For some atheists, a person should not be honored for decades of humanitarian work if she also happens to be a professing Christian.
That's the only conclusion one can draw from the recent uproar of the Freedom From Religion Foundation over the U.S. Postal Service's commemorative stamp featuring 1979 Nobel Prize winner Mother Teresa.
"There's this knee jerk response that everything she did was humanitarian," griped FFRF spokeswoman Annie Laurie Gaylor, according to a Jan. 28 Fox News article. "And I think many people would differ that what she doing was to promote religion, and what she wanted to do was baptize people before they die, and that doesn't have a secular purpose for a stamp." She also asserted that this is part of the Roman Catholic "PR machine" to "make [Mother Teresa] a saint."
Just to clarify: the Church does not consider a commemorative stamp issued by the U.S. Postal Service a necessary step to sainthood.
An action alert sent last week by FFRF urged atheists to "Protest [the] Mother Teresa Stamp." Despite the insistence of Postal Service spokesman Roy Betts that "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," FFRF claimed the Citizens Stamp Advisory Committee, which decides who will be commemorated on U.S. Postal stamps, violated its own regulations by choosing Mother Teresa to appear on a stamp in 2010.
FFRF complained in particular that the choice of Mother Teresa violated the committee's sixth regulation, which states "Stamps or stationery items shall not be issued to honor fraternal, political, sectarian, or service/charitable organizations." The organization argued it "should have been a stumbling block" because "the organization she ran and was inextricably identified with, Missionaries of Charity, was both sectarian (Roman Catholic) and a service/charitable organization."
Yet this is not the first time the Postal Service has honored a person affiliated with a particular organization. In 2003, the Advisory Committee approved a stamp bearing the likeness of Cesar Chavez, the Mexican-American labor leader who co-founded the United Farm Workers. Malcolm X, closely affiliated with the Nation of Islam, was honored with a stamp in 1999.
FFRF grumbled that the Advisory Committee also violated the ninth regulation, "Stamps or stationery items shall not be issued to honor religious institutions or individuals whose principal achievements are associated with religious undertakings or beliefs," in honoring Mother Teresa, but this is not the first time people known for their religious roles have been commemorated either.
St. Francis of Assisi, a Catholic saint, received a stamp in 1982. Gandhi, the Indian leader known for his Hindu beliefs, was honored by the Postal Service in 1961. Father Flannagan, the Roman Catholic priest who founded the Boys Town orphanage was honored in 1986. And both Jesus and His mother Mary have been featured on stamps over the years. Civil rights leader Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. also received a stamp in his honor.
According to Fox News, "Gaylor said the atheist group opposed Father Flanagan's stamp but not those for King and Malcolm X, because she said they were known for their civil rights activities, not for their religion."
"He's not called Father Malcolm X like Mother Teresa," Gaylor elaborated. "I mean, even her name is a Roman Catholic honorific."
Gaylor also voiced her opposition to Fox News about the "anti-abortion rant" Mother Teresa inserted into her Nobel Prize acceptance speech in 1979. Her organization's alert labeled it a "gratuitous tirade against abortion" and called the speech itself a "disturbing, befogged religious rant" in which she "blamed moral decay on abortion and minimized the suffering of starving children by comparison."