Friday, January 29, 2010

Quick thought on the Mother Theresa stamp

So there's controversy over a stamp depicting Mother Theresa issued by the US Postal Service. The often-excellent Freedom From Religion Foundation is formally protesting the stamp, and has said that USPS violated their own regulations.

Call me a faitheist if you must, but I think FFRF is both incorrect that the USPS is violating their regulations, and making a tactical blunder (with strategic ramifications) in their protesting of this.

As far as violating their regulations, Mother Theresa is, for better or worse, a Nobel Peace Prize winner, and that alone provides a secular justification for issuing a stamp depicting her. I share FFRF's discomfort with the fact that a Roman Catholic honorific is part of the name of a stamp now, but I don't feel this violates church/state separation.

Worse, perhaps, is the tactical blunder the FFRF is making when they put the spotlight on church/state issues and Mother Theresa's religion. To many, this can only be perceived as those mean, nasty atheists refusing to recognize the humanitarian work of a world hero just because she happened to be religious. That's most definitely not the message we want to get out there. Of course, message control does not mean we shouldn't speak the truth, but I think there could have been a better angle.

Namely, there are very serious questions about the nature of Mother Theresa's charity work and whether she really was all that, well, saintly. FFRF has mentioned some of this, but it really ought to be their sole focus. Rather than objecting to the USPS honoring a religious figure -- or even overtly complaining that the only reason she is being honored is because of her religion -- instead object plainly to the problems with Mother Theresa's work, without speculating on the reasons why those problems are being glossed over. The message speaks for itself, without needing to intentionally antagonize.

If you can convince a theist to denounce Mother Theresa's focus on Christian conversion above and beyond the well-being of those she was ministering to, that is a major victory. That helps to tear down the special deference shown to religion, and expose the hypocrisy lying beneath the surface. I hate to sound accomodationist-esque here, but you're never going to do that if the focus of your criticism is about how honoring Mother Theresa isn't sufficiently secular.

(Note that this is not the same as accomodationism, because I am not saying anybody should lie. I think the FFRF should have merely left out the conclusion, and let the arguments speak for themselves.)

1 comment:

  1. I also object to the Elvis stamps. I mean, the way he moved as he sang was clearly obscene, and what of the drug use?. ;)

    And what is up with the religious Christmas stamps? Graven images in every sense of the word! ;)

    But really what is going on here? Well, the USPS is a business (quazi government agency) and part of their business is to sell postage that will never be used, they make money that way. They take popular icons and make stamps out of them. The people that like the stamps buy them, the people that do not like the stamps do not buy them. If the stamp sells well they print more, otherwise they don't --- pure capitalism.

    I do not see that the USPS is promoting the icons that they put on the stamps, actually its the other way around. They are merely tapping in to the pre-existing merchandising of the icon, going after their piece of the pie.

    So Mother Theresa is a Catholic saint. What was Elvis? Its pretty clear that the USPS does not look at the behaviours or dare I say morals of the icons they depict on their stamps, they are looking at what their marketing department projects as potential revenue.