I recently read an essay posted on ReligionandPolitics.org, titled “Whatever happened to Romney’s ‘Evangelical Problem’?”. The first line of the article sums up perfectly the contention between Romney’s Mormonism and the conservative, Evangelical base of the Republican Party: “For six years, reporters and commentators have told the American public that evangelicals don’t want to vote for Mitt Romney because he is a Mormon.” These pundits were convinced that Republicans would only support a candidate that shared a religious experience similar to their own. While JFK’s election as the 35th President moved America past the possibility of only electing a Protestant Commander-in-Chief, many still believe that our President should only be Christian (even if they are not the most devout.)
According to a Fox News article, many Republicans are uncomfortable with Romney’s Mormonism. With this understanding, one would think an ad drawing distinctions between Mormonism and Christianity that could exploit the skepticism and cynicism boiling throughout the conservative base might be an effective strategy in fighting Romney. So why aren’t pro-Obama Super PACs and campaigns not discussing Romney’s Mormonism as a way to smother his support in the Christian Right community? Is it because these organizations find attacks on a candidate’s religion unethical, inappropriate and disrespectful? I definitely would like to think (or even hope) this sentiment drives the discourse surrounding which material is considered fair game for an attack ad. However, I am unconvinced that this is the only reason keeping Romney’s religion off limits. Instead, America’s perception of Obama’s religion could be a factor in the limited discussion of religion in the upcoming election.
According to a recent poll, 16% of Americans think Obama is Muslim. In states like Alabama and Mississippi, historically Red states, this percentage nearly triples with 41% of Alabamians and 52% of Mississippians making this claim. Moreover, in a recent article in the Hill, Ken Brooks, a biker and Christian minster in Florida prisons, admits that while, “[Romney] don’t believe in the same Jesus that we do… he’s better than voting for a Muslim." It is unclear if “ a Muslim” refers to Obama, but I would not be surprised if that were the case. Regardless, this statement expresses a growing anti-Muslim sentiment among Americans. This sort of anti-Muslim rhetoric reflects the increase of anti-Muslim crimes by 50% this year in America. But we don’t need statistics about the trend of criminal activity to understand that anti-Muslim sentiment is prevalent in America. Let’s just consider Michelle Bachmann’s recent attack on Hilary Clinton’s aide Huma Abedin. Bachmann and her supporters insist that Abedin is somehow affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood and is a threat to national security, simply because of her Muslim faith.
Could misrepresentations of Obama’s faith coupled with these kinds of growing anti-Muslim sentiment be a reason that the Obama campaign has moved discussions away from religion? Furthermore, is it possible that pro-Obama campaigns are not quick to attack Romney’s religion because that gives Republicans permission to exploit misunderstandings about Obama’s religion in key Southern states like Florida, Virginia, and North Carolina? Possibly. The Obama campaign and it’s supportive Super PAC’s do not want to risk losing any voters due to baseless, attacks from desperate conservatives, thirsty to tie Obama to whatever faction they believe are anti-America/democracy/Jesus/apple pie.
When conversations about religion and politics frustrate me, I am reminded of a quote I ran across from Obama’s The Audacity of Hope. Obama writes,
I was not raised in a religious household. For my mother, organized religion too often dressed up closed-mindedness in the garb of piety, cruelty and oppression in the cloak of righteousness. However, in her mind, a working knowledge of the world’s great religions was a necessary part of any well-rounded education. In our household the Bible, the Koran, and the Bhagavad Gita sat on the shelf alongside books of Greek and Norse and African mythology.
On Easter or Christmas Day my mother might drag me to church, just as she dragged me to the Buddhist temple, the Chinese New Year celebration, the Shinto shrine, and ancient Hawaiian burial sites.
This kind of religious tolerance and exploration serves to reify the Obama’s campaign decision not to attack Romney’s religion. Religion is a highly personal experience and we should be allowed to practice or express our religion without the criticisms of our peers. Our politicians set the discourse surrounding religion in this country. That is to say, their rhetoric and platforms shape whether attitudes toward certain religions are derisive or supportive. All of our political figures need to understand their influence on public opinion. Until this day, I applaud Romney and Obama’s (and even McCain’s) decisions to move away from attacks on religion and I pray that tolerance, love and an open mind inform and inspire voters as they head to the polls in November.
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