypocrite?

  28. Edwin Arndt 2019-04-01 15:33

    Bear, you are not thinking clearly. The “shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion” was to get out from under
    the state religion of England, i.e., the Church of England. The
    first clause meant, in my mind, that no power could force any
    particular religion, or, no religion, on anyone. The “free exercise
    clause” means to me that I am free to practice my religion by
    preaching, by argument, by persuasion, by example, not
    by law, although we do have laws supported by religion, e.g.,
    you shall not kill, you shall not steal, you should tell
    the truth.

  29. Edwin Arndt 2019-04-01 15:47

    Mike, God advises against a gaudy public display of
    piety. That does not mean we have to refrain from
    being good christians and word and deed.

    That’s enough for today.

  30. grudznick 2019-04-01 17:27

    Mr. Arndt, god died in a bowl of cereal.

  31. bearcreekbat 2019-04-01 17:49

    Thanks for your views Edwin and you make a good point – I usually am not thinking clearly.

  32. jerry 2019-04-01 18:10

    Catholic Priests in northern Poland just burned Harry Potter books because of magic. You know, the competition of one another’s magic is just too much I guess, so something has got to burn. Is this 2019 or 1619? Here is the Inquisition in Gdansk, Poland.

    “A passage from Acts, quoted in the group’s post, says “many of those who had practiced magic collected their books and burned them in front of everyone. So they calculated their value and found it to be fifty thousand pieces of silver”.

    Another passage, from Deuteronomy, says: “Burn the images of their gods. Don’t desire the silver or the gold that is on them and take it for yourself, or you will be trapped by it. That is detestable to the Lord your God.”

    Please, go back to the closet.

  33. Cory Allen Heidelberger Post author | 2019-04-01 18:18

    Edwin, you are free to preach all you want. I have no desire to stuff you and your personal faith in any closet. But government agencies like the VA, the Legislature, and public schools have no right to proselytize or otherwise promote any religion.

  34. Roger Cornelius 2019-04-01 20:25

    Government agencies, the VA, the Legislature, and public schools need to be held accountable when they force religion on the public.
    America doesn’t need to keep having the discussion about the separation of church and state when appropriate punishments should be applied.

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