Washington is full of “spin doctors,” people who get paid to put the best face on embarrassing or damaging incidents.
I’ve dealt with these people my whole career. I know that when spin doctors spin too much, they become something else: bald-faced liars.
Bald-faced liars operate under the theory that if you repeat something enough times, people will start to believe it. They continue to spread falsehoods and hope ideological media will run with it no matter how many times the information has been debunked by more objective sources.
I recently thought I’d have a chance to rebut some of these nonsensical claims as they came spewing right out of the horses’ mouths. I was scheduled to be on Sean Hannity’s radio show and to do an interview with Glenn Beck’s internet site The Blaze. Alas, the Hannity appearance and the Beck interview were both scrubbed.
Simon Brown in our Communications Department took the initial call from Hannity’s people. They said Hannity wanted to talk about a New Jersey teacher who was allegedly fired for handing a student a Bible, a track team disqualified after one of its runners publicly praised God and a supposed anti-Christian “bigot” who had been hired to advise the Pentagon on religious freedom issues.
These tales were offered up as evidence of a “war on Christianity.” Are they? Nope. It’s just more of that spin that lurches into lies.
I knew about the “fired teacher” story from an earlier interview I did with Fox News. He was a substitute social studies teacher – and a member of the Gideons, a group that often tries to distribute Bibles to kids in public schools.
Allegedly, a student asked him about the phrase “The last shall be first and the first last.” The teacher said it was from the Bible. If he had left it at that, there would have been no problem, but he then gave the student a copy of the Bible to take home. The school system decided not to have him back.
The teacher is now in court claiming religious discrimination. The school says he clearly violated a district policy that forbids school employees from distributing any religious materials. Employees are assumed to know personnel policies, and this fellow just chose not to comply.
Employees don’t make the rules for government agencies. Teachers aren’t supposed to supplant parental decisions about religious instruction by giving kids religious material.
Next up, the disqualified athlete. A relay runner on a high school track team from Columbus, Texas, made some type of gesture after crossing the finish line. As a result, his team was disqualified. Initial reports were that the student, Derrick Hayes, had raised his arm to give thanks to God – but the gesture might have been something else.
The University Interscholastic League, which sponsored the meet, investigated and reported that it found “no evidence to suggest that the disqualification took place as a result of the student-athlete expressing religious beliefs. The basis for the disqualification was due to the student-athlete behaving disrespectfully, in the opinion of the local meet referee.”
Hayes’ parents later issued a statement that read in part, “After discussing this with our son, we have come to the conclusion that his religious rights were not violated.”
Finally, my friend Mikey Weinstein of the Military Religious Freedom Foundation has been much in the news lately because of claims that he is serving as an adviser to the Defense Department on religious discrimination. He’s not. He merely had a one-time meeting with some Pentagon officials.
The headline of an article by Jay Sekulow’s American Center for Law and Justice read: Who Would Describe Christians In the Military as ‘Monsters Who Terrorize’? Jay’s answer: Mr. Weinstein.
Weinstein did use the word “monsters” in an op-ed that ran on Huffington Post. But he was hardly characterizing all Christians in the military that way. He was making the point that it’s not uncommon for Christians of one type to feel pressured by others. The vast majority of the Foundation’s clients are Christians who resent pressure from fundamentalists to convert to the “right” version of that faith.
In military law, there has been a longstanding recognition of something called “undue command influence” where a superior uses his or her rank to cause another person to respond in a particular way. This pressure can be exercised inappropriately for sexual favors, religious conversions or other activities.
It’s always a good idea for government officials at all levels to spell out for employees just what is and is not permitted when it comes to discussing religion, displaying religious materials, taking time off for religious activities, etc. The goal is to avoid things that, if inappropriately done, could send the signal that the governmental body is “blessing” one faith over another or giving a benefit to religion that secular employees will not receive.
When there are clear guidelines, it makes it easier for all of us to dismiss the spin doctors’ phony claims of “bigotry,” religious discrimination and unequal treatment so we can focus on the real ones.
Barry W. Lynn is executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State.