When Donald Trump invoked Walter Cronkite while defending himself last month, I nearly fell off my chair. I was appalled because I know where Mr. Cronkite directed his passion and his integrity after he left the anchor chair at CBS. I have the honor of now leading the organization to which he lent his name as honorary chair during the final years of his life.
The leadership of Interfaith Alliance didn’t seek him out. Mr. Cronkite came to us because he believed that “no less than the future of our nation was at stake” in defending religious freedom.
Mr. Trump was using Mr. Cronkite’s name not to attack religious freedom but another institution he held dear – the press. Speaking to a crowd on his “thank you tour,” Mr. Trump spoke these words in criticism of the press coverage of his campaign and electoral victory: “You know, we believed Walter Cronkite years ago, right. This is not Walter Cronkite anymore, folks. This is not the great Walter Cronkite.”
Religious freedom and freedom of the press are inextricably linked together by the First Amendment. And Mr. Trump got this much right: no one was better at exercising that right than Walter Cronkite. It’s no mistake that Mr. Cronkite spent his career enjoying the freedoms guaranteed to him by the Constitution and his later years protecting those freedoms for others to enjoy.
Mr. Cronkite believed in our Constitution and the way of life it seeks to ensure. He believed that the greatest threat to our way of life was the attempt by the Religious Right to reach into the three branches of government and disadvantage anyone who did not share their particular brand of faith.
He encouraged us and our supporters to call out those who misrepresented the truth. He provided guidance in protecting government from the self-serving agendas of those who would use religion as an excuse for discrimination. He insisted that the free marketplace of ideas remain open to authentic representations of all points of view.
In Mr. Cronkite’s work with Interfaith Alliance, he was never interested in us silencing those we disagreed with. He was confident enough in our positions to allow us to make the case to the American people, and let them form their own opinions. With his guidance, we did not tear down those we disagreed with, we won the argument based on facts and substance.
Mr. Cronkite was very private about his own faith but could not have been more outspoken in his defense of religious freedom. One can only imagine how disturbed he would be by the president-elect’s steady attacks on the core tenets of the First Amendment.
Perhaps Mr. Trump thinks his invocation of Mr. Cronkite harks back to the time when America was great. It certainly was a time when the media was more broadly trusted by the public. But make no mistake, Mr. Trump’s campaign to “Make America Great Again” runs counter to everything that Mr. Cronkite stood for in his professional and personal lives. It has been marked by efforts to pit people of different faiths against one another and by unprecedented attacks on individual journalists and media outlets for nothing more than professionally reporting facts.
Here at Interfaith Alliance, we will do everything we can to uphold Mr. Cronkite’s legacy of religious and press freedoms. He set a powerful example that would serve us all well to follow. That’s the way it was, and with your help, will continue to be.