Obama erases the ‘scare quotes’ around religious freedom?

Obama erases the ‘scare quotes’ around religious freedom? February 8, 2014


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?

WASHINGTON — President Obama on Thursday scolded China, Iran, North Korea and other countries known for repressing religious minorities and declared that promoting freedom of faith around the world was a central goal of American foreign policy.

This raises an interesting question: What is the precise difference between “freedom of faith” and “religious liberty”?

Also, it’s interesting to note that, while repeatedly using the term “religious freedom,” this Times report includes zero references to the common term “religious liberty.” Is the goal, in this case, to avoid a term that is traditionally associated with the First Amendment? Note, for example, the language that is used over at the First Amendment Center linked to the Newseum and Vanderbilt University (which is not exactly a power center for religious conservatives).

How about CNN? The headline there was:

President promotes religious freedom

Also, there were no scare quotes anywhere, even in a crucial paragraph — one lacking in many mainstream news reports — which linked this event to debates and controversies here in the United States.

Obama did not address religious freedom in the United States, which some conservative groups say is under threat because of the controversial contraception mandate in the new health care law. Dozens of lawsuits, including two that have reached the Supreme Court, have been filed against the mandate on religious freedom grounds.

So, what have we learned here?

I am left with a two-part question: Have journalists (1) decided to drop the scare quotes around these terms when covering debates about the First Amendment or (2) have they decided not to use scare quotes when the speaker is President Obama?

Just asking. Stay tuned.

Browse Our Archives

What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment

2 responses to “Obama erases the ‘scare quotes’ around religious freedom?”

  1. What’s the deal about discrimination against minority religions? Is it OK to discriminate against majority religions? Has the press adopted the lingo about racial and cultural and political minorities to apply also to religious affiliation?

  2. Or they only use the sneer quotes when discussing matters in the US, since Everybody Knows there is no religious persecution here?