According to the American Legion's official Chaplain's Manual, the items to be included in a POW/MIA table display consist of:
Small table covered with a white table cloth
1 plate, fork, knife, spoon, and napkin set up on the table
1 glass inverted
1 chair placed at plate setting
Vase with a single rose in it and a red ribbon tied onto the vase
Slice of lemon on the plate and salt sprinkled onto the plate
White candle in a holder, lit at the beginning of the ceremony
POW/MIA flag draped over another chair in front of table
Folded American Flag on the table
For those unfamiliar with the tradition of a POW/MIA table, also called a "missing man" table, it's a tradition started during the Vietnam War era in which a table is set with an empty chair, acknowledging those service members who are missing in action or prisoners of war. These tables are found at military dining facilities and veterans organizations, set up as permanent displays, and it is also a common practice at events such as military balls and banquets to perform a ceremony during which the table is set while a script is read explaining the symbolism of each item as it is placed on the table. While the original display had only one chair ("symbolizing the frailty of one prisoner, alone against his or her oppressors"), a more recent variation often seen today uses a larger table with either five chairs, one for each branch of the service, or six chairs, with the sixth chair representing civilian personnel.
Now, looking back at that list of items that the American Legion's official Chaplain's Manual includes in its POW/MIA table display, what don't you see? A Bible.
But wait a minute. According to the fundamentalist Christian outrage brigade, not having a Bible on a POW/MIA table can only be the work of the most diabolical of anti-Christian organizations. Obviously, only an atheist group, or, according to Fox News's Todd Starnes, "a special kind of low-life," would remove God's Word from the display!
So, I guess this means that the American Legion, with its Bible-free POW/MIA table item list, must be an anti-Christian, atheist organization, right? Of course not. And neither is the Military Religious Freedom Foundation (MRFF).
In the last six months, at the request of both veterans and active duty service members (most of whom were Christians), MRFF has been responsible for the removal of Bibles from POW/MIA tables at three Veterans Administration (VA) clinics (in Akron, OH, Youngstown, OH, and Tobyhanna, PA), and at Wright Patterson Air Force Base. Following MRFF's successes in in getting the Bibles removed from the displays at the VA clinics in Ohio, another VA clinic, in Houston, TX, removed the Bible from its POW/MIA table without the need for a direct demand from MRFF. MRFF has also sent a letter demanding the removal of the Bible from a POW/MIA table at Marine Corps Base (MCB) Camp Hansen in Okinawa, Japan, and is currently awaiting a response from that base.
So why is the Bible missing from the American Legion's list of POW/MIA table items? It's obviously not because the American Legion is an atheist organization, or an organization full of a special kind of low-lifes. So why doesn't the American Legion include a Bible among the table's items? Well, it's because the American Legion's version of the POW/MIA table display sticks very closely to the original POW/MIA table display as first created during the Vietnam era, and the original display did NOT include a Bible.
But never one to let historical accuracy stand in the way of crying Christian persecution, Ron Crews, the executive director of the Chaplain Alliance for Religious Liberty, told Fox News: "MIA/POW tables have been part of military tradition for generations. ... They have always included certain elements including a Bible."
Might I recommend that Mr. Crews read a little book published about a decade ago titled America's White Table, which accurately explains the history of the POW/MIA table to readers with a first through fourth grade reading level? That might clear things up for him.
The same completely untrue claim used by Mr. Crews -- that the Bible has always been part of the POW/MIA table display -- is also, of course, being used by other fundamentalist Christian organizations. Why? Because this is one of the most effective tactics used by these organizations: claim that something is a tradition that has always existed, and then drum up the outrage among their followers by telling them that this precious American tradition is being stolen from them by evil anti-Christian atheist forces. This tactic works like a charm, never failing to get tens of thousands of gullible but outraged Christians to sign petitions calling for these fictitious traditions to be restored.
Precisely when the practice of including a Bible as a part of POW/MIA table displays began is hard to determine, but it appears to come from a version of the display created at some point by the National League of Families of American Prisoners and Missing in Southeast Asia, whose script for the later six-man variation of the original display includes a line saying: "The Bible represents the strength gained through faith to sustain us and those lost from our country, founded as one nation under God."
In the military, the inclusion of the eternal word of God in POW/MIA table displays has been anything but eternal. According to various Air Force manuals and regulations, the inclusion of a Bible has been on and off for decades. It was in the script in 2001, was taken out by 2007, but was back in again by 2012. The script in the current version, issued in 2013, is a variation of the National League of Families script, with the difference being that it does not include the "founded as one nation under God," line, and instead of specifically calling for a Bible, makes it optional to include a "bound text," generically described in the script as a "book of faith."
In addition to defending the presence of Bibles in the displays at VA clinics and other military installations by falsely claiming that the Bible has always been part of these displays, some organizations and individuals are actually claiming that a Bible "does not endorse any particular religion," as the Family Research Council put it. But the most ridiculous statement of this kind has to be the one made by Sen. James Lankford (R-OK) on a recent episode of WallBuildersLIVE!, the radio show of notorious history revisionist David Barton. According to Sen. Lankford, the Bibles removed from the displays "represented all faiths." Really? So, are we to assume that the good senator would therefore be just fine with the holy book on these tables being a Koran, and that he would expect that Christians would naturally recognize that this holy book of another religion is intended to represent their Christian faith as well?
The solution that the VA clinic in Youngstown came up with is one that MRFF and its clients found to be completely acceptable and inclusive. That clinic simply replaced the Protestant Bible with a blank prop book, which to a person of any religion could be symbolic of their religion, and even to a person of no religion could represent some other, non-religious book that they find inspirational. And if those like Sen. Lankford are not being disingenuous when they claim that the Bible was intended to represent all faiths, then they should likewise find this solution completely acceptable.