Back on the Get Religious Liberty beat yesterday, Mollie Ziegler Hemingway took a poke at our own Lauren Markoe's story about last week's National Religious Freedom Conference hosted by the Ethics and Public Policy Center. Actually, MZH allowed as how the story (published in WaPo) was "fine for the most part"; what bugged her was the use of quotation marks--"scare quotes"--around the words "religious liberty" in the headline and the lede. As in: "Activists gather to plot defense of ‘religious liberty.’"
Why are we scare quoting those words? And it’s not the Washington Post that originated the scare quotes (uh, this time). It’s on the RNS site, too. Someone really needs to explain to me the scare quote philosophy behind this, since we see it somewhat frequently. Nobody seems to scare quote any other word in this issue. It reads like “we want to mock your concerns” so if that’s not the intent, I’d just suggest stopping the scare quotes ASAP.
Here goes. There is a fairly vigorous debate going on at the moment about whether religious liberty is really under attack by the government and whether those who say they are defending it are really motivated by concern about religious liberty--as opposed to, perhaps, desire to defeat President Obama in November.
Among the reasons Wikipedia gives for using scare quotes is "to alert the reader that the word or phrase...should be understood to include caveats to the conventional meaning." In this case, the caveat is that the National Religious Freedom Conference might not be exactly what it seems to be. Covering the conference for NCR on his blog, Michael Sean Winters--who really does consider religious liberty (in the Roman Catholic sense) to be under attack--conveyed just such a suspicion: "What depresses me about such events as this is that it is hard to miss the partisan agenda at work, even if the cause is a good one."
So the scare quotes are there to alert the reader that religious liberty may not actually be in need of defense and that the "defenders" may actually be up to something else. Get the philosophy?