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Mother Teresa: Should a Saint Get Postal Service's Stamp of Approval?

4 years ago
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If anything qualifies as a no-brainer, it would seem to be honoring Mother Teresa of Calcutta on a stamp. Not really the biggest laurel the late Nobel Prize winner and sure-fire saint will ever merit, but nothing to sniff at -- especially given the price of a stamp these days.

But of course, you knew someone would find something objectionable about the decision, and in this case it is The Freedom From Religion Foundation, a leading atheist organization that is organizing a boycott and letter-writing campaign against the stamp, which was one of 23 new issues the United States Postal Service recently unveiled for 2010.

The thing is, the atheists have a point.

Now before you start sputtering in the comment boxes, note the Postal Service's own list of a dozen criteria for who can qualify for "stamphood," specifically item No. 9:
"Stamps or stationery items shall not be issued to honor religious institutions or individuals whose principal achievements are associated with religious undertakings or beliefs."
As FFRF leaders Annie Laurie Gaylor told FoxNews.com, "Mother Teresa is principally known as a religious figure who ran a religious institution. You can't really separate her being a nun and being a Roman Catholic from everything she did."

Well, USPS spokesman Roy Betts tried.

"This has nothing to do with religion or faith," Betts said in response. "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." (Actually, the Postal Service press release notes that she followed "a divine inspiration." But Betts is stuck between a rock and a hard place, it seems.)

At First Things, Joe Carter begs to differ and to side with Gaylor -- though with regret, and justifiable annoyance:
"Mother Teresa should certainly appear on a stamp -- but only after we change the law. We shouldn't look for loopholes that require denying the importance of her faith in order for her to qualify. Mother Teresa should be honored for who she really was -- a Catholic nun motivated by the love of Christ -- and not as a faux, secular saint."
Such a change in the law would also help avoid the Postal Service -- and groups like The Freedom From Religion Foundation -- from having to come up with tortured arguments justifying, or criticizing, certain honorees.

For example, previous postal honorees with obvious religious identities include Malcolm X, the former chief spokesman for the Nation of Islam, and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., a Baptist minister and co-founder of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. In 1986, the Post Office issued a stamp in honor of Father Edward J. Flanagan, founder of Boys Town, that is still widely used.

In explaining their conflicting positions on those, both the USPS and the FFRF get a bit tied up in contradictions.

Postal spokesman Betts said Flanagan was "honored for his humanitarian work." Annie Laurie Gaylor doesn't agree. But she doesn't have any problem with King or Malcolm X. Martin Luther King "just happened to be a minister," she said, and "Malcolm X was not principally known for being a religious figure."

Gaylor does object to the "darker side" of Mother Teresa's religious activism, chiefly her opposition to abortion. Then again, in its press release objecting to the Mother Teresa stamp, the FFRF urges its followers to buy the Katherine Hepburn stamps the Postal Service is producing this year, because Hepburn publicly described herself as an atheist and was featured in an FFRF ad campaign.

And the Virgin Mary? She has been on Christmas stamps since the 1960s. But she's principally known as a mom. So that's okay.

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