The media is filled with lies and liars. We all know this, so there’s no need for us to point out every lie told online. But some lies and some liars need to be called out. And when a liar identifies with my community–conservative evangelicals–and tells lies to my community repeatedly and without apology, influencing hundreds of thousands of people, that needs to be addressed.
Last week, Todd Starnes at FOX News published two articles on anti-Christian discrimination at Veterans Administrations hospitals this Christmas season. In both reports, Starnes lies and tactfully omits facts in order to deceive his audience, creating the impression that the government is at war with Christmas.
Starnes is a FOX News radio host, columnist, author, and a frequent guest on FOX and Friends. But he’s best known for his articles on FOXNews.com, where he reports on the culture wars, focusing on how Christians in the US are under persecution by the State or atheists or the homosexual agenda. As you can imagine, this theme is very popular with readers. His Facebook Page has over 112k followers and his articles regularly receive more than 10k Facebook interactions. In fact, his piece last week on banned Christmas cards has over 24k likes, so far. Additionally, Starnes is cited and shared by notable Christian figures. When Starnes reports on an event, he will influence the way a lot of people think.
To complicate matters, Starnes is an extremely outspoken Christian. His faith is an essential part of his public image. Each morning he tweets out a verse from the Bible, and he regularly comments on issues from a distinctly Christian perspective. He is a Christian reporting to Christians about persecution against Christians.
Starnes’s wide influence on evangelicals is alarming because he consistently deceives and manipulates facts in order to exaggerate or fabricate incidences of Christian persecution. These reports influence a great deal of people who often respond with hatred, anger, and disgust out of ignorance. I have mentioned Starnes’s work before, but I want to take a brief look at two articles he posted last week which have received quite a bit of press.
Here’s how Starnes reports this incidence:
Boys and girls at Grace Academy in Prosper, Tex., spent most of last Friday making homemade Christmas cards for bedridden veterans at the VA hospital in Dallas.
Fourth-grader Gracie Brown was especially proud of her card. . . . But the bedridden veterans at the VA hospital will never get to see Gracie’s card. Nor will they see the cards made by 51 other students. That’s because the Christmas cards violated VA policy.
Fourth-grader’s Christmas card banned by government censors? This seems like a cut-and-dry case of religious discrimination, but as discerning readers, we wait to read the VA’s perspective on the issue. Here is the VA’s statement, as Starnes quotes them:
In order to be respectful of our veterans’ religious beliefs, all donated holiday cards are reviewed by a multi-disciplinary team of staff led by chaplaincy services and determined if they are appropriate (non-religious) to freely distribute to patients. We regret this process was not fully explained to this group and apologize for any misunderstanding.
This statement seems to very clearly support Starnes’s reporting. The cards contained religious language, so they were deemed inappropriate and the kids could not freely distribute them to patients. You can imagine the kinds of incensed responses this report created, but if you want to read them, here they are.
Not content to allow his sensationalistic story incite anti-government hatred, he took to Twitter and claimed, “Our forefathers took up arms over tyranny like this,” the inescapable implication being that if we were as bold and courageous as our forefathers, we’d follow their example and rebel.
A quick Google search reveals that Todd Starnes lies in his report in order to make the VA look like a tyrannical, anti-Christian arm of the Obama administration.
Another news report on this incident, one also published by FOX news, provides the entire statement from the VA:
In order to be respectful of our Veterans religious beliefs, all donated holiday cards are reviewed by a multi-disciplinary team of staff led by Chaplaincy services and determined if they are appropriate (non-religious) to freely distribute to patients. After the review is complete, the holiday cards that reference religious and/or secular tones are then distributed by Chaplaincy Service on a one-on-one basis if the patient agrees to the religious reference in the holiday card donation. The holiday cards that do not contain religious and/or secular tones are distributed freely to patients across the Health Care System. We regret this process was not fully explained to this group and apologize for any misunderstanding.
The bolded section was removed from Starnes’s report. Here, we learn that the VA does not ban Christmas cards. They determine the religious tone of each card and then the Chaplaincy Service asks each patient if they want a card with certain religious references. The veteran can then decide if they want a “Merry Christmas” or a “Happy Holidays” card.
Let me clarify here that in the specific case Starnes reports on the school teacher was wrongly informed that the VA would not accept religious cards. However, the teacher was later contacted by the VA and told of their policy, and Starnes knew of the actual policy when he wrote his article, since he quoted from the VA’s official statement!
The bottom line here is that Starnes clearly claims that Christmas Cards are banned by the VA’s policy when they are not. And he clearly edits the VA’s official statement to deceive his readers.
Last week Starnes also reported that a VA hospital in Georgia banned school children from singing Christmas carols to vets. The stories are quite similar:
Students from the Alleluia Community School were banned from singing any religious-themed Christmas carols to patients including “Silent Night,” “Joy to the World” and “O Come All Ye Faithful.”
Instead, when they arrived to perform, the students were given a list of 12 Christmas songs provided by the hospital’s pastoral service that had been “deemed appropriate for celebration within the hearing range of all veterans.”
In other words, all secular, nothing sacred, the Augusta Chronicle reported.Principal Funsch said his students, on principle, decided not to comply with the government-approved list of Christmas carols and they cancelled their concert.
As with the Christmas Card story, Starnes’s report gives the appearance of outright and unapologetic religious discrimination, but the “Augusta Chronicle” article he cites as his source includes some information which he omits:
The Augusta hospital announced Monday that it’s taking a stricter stance on its policy banning carolers from singing religious Christmas music in public patient areas.
Rothwell said the students – like all groups who come to the VA – were offered the option of performing in a private chapel or day room where they could sing specific songs that might make veterans of other faiths uncomfortable.
“We regret any inconvenience or misunderstanding that this (policy) creates,” Rothwell said. “VA policy is welcoming but respectful of all faiths and the protection of each veteran’s right to religious freedom and protection from unwelcomed religious material, to their individual beliefs.”
Once again, the VA is not banning religious expression or speech from the hospital, they are just trying to ensure that vets who don’t want to listen to the carols don’t have to. The kids could sing carols, but only in a chapel, for vets who actually wanted to hear the songs. Why did Starnes knowingly omit this fact? Because it contradicts his headline that the songs were “banned” and that claim that the students had to comply with a government approved song list.
As with the Christmas Card story, the response has been disturbing and Starnes took to Twitter to exaggerate his deceptive story.
Let me say that there are legitimate concerns and criticisms about religious freedom and these VA policies. They both seem excessive and unduly burdensome on an already overworked VA system. And we should consider why religious expression is banned from the public areas of these hospitals. But Starnes’ lies actually distract us from those conversations. Instead, we are off tilting at the ghosts of persecution windmills.
That’s the thing about sensationalism and exaggeration: it hurts real efforts to address real issues. But in this case, there’s more at risk. Starnes’ lies should remind us that for many people and companies, Christians are a market demographic. They know our fears, our values, and our desires.
Starnes sells us what we want to hear. We want to believe that we are the underdog. And Starnes sells us that story, wrapped in language of patriotism and faith. For our own good, we need to reject and denounce hucksters like Starnes. For our own wisdom, for the witness of the Church, and simply because lying is wrong. Starnes should not have a job as a journalist, but more importantly, we should not support him by sharing and promoting his deceptions.
Edit 12-31: to stress that religious carols were banned from the public space of Georgia hospital, but not, as Starnes implies, from the entire hospital.
Edit 1-1: changed “consistently lies” to “consistently deceives,” allowing for the possibility of ignorance in some cases.