Obama erases the ‘scare quotes’ around religious freedom?

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In recent years, there has been quite a bit of discussion at GetReligion about the ways in which mainstream journalists use “scare quotes” as a way to suggest which causes they see as questionable, as opposed to social, political, cultural or religious causes that they believe are serious concerns.

Consider, for example, the terms “religious liberty” — a very common term in First Amendment law and studies — and “religious freedom.”

You may recall that Washington Post headline not that long ago that ran above a relevant Religion News Service piece:

Activists gather to plot defense of ‘religious liberty’

And then the lede went with alternative language, yet kept the scare quotes:

WASHINGTON – U.S. Catholic bishops have used the Obama administration’s contraception mandate as Exhibit A in their high-stakes defense of “religious freedom.” But it’s not just the bishops who are fuming, and it’s not only over contraception.

Then the quote marks were gone in the very next paragraph:

Like-minded religionists of several denominations — including Southern Baptist leader Richard Land and Baltimore Archbishop William Lori — gathered in Washington … to organize a response to what they see as the sorry state of religious freedom in America today.


Now, it does appear that journalists may be rethinking their use of “religious freedom” square quotes — period.

After all, a quick search of the coverage of President Barack Obama’s important speech on this topic at this week’s National Prayer Breakfast reveals a stunning lack of scare quotes around the term — when it is used by the president in discussions of events and trends OUTSIDE the United States.

Once again, the editors at The Washington Post went with a wire story from the experienced Godbeat pros at Religion News Service. In this case, as opposed to the earlier coverage of the Health and Human Services mandate, the headline punctuation looked like this:

Obama highlights religious freedom in National Prayer Breakfast speech

And this was followed with some very straightforward language:

Facing criticism that he does not give religious freedom enough attention, President Obama devoted most of his National Prayer Breakfast address to the issue, naming people imprisoned for their beliefs and calling out specific nations.

“We believe that each of us is ‘wonderfully made’ in the image of God,” Obama said. “We therefore believe in the inherent dignity of every human being — dignity that no earthly power can take away. And central to that dignity is freedom of religion.”

Promoting religious freedom is a key objective of U.S. foreign policy, Obama said. He said he is looking to fill the religious freedom ambassador position, one that Suzan Johnson Cook left last fall.

Then again, it would be unfair of me, almost a conflict of interest, for me not to note the byline on that piece — Sarah Pulliam Bailey.

Perhaps we should check out what happened over at The New York Times?

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