Newspaper logo

MEDIA CRITICISM:

Media Ignore Religious Freedom Day, 2007, But Why?

by ALICE CHERBONNIER
Thomas Jefferson, if he knew what's being done in his name under cover of the Religious Freedom Day presidential proclamation, would be flipping over in his grave.
George W. Bush has continued a Presidential tradition started in 1993 by issuing a January 16 proclamation for "Religious Freedom Day." This year, as usual, its text purports to "commemorate the passage of the 1786 Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, authored by Thomas Jefferson, and we celebrate the First Amendment's protection of religious freedom."

Inocuous enough, right? Coming the day after the federal holiday in honor of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., one might think there'd be a tie-in of some kind. Yet this special day has passed unnoticed in the mainstream media. Today's harvest of media stories covering it, per Google News at 4:00 p.m., include only four: Gospelherald.com in China (which credits the proclamation to the efforts of The Institute on Religion & Democracy, described in the story as a "conservative Washington-based Christian group" and informs us that "some 250 million Christians worldwide will be persecuted in 2007, according to Release International. The persecution watchdog group noted that Christian persecution is growing fastest in the Muslim world."); the Dakota Voice in South Dakota (which gives the verbatim text of the proclamation, courtesy of Christian Newswire), Catholic Online in California (which gives a straightforward and balanced report) and Catholic World News (proclamation text only).

Maybe the proclamation is being ignored because it appears to be a yawner. There's a good possibility there's a good story behind the dull story, though. The roots of the annual proclamation may have been different when begun 13 years ago (celebrating Jefferson's stand that there should be no state-supported religion and no discrimination based on faith), but today there's a chance that those who spread the proclamation around—possibly even Bush himself when he invokes "the Almighty"—have a particular brand of Christianity in mind when they talk about religious freedom.

The proclamation was touted, for example, by the Institute on Religion & Democracy, whose spokesperson said, “Millions are discriminated against, beaten and tortured, imprisoned, and killed because they follow Jesus Christ or are members of other minority religions."

Why is Jesus getting top billing in this context? And why is Christianity being lumped with "other minority religions"? For Christianity is not an underdog: it has more adherents than any other religious group—2.1 billion. Islam is next, with 1.3 billion. (The third largest sector, according to adherents.com, is "secular/nonreligious/agnostic/atheist," with 1.1 billion, and then the fourth largest sector is Hinduism, with 900 million.) Could it be that the "freedom" the Bush administration seeks to spread to the rest of the world is religious freedom—especially for a particular kind of Christians?

Do a Google search on "Christianity in Public Schools" with the quotes—you'll get 1.5 million hits.
The proclamation may also be used to signal support for "freedom" to practice religion in U.S. public schools and other public places. Do a Google search on "Christianity in Public Schools" (with the quotes)—you'll get 1.5 million hits. You'll find that there's a huge concern that Christian students in public schools are being muzzled when it comes to religious expression. Chuck Colson, referencing the Religious Freedom Day proclamation, penned a "Let Freedom Ring!" alert posted on the "Persecution Alert Circle," wherein he reports that "an organization called Gateways to Better Education is leading a national campaign to raise awareness about Religious Freedom Day. Gateways helps public schools teach Judeo-Christian history, thought, and values. It has also developed a website, ReligiousFreedomDay.com, to provide you everything you need to commemorate the day in your church, your home, and your school." Click here for details on the coalition of organizations supporting the effort.

Gateways to a Better Education claims to be "keeping the faith in public education." On the welcome page, they state, "In a time when Christians are losing faith in the public school system, fearing that their children will be exposed to a secular influence contrary to Biblical standards, we exist to promote and support a Godly influence in the classroom." The organization offers a pamphlet explaining the Pledge to the Flag: "Help students learn to more fully appreciate concepts expressed in the Pledge such as liberty, justice, national unity, and recognizing that our freedoms come from God, not the State."

Clearly there's a whole lot of interest in Religious Freedom Day, but who's going to take a critical look at how it's being commemorated, and why?
Clearly there's a whole lot of interest in Religious Freedom Day, but who's going to take a critical look at how it's being commemorated, and why? It won't do at all for our beleaguered print newspapers to appear to be snarking at religion. There's not much visual or auditory appeal, so TV and radio will give it a pass. News organizations lacking resources for investigative reporting, ours among them, can't do the job.

Meanwhile, Thomas Jefferson, if he knew what's being done in his name under cover of this proclamation, would be flipping over in his grave.


Alice Cherbonnier is the managing editor of the Baltimore Chronicle.

UPDATE: On Jan. 17, we learned that the Orange County Register in California published an editorial about the proclamation, titled "Religion in school: Students do not give up their constitutional rights at the door to the schoolhouse."

Here's what Thomas Jefferson had to say about the volatile mixture of government and religion:

Copyright © 2007 The Baltimore Chronicle. All rights reserved.

Republication or redistribution of Baltimore Chronicle content is expressly prohibited without their prior written consent.

This story was published on January 17, 2007.