Misusing religion to bash opponents — and win votes

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Thomas Jefferson may be an iconic Founder today, but in the 1800 presidential
campaign he was widely condemned for being an “atheist in religion and a fanatic
in politics” who (it was rumored) had a secret plan to confiscate all the Bibles
in the land.

Sad truth be told, rumors, smears and nasty debates over the religious
affiliation, or lack thereof, of candidates for office have marred American
political campaigns since the early days of the Republic.

Just when I thought it couldn't get any uglier (remember 1960?), the current
election cycle has reached new lows as candidates and special-interest groups
wield religion as a weapon in ways that would make Machiavelli proud.

From the political ads in the Hawaii governor's race about which candidate is
on God's side to the charge and counter-charge over who is injecting the Mormon
issue into the Utah gubernatorial campaign, religion is the wedge issue of
choice in many parts of the country.

In the wake of the media-hyped debate over the so-called “ground zero mosque”
last summer, the most common — and insidious — smear tactic is to play the
Muslim card. First, demonize Islam and conflate “Muslim” with “terrorist.” Then
attack your opponent for being a Muslim sympathizer.

One of the most egregious examples of this strategy is a television ad from
the campaign of Renee Ellmers, Republican candidate for Congress in North
Carolina. After using “Muslims” and “terrorists” interchangeably, Ellmers
suggests that her opponent, Congressman Bob Etheridge, is giving aid and comfort
to the enemy by not speaking out against the “victory mosque” being built by
terrorists near ground zero.

For the record, terrorists aren't building a mosque in New York — and
Etheridge doesn't think the proposed Islamic center is a good idea.

Meanwhile in Kentucky, the Democratic candidate for Senate, Jack Conway, is
raising the religion issue to attack his opponent, Republican Rand Paul. In what
is arguably the strangest below-the-belt political commercial of the season,
Conway attacks Paul for belonging to a secret society while attending Baylor
University 30 years ago. The society was apparently banned from campus for
making fun of Christianity.

The ad goes on to link Paul's allegedly “anti-Christian” college hijinks with
his current stands on faith-based initiatives and other policy issues,
suggesting a lifelong pattern of hostility to religion. Now Paul must repeatedly
deny that he ever was or is now anti-Christian — and run ads telling voters that
he “keeps Christ in his heart.”

Attack ads raising questions about a candidate's faith are effective because
religious affiliation is an important issue for many voters. Although Article VI
of the Constitution prohibits any religious test for office, a sizable number of
Americans apply their own religious tests when choosing leaders.

According to the State of the First Amendment poll released by the First
Amendment Center last month, 23% of Americans say religious affiliation
will be very important in determining their vote in 2010. Another 25% say
it will be somewhat important. For 36% of voters, religious affiliation
will be “not at all important.”

Among Protestants, 60% say religious affiliation is important, as
compared with 44% of Catholics — and 17% of those not practicing a

There is, of course, nothing unconstitutional or out-of-bounds about
citizens' asking questions about a candidate's background and beliefs. Voters
have a right to know what shapes a politician's character — and how religious or
philosophical convictions might inform decisions about public policy. Open and
civil discussion of a candidate's faith and values is fair game in political

But when politicians or their surrogates misuse religion to demonize their
opponents, they pervert the democratic process by stirring prejudice and fear in
a no-holds-barred bid for power.

Charles C. Haynes is director of
the Religious Freedom Education Project at the Newseum, 555 Pennsylvania Ave.,
N.W., Washington, D.C. 20001. Web: firstamendmentcenter.org. E-mail: chaynes@freedomforum.org.