Monday, December 24, 2012

The Providence Journal alters my Letter to the Editor

I wrote the following letter to the Providence Journal on the morning of December 23rd. When the letter was published online in the evening, there were changes made by the editors that I feel changed the tone of my letter and altered the message I was sending. I have included the changes made by the Providence Journal editors in the body of the letter I sent in bold and in red.
The Rev. Ronald Bengford  of Sacred Heart Church in Woonsocket, in a letter published December 23rd ("When God is Denied"), implied that Americans have invited the kind of gun violence seen in the tragic Newtown elementary school shooting by removing God from our public schools. Putting aside the ugliness of his argument, that his God, when denied, is so venal as to allow innocent children to suffer and die for the putative sins of our society, Bengford makes several errors of fact in support of his argument. Putting aside the ugliness of his argument -- that his God, when denied, is so vicious as to let innocent children to suffer and die for the putative sins of our society -- Bengford makes several errors of fact in support of his argument.

Bengford says that "one cannot say a prayer or wear a cross in school," when in fact the right to pray in schools and to express one's religion and beliefs has been upheld in a multitude of court cases. According to the conservative legal advocacy group the American Center for Law and Justice, "Public school students retain their constitutionally protected right to freedom of speech and expression – including the right to wear Christian t-shirts and other religious paraphernalia."

Bengford is confused about the difference between the students rights to their beliefs, and a public school's commitment to diversity, which means a public school cannot lead children in prayer, compel them to wear religious symbols, or place well meaning but ultimately religious sentiments on the walls. Not even in Cranston.

Nearing the end of his letter, Bengford reminisces about his elementary school days in Kingstown, when each day began with the Pledge of Allegiance and (the presumably Protestant version of) the prayer, "Our Father." He says that "To my knowledge, back then, a school shooting was not even heard of or thought of." The truth is that there had been dozens of school shootings in the United States before the 1963 Supreme Court decision that stopped teacher lead public school prayer. The still deadliest attack in our history was the Bath School disaster of 1927 in which 38 school children were killed.

Our discourse on education, religion, guns and politics is ill served by letters such as Bengford's, which are full of misinformation born of ignorance or a willful effort to deceive. The Providence Journal should present a wide range of opinions, but certainly make sure that the letters conform to verifiable facts, not convenient fantasies.

Steve Ahlquist
Humanists of Rhode Island
The Providence Journal editors then titled the letter "Bengford's viciousness and misinformation" which falsely claims that I called Bengford vicious, when in fact I said no such thing. I said his God was venal, meaning that his was a small-minded God easily bribed with prayers and quick to anger when His petty demands are not met. I was countering Bengford's theological and sociological claims, and not taking issue with his character.

The Providence Journal reserves "the right to edit submissions for space and clarity" but I don't believe they have the right to put words in my mouth or to substantially change the meaning and intent of my letter. I apologize to Ronald Bengford for this misunderstanding, but certainly maintain my disagreement with the arguments he made in his letter, and for the reasons I outlined in the original form of my response. 

Screenshot of the letter as printed

Update: December 24th 1:30pm: 

The Providence Journal has updated the title of the letter, changing "viciousness" to "nastiness" which is hardly an improvement as I didn't use that word to describe Bengford either. They also left the word "vicious" in the body of my letter, when what I wrote was "venal".

1 comment:

  1. if I were the Editor of ProJo, someone would be reprimanded and a correction published the next day.