Wielding the ‘God weapon’ poisons the body politic

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Editor’s note: This commentary originally appeared Aug. 31 on The Washington Post’s Web site. Reprinted by permission.

In the wake of his weekend rally, Glenn Beck kept up the drumbeat of criticism about President Obama's religion, calling it a “perversion” and saying that America “isn't recognizing his version of Christianity,” which Beck characterized as “liberation theology.”

Despite critique of Obama's Christianity, a recent poll showed that nearly 20% of Americans believe falsely that the president is Muslim.

Why is there so much attention on Obama's religion? Does it matter what religion the president is?

President Obama is in good company. Attacking the religious faith of presidents (and presidential candidates) is a time-worn political strategy dating back to the early days of the Republic. Then, as now, employing the God weapon poisons the body politic with false, angry and often hateful rhetoric — all in the name of gaining political power.

Glenn Beck may not know this history, but he appears determined to repeat it: Begin by appearing to rise above politics — the rally on the Mall was framed as “non-political” — and then call the nation to fulfill what God has ordained in the founding of this nation. Rally becomes revival, pitting true believers against those who worship false gods in the cause of “restoring honor” in America.

By invoking God to separate true-American sheep from un-American goats, Beck is employing a potent political weapon that has been used with mixed success throughout American history.

One of the “Founding Fathers” Beck misappropriates, Thomas Jefferson, was frequently vilified as an “atheist” and “infidel” in the 1800 presidential campaign. The question facing each American, proclaimed a banner in the Gazette of the United States, is “shall I continue in allegiance to GOD — AND A RELIGIOUS PRESIDENT; or impiously declare for JEFFERSON — AND NO GOD!!!” (Quoted in The Godless Constitution, a book by Isaac Kramnick and R. Laurence Moore that does a good job of debunking the false history of the “Christian America” crowd.)

No doubt Jefferson would also have been attacked as a “secret Muslim” had the public known about his well-thumbed copy of the Quran.

Even the 1908 presidential campaign of William Howard Taft, an establishment Republican if there ever was one, was almost undone by vicious attacks on his Unitarian beliefs (and false rumors that the had Catholic relatives). “Think of the United States with a President who does not believe that Jesus Christ was the Son of God,” wrote the editor of one religious newspaper, “but looks upon our immaculate Savior as a common bastard and low, cursing imposter.”

Contrary to the bogus history promoted by Beck and his supporters (pseudo-historian David Barton joined Beck for a pre-rally event at the Kennedy Center), a good many of our presidents — including the sainted Abraham Lincoln who belonged to no church — would have failed the religious test of Christian purity they seek to impose on President Obama.

Make no mistake. Beck and his ilk may be politically motivated, but they actually believe that President Obama's religious faith (or what they think it to be) is a threat to American freedom and democracy. Convinced of their own righteousness, they are completely uninterested in a civil discussion of what the president actually believes. Instead, they are determined to “take America back” by demonizing “the Other.”

But if history is any guide, their God strategy will backfire. I'm optimistic that a majority of Americans will reject the politics of religious division and intolerance. After all, Thomas Jefferson won the White House despite unrelenting attacks on his religion — as did William Howard Taft, John F. Kennedy, and, of course, Barack Obama.

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.

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