Success is not all it’s cracked up to be. Just ask America’s minuscule-but-mouthy atheist minority.
After decades of victorious campaigns against Christmas carols and manger scenes, perennially aggrieved non-believers now find themselves bereft of outlets for their anti-God ire. Casting about for signs of theocracy in an increasingly secular society, they frequently must rage against a less-than-ideal target.
Like a postage stamp.
Don’t worry, the earnest non-believers at the Freedom From Religion Foundation are not offended by the frivolity of the U.S. Postal Service’s plans to issue a stamp this year honoring Sunday comics staple Beetle Bailey. Nor did they mind last year’s stamp immortalizing animated anti-hero Homer Simpson. And the Postal Service’s plan to give atheist actress Katharine Hepburn her own stamp suits them just fine.
But a stamp featuring Mother Teresa? Now that’s outrageous.
The Albanian-born nun and world-renowned humanitarian does not deserve the tribute, they say, because she was a religious figure who promoted “Roman Catholic dogma, especially its anti-abortion ideology.” In its call for a letter-writing campaign against Mother Teresa’s stamp, the foundation cited postal regulations that say stamps should not “honor religious institutions or individuals whose principal achievements are associated with religious undertakings or beliefs.”
The campaign, and the regrettably narrow wording of the Postal Service’s own regulations, have put the Postal Service in the awkward position of arguing against the influence of Mother Teresa’s faith on her humanitarian work. Spokesman Roy Betts told Fox News, “This has nothing to do with religion or faith… Mother Teresa is not being honored because of her religion, she’s being honored for her work with the poor and her acts of humanitarian relief.”
While Betts’ second contention is undoubtedly true, Mother Teresa surely would reject the first. Her lifelong service to the poorest of the poor had everything do to with her love for God and her conviction that every human person — no matter how broke, how sick or how small — bears God’s image.
In her 87 years, Mother Teresa racked up an impressive list of worldly accolades, many of them from admiring Americans. She won the Nobel Peace Prize, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the Congressional Gold Medal and honorary U.S. citizenship — a distinction enjoyed by only five others in our nation’s history. A 1999 Gallup poll found that Mother Teresa was the most admired person of the century, outranking the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., John F. Kennedy, Albert Einstein and Helen Keller, all of whom have their own stamps.
The reason we admired Mother Teresa is that she did not live for our admiration. She bathed lepers, nursed AIDS patients and cradled orphans not to win awards or push a political agenda. She did so because she believed that in touching them, she was touching Jesus himself.
“We are not social workers,” she said, when explaining the work of her Missionaries of Charity to America’s political elites at the 1994 National Prayer Breakfast in Washington, D.C. “We may be doing social work in the eyes of some people, but we must be contemplatives in the heart of the world.”
It’s easy to dismiss the campaign against Mother Teresa as another silly publicity stunt from atheist activists with too much time on their hands. Indeed, that’s how most Americans — including some fellow atheists — have reacted.
Yet it’s worth pondering where we are headed as a nation when a woman of such manifest goodness, who served others regardless of their beliefs, cannot merit even a postage stamp without controversy and disclaimers from her defenders about the irrelevance of her faith. A culture with such a squeamish, privatized view of religion is unlikely to produce another Mother Teresa or Martin Luther King Jr., rising up to remind us that genuine love of God always has social consequences.
Mother Teresa probably will get her stamp. Atheist activists have overshot on this one and made themselves look silly in the process. But the climate of fear and defensiveness that their decades-long campaign against religion has fostered in America — a nation founded on religious freedom — is no laughing matter.
Colleen Carroll Campbell is an author, television and radio host and St. Louis-based fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. Her website is www.colleen-campbell.com This article was first published in St Louis Today on February 25.