The Mother of All ‘Daily Show’ Ambushes: Dan Barker

If you saw me representing the Freedom From Religion Foundation on that silly segment of “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart” on March 8, you might wonder what the heck we were thinking.

A very nice self-described atheist staffer called to say they were interested in doing a segment about our complaint to the U.S. Postal Service that the Mother Teresa stamp scheduled to be released this summer violates postal regulations against honoring predominantly religious figures. When we learned the interview would be conducted by “correspondent” Jason Jones, we realized they were planning one of those comic segments in which they lampoon the news.

The old adage is that any publicity is good publicity. Annie Laurie, as a “Daily Show” aficionado, knew of course that the fake news segments don’t aim to please, they just take aim. She told them we might agree if they would do the taping at our office — thinking that way FFRF visuals and messages would survive the editing.

When we polled the FFRF office, our mostly young staff said “Yes!” Annie Laurie still had reservations and I had mixed feelings (mostly positive — I’m such a ham), but even 83-year-old President-Emerita Anne Gaylor voted yes. Then they told us that Jason Jones was going on vacation so the only way was for one of us to fly to New York City.

I agreed to do it because it would at least give FFRF and the issue some attention. Besides, I was excited to see “The Daily Show” studio, meet the staff and watch how they do their jobs. They flew me to New York City in mid-February (first-class on the return flight), and put me up in a nice Manhattan hotel, so it was a bit of an adventure.

Annie Laurie loaded me down with FFRF T-shirts, books, bumper stickers, hats and magnets. When I showed these to the writer and producer (Miles Kahn and Asaf Kastner), I asked if there were any ethical concerns with the media accepting gifts. “You seem to be confusing us with a real news outfit,” Asaf said as he grabbed the materials.

Most of the staff seemed sympathetic with FFRF — in fact, they told me that half of them are atheists and that the writers agreed with our complaint — but before they could snatch up the goodies, Miles told them to wait until after the taping because he might want to use some of it for B-roll and cutaways.

I had a nice talk with Jon Stewart. Well, not a talk. We didn’t even meet. Jon said “Hi, guys!” as he passed quickly through the lunch room where we were talking. He was probably too nervous to meet me in person. So I’m counting that as a talk.

Miles showed me the huge studio where the show is taped, but my interview wasn’t conducted there. We went down to the basement where two cameras were set up in what amounts to a hallway next to the restrooms. Jason and I sat facing each other with a camera behind each of us. It was eerie down there with the main lights off and the spots aimed at us. A couple of times we had to stop and start over because footsteps could be heard above us. “Is someone taking dance lessons in the stairwell?” Miles yelled. The writers and producers sat close by, monitoring the entire conversation, which lasted almost two and a half hours.

They had given Jason about 30 questions to ask, which covered virtually my entire life history — why I left the ministry to become an atheist, the difference between atheism and agnosticism, the purposes and activities of the Foundation, the views of the Founding Fathers, the meaning of the First Amendment and much more. More than an hour passed before we even got to the topic of Mother Teresa. (I supposed the editors would later be combing through that material for any useful or funny comments.)

They treated me with respect and dealt with the issues in a serious matter, though it was obvious Jason was fishing for the joke. I eventually told him I thought the writers were the real brains of the show, and he said, “That’s true. I’m just an actor.”

When we were talking about FFRF’s billboard campaign, Jason looked up and said, “When my 3-year-old daughter saw your Heathens’ Greetings billboard, she broke into tears. What am I supposed to tell her about that?”

“Your 3-year-old daughter can read?” I asked.

“She is very smart,” he said.

“Does she know what the word ‘heathen’ means?”

“She is very smart.”

“Well, you tell your daughter that America has a richness of viewpoints, all of which are protected by the Constitution.” (I am reconstructing these comments from memory. It was a long interview.)

“What if I pulled out a gun and shot you in the stomach right now? Would you cry out to God?”

“I would cry for medical help,” I replied.

“There’s no medical help.”

“Well, there are atheists in foxholes,” I replied, and told him about the time Annie Laurie almost died the day our daughter was born, when we never once thought of praying to a deity.

When we finally got around to the issue, Jason held up a large image of the stamp of Mother Teresa in her nun’s habit, and said, “So this is your big complaint?”

“That is one of many issues we are complaining about,” I said.

“This!?” he said, keeping the stamp in view, staring at me blankly.

“The Foundation makes many complaints,” I said. “It’s not our most important issue and we are not taking legal action over it, but it does represent the kind of state-church violation our members are concerned about.”

He wouldn’t quit. He probably asked me that same question five times, holding up the stamp. “This?” We went back and forth for a while.

“This is how you want to convince the world to become atheists?” he said, thrusting the stamp closer to me.

“No,” I said. “This complaint is aimed at the Post Office. But it doesn’t hurt the world to learn the truth about how a mediocre woman is being transformed into a saint for purely religious reasons.”

Again he asked, “So this is what you are complaining about?” holding up the stamp.

I finally said, “Yes, this is one of many issues the Foundation is concerned about.” Then I realized that he was fishing for the word “Yes.” Sure enough, when the segment aired, they cut it at the comma so it looked like I said “Yes!” —  this is the Foundation’s big issue.

