Matt Dillahunty on religious news writing.

Matt Dillahunty gave a talk at the Religious Newswriters Convention this past weekend.  He was asked to give his perspective on the issues as a ten-minute opener.  He has sent me the text of his talk in case I wanted to post it on my blog.

How could I resist?  Here it is:


“When then-candidate Obama was accused of being a Muslim, Campbell Brown (working for CNN at that time) did a short segment pointing out that he wasn’t a Muslim and followed it up with “but so what if he was”. She “got it”. She understood that the Constitution prohibits any religious test for any public office or trust and that even if Obama had been a Muslim, that should not prevent him from running for – and winning office.

At least not in the ideal world – the voters can use whatever litmus test they like.

When Elizabeth Dole accused Kay Hagan of ‘palling around with atheists’ at a secret fundraiser and ran an ad suggesting that she took godless money which asked “what did she promise in return?”, Campbell Brown again took to the air. This time she pointed out that Kay Hagan was a Christian and a Sunday School teacher at her church.

But, for some reason – she didn’t follow it up with “but so what if she was an atheist” or “but so what if she was raising money with atheists…they’re citizens, too, right?”

I don’t think it’s a coincidence that she wasn’t willing to defend the minority group that had been shown, by polling, to be the least trusted minority, in the US. I also don’t think it was malice…I suspect that it just never occurred to her. We’ve been a somewhat overlooked minority, as well.

CNN also ran a special segment with a banner that read: “Why do atheists inspire such hatred”? The question is already more than a little problematic and should have read “Why is there hatred directed at atheists?” – because that question allows us to discuss the issue and perhaps conclude, rather than assuming or implying, that the reason is that atheists bring this upon themselves. Or perhaps we’d discover some other reason…it’s hard to tell because…

Who did they get to address this question? 2 Christians, 1 Jew and no atheists.

Things are getting a bit better. Some of you may have noticed the ‘exploregod.com’ billboards around town. KEYE interviewed the man behind the billboard funding as well as a local pastor and then they interviewed me. After 30 minutes of talking about the subject, I was asked something along the lines of “I guess what I’m really getting at is, don’t you think this is all a waste of money?” – And that’s when I knew what the story was going to be. Never-mind that I’d said that I support the initiative (I’m actually participating with a local church). Never-mind the actual subject they’re wanting to explore (and exploring god is one of the things that lead to my atheism). They had a story they wanted to tell.

So I explained that yes, it probably could be viewed as a waste of money – especially as that money could go toward the homeless problem in Austin or other endeavors, but that I didn’t really object on those grounds as atheists had also put up billboards and there are many things that I support which others might consider a waste of money. I believe I also noted that both churches and atheist are spending money to help the homeless.

They used that quote. Well, they used the first part of the quote, where I’d said it was a waste of money. The story they ran? Internet zillionaire puts up billboards, 325+ churches think it’s awesome, this atheist thinks it’s a waste of money.

Well, at least they’re asking for our comments now – though it probably has more to do with the fact that I’m friends with the pastor they interviewed than that they’re actually interested in what the non-believing community thinks about these subjects.

There’s a Ten Commandments monument on the Capitol lawn. Supreme Court Justice Breyer, acting as a swing vote, struck down a Ten Commandments display in a court room in Kentucky while allowing the one on our lawn to remain. Why? Well, in addition to claiming that it was part of a larger secular display (and one can only conclude that he’s counting the grass and the sidewalk as secular – seriously, grab a photo journalist and snap a wide-angle picture of it, finding the larger secular display is more difficult than finding Waldo) he basically invented a grandfather clause, noting that people complained about the one in Kentucky immediately but because no one complained about the one in Texas for 50 years, it can stay.

He should be ashamed. No one complained because there was risk and a clear bias against atheists. It’s a difficult fight to fight. This is secular nation, but it has a clear bias toward Christianity that makes it unpleasant to challenge religious favoritism. Our constitution serves to protect minorities from the whims of the majority and the Supreme Court should honor that.

I applaud Thomas Van Orten for bringing that case – which he should have won. I also applaud my friend Jessica Ahlquist who, at the age of 16, complained about a prayer banner in her public school (a case which she won). She endured – and continues to endure – mountains of hateful abuse, including being called an “evil little thing” by her elected State Representative Peter Palumbo.