I explained that our complaint to the Postal Service is based on the violation of its own guidelines for commemorative subjects. For starters, Mother Teresa was not an American citizen. She was not born in this country, nor did she reside here, pay taxes or vote in the U.S. (although she did come here, not to any of her own clinics, for first-class medical treatment when she was ill). The Post Office, however, has justified this exception by pointing out that President Bill Clinton made Mother Teresa an “Honorary American.” When I mentioned that fact, Jason said, “Is there nobody he won’t bang?” (They didn’t use that line in the final segment!)

The staff seemed genuinely interested in the factual claims about Mother Teresa. I held up Christopher Hitchens’ book The Missionary Position as one example that documents the inferior quality of her clinics, her lack of financial accountability and her cozy association with corrupt politicians such as Haiti’s “Baby Doc” Duvalier.

I mentioned how she pleaded with the court for leniency in the sentencing of convicted financier Charles Keating because he was a good man who had given her $1.25 million, and how when the court asked her to return that stolen money, she declined to reply. We don’t know where that money went, but we do know that she spent millions to build new convents named in her honor and increase her religious order while she spent considerably less on real charity.

“Mother Teresa did some good,” I agreed, “but her real genius was as a powerful PR machine for the population policies of the Roman Catholic Church.” In her Nobel Prize acceptance speech, she was more concerned about condemning legal abortion than feeding the hungry. What did she actually do for world peace? Soon after that speech she went to Ireland to tell them that their best hope for peace was for everyone to return to the Catholic Church.

“The Daily Show” staff seemed surprised and sincerely interested when I spoke about the documentation of shoddy “medical” practices at her clinics. They asked me to repeat the story about how the nuns at her hospital for the dying (which has posted the words “Today I am going to heaven” on the wall — some hospital!) were secretly baptizing all patients, including Hindus and Muslims, pretending to be cooling their foreheads with a wet cloth while performing the religious ritual.

When Jason held up the stamp of Martin Luther King Jr., I countered that he was honored for leading the civil rights movement, not for religion, and besides, he was an American. With Mother Teresa, it was the other way around: Her charity work was secondary to her religious mission, and she said so many times. Her small Calcutta orphanage, she said, was a front line in the fight against abortion and birth control.

Jason asked me about all of that, and more, but none of it got into the final segment. They showed the Martin Luther King Jr. stamp on the air, but not my response.

ZIP code 10001

After lunch we jumped into a taxi and followed the camera crew van to the main General Post Office (ZIP code 10001) at 8th Avenue and 33rd Street, where we spent about half an hour taping various scenes, some of which made the cut. It’s hard to see, but I’m actually reading Hitchens’ book with the photo of Mother Teresa on the cover, standing on the steps of that huge stately building with its famous inscription: “Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds.”

One scene which didn’t make it: Jason and I walking casually down the steps and he asks, “So what are you asking your members to do?”

“We are asking them to write letters of complaint to the Post Office,” I reply.

He stops and stares at me and says, “Letters to the Post Office?” Then he backs off and says, “You’re in on it!” As I stand there, he turns and runs away from me, hopping over the railing in the distance (accidentally banging his shin in the process). I thought that was very funny.

A lot of passersby stopped to watch, thinking we were filming a movie. As we were leaving, one of their young interns told me, “This is the funnest day of work I have ever had in my life!”

But they didn’t use most of that outdoor footage. They decided to turn the skit into a “Dan Brown Da Vinci Code conspiracy theory” spoof and filmed a lot of other movie-like scenes, leaving little chance for my stellar acting to impress the Academy. Perhaps if I had been more of a nutcase during the interview, they would have kept the focus on FFRF.

When I saw the final segment, I was surprised to hear myself using the word “conspiracy.” That was one word I was definitely planning to avoid. I remember Jason pestering me for a long time about the “Catholic conspiracy” to get Mother Teresa on a U.S. postage stamp. Although it is no secret that the Catholic Church does have a lot of influence, we don’t know what, if any, strings were pulled to get it to happen. In one sense, all religions are conspiracies, and I must have said something about that, using “conspiracy” with a lower-case “c.” Sure enough, they got that line into the final cut.

I can see how they did it. After the interview, they had us remain seated for about 20 more minutes while they fed Jason a bunch of lines to repeat and questions to ask, telling me to remain silent and not reply. They were clearly planning to do some creative editing. It’s not hard to make the answer to one question sound like an answer to another question. I later met one of the editors and said, “So, I bet you are the one with the real power here.”

“That’s right,” he said. “If I want, I could make you say ‘I . . . like . . . altar . . . boys.’ ”

The segment ended up more of a spoof of Dan Brown’s books than of our group, although the apparent guilt by association was plainly intentional. A few disappointed viewers wrote to say, “Didn’t you know that would be a setup?” (My sister-in-law, Nancy, a library administrator, couldn’t stop laughing over the silly “conspiracy montage” when my beaming, lit-up face pops up suddenly.)

But in the end, most of the comments we received were positive. Any exposure to freethought, state-church separation, and criticism of religion — even light-hearted poking fun at ourselves — is welcome in our faith-drenched world.

After the taping, Asaf thanked me for being such a good sport. He and I both know that FFRF would have wanted a more serious airing of the issues, but we also know that comedy is comedy.

“Thank you very much again for your patience and for participating in the process,” he said in an e-mail. He also mailed us several photos, including one I’d brought along of the entire FFRF staff, signed by Jason.

When we win our National Day of Prayer lawsuit, perhaps they will call us again. There is certainly nothing funny about that. Is there?

Foundation Co-President Dan Barker is author of Godless and Losing Faith in Faith: From Preacher to Atheist.

Freedom From Religion Foundation