But I also thank Justice Breyer for telling us what we needed to do – complain: early and often. For clarity, let me inject here that the complaints aren’t about offense, they’re about the law and about ensuring that all citizens are represented fairly and that they don’t walk into a court room or the legislature feeling like they’re second-class citizens merely because they don’t share the religious convictions of the majority.

This isn’t about offense – no one has a right to not be offended. This is about a proper separation of religion and government that attempts to rectify the marginalizing of non-Christian religious and secular citizens of this secular nation.

Our Governor doesn’t have to check his religion at the door when he takes office, no one does, but they do need to make an honest attempt to represent all of their constituents and that means that there are some limits on the potential entanglements between the person and the office.

When Gov. Perry wrote terrible things about secularists in his book about the Boy Scouts, I didn’t object on the grounds of church-state separation (which Amanda Knief has encouraged me to start referring to as separation of religion and government, and I concur), I merely objected as a voter who is saddened that our governor not only doesn’t care to fairly represent his secular constituents, but actively despises them. The same isn’t necessarily true when he declares a day of prayer and fasting for rain (on a side note, the prayers didn’t bring rain…but a massive atheist convention in Houston just a few months later, seemed to do the trick.)

It’s no surprise that he wrote this while supporting the Boy Scouts. As a private organization, they can – and do – discriminate against atheists and homosexuals. They have that right, though they shouldn’t be permitted public funds or favors for their Jamboree while exercising their constitutionally protected bigotry.

Regarding the proselytizing cheerleaders, I keep hearing that the claim is that they paid for the banner and the school has no right to encroach on their free speech rights. Well, those cheerleaders have school-sanctioned outfits that they have to wear when they’re cheering and I’ll bet the school would trample all over their free speech right to dye the skirt to the opposing team’s colors or to wear a bikini top and body paint that read, ‘our faculty sucks’. I’ll also bet that their free speech rights would be halted by the school if those banners had profanity and racist comments on them. I’m pretty sure I could pick some Bible verses that wouldn’t be implicitly improved by the school. So let’s stop pretending that this is about free speech or free expression. They’re representatives of their school and the school explicitly or implicitly approves the message they convey.

They’re free to bring their banner out on the street. They can stand here on the steps of the Capitol (provided they schedule the space) and raise their banner – no matter what it says – and preach until they’re blue in the face.

Students have to deal with bullying and ostracizing for everything from the way they look to who their friends are. The faculty shouldn’t further enable this by portraying the image that this public school is endorsing one religion over another or over none. The people wanting to proselytize in schools are counting on the fear of ‘othering’ to encourage kids to conform and play along with the religion of the majority.

Whether we’re talking about cheerleaders proselytizing at school-sponsored events, ten commandment monuments, prayer banners in schools or any other potential 1st Amendment case, I’d encourage reporters to do the following:

- If you’re going to talk to a minister. Consider talking to an atheist as well…or instead. (After all, we’ve been excluded when our comments would have been relevant).

- If the conversation is about the boundaries of church/state separation…talk to experts. And, for the record David Barton isn’t an expert, and neither are the people who parrot his views. There’s been far too much misinformation bandied about by armchair lawyers in clerical garb. This isn’t a Christian nation, it’s a secular nation…or at least it should be.

- Do some investigation. There’s a lot of talk about what the founders wanted and a lot of it is simply false. The Treaty of Tripoli, unanimously ratified by Congress in 1797, clearly states that the United States is “in no way founded upon the Christian religion”. But it’s also worth noting that the most important view of the founders is that we should not be bound to their views. They built a secular nation that permitted change and correction of the things that they got wrong – like slavery and denying women the right to vote.

I’d love it if more reporters were willing to inject some education into the news. I know it’s not the job you necessarily signed up for, but our schools need a little help.

Thank you.”

About JT Eberhard

When not defending the planet from inevitable apocalypse at the rotting hands of the undead, JT is a writer and public speaker about atheism, gay rights, and more. He spent two and a half years with the Secular Student Alliance as their first high school organizer. During that time he built the SSA’s high school program and oversaw the development of groups nationwide. JT is also the co-founder of the popular Skepticon conference and served as the events lead organizer during its first three years.


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