When asked why he robbed banks, Willie Sutton was reported to have responded, “Because that’s where they keep the money.” It was an honest and straightforward answer. Willie had certain goals in mind, namely the acquisition of large sums of money with a minimum amount of time and effort invested. Large sums of money are kept in banks. So, there you go, a match made in heaven! Willie waltzes into one of those money-holding places, makes a “withdrawal,” and is on his way.
Why do politicians use attack ads? In particular, why do they feel the need to use ads that attack each other’s faith? Well, because voters are where the votes are, and attack ads are successful in manipulating voters to vote in particular ways. Just look back at a few of the state primaries as a lesson in the effectiveness of negative ads. In different cases, Santorum and Gingrich had led Romney in a particular states primary polling. Then Mr. Romney brought his enormous financial resources to bear, blanketing the media with negative ads, and as quick as a wink, the polls shifted significantly, often reversing so that Mr. Romney ended up winning the primary in question. It was not generally the case that Mr. Romney was successful in clarifying his positions. In fact, that was not the main point. No, the main point was to criticize, often out of context or in misleading ways, his opponents. Oh, don’t get me wrong, it’s not that the other candidates did not try to do the same. It’s just that Mr. Romney’s cash advantage made it possible for him to largely “drown out” the other voices.
Religious faith seems to have become one of the favorite topics to use for negative ads. We have already seen several cases of that this year—Santorum considers the President’s Christian faith based on a “phony theology,” Franklin Graham announced his doubts about the President’s faith (though he has since apologized) as well as his view that Romney, as a Mormon, was not really a Christian. An overwhelming percentage of Americans self-identify as Christian, and attack ads that question the Christian faith of a given politician projects a sense of “otherness” on that candidate. One wonders how this will unfold if Romney is the Republican candidate—will his Mormon faith make him an “outsider” to many Christians? On President Obama, we continue to see efforts to identify him not only as “not Christian,” but also to place him in the Muslim camp. In fact, polls just out of likely GOP voters indicate that a plurality (45%) in Alabama and a majority (52%) in Mississippi identify Obama as a Muslim. The fact that Obama self-identifies as a Christian and that he has more than once given his Christian testimony seems not much to matter.
It was long ago recognized that the success of democracy rests on the voting public getting accurate and factual information. Negative ads which merely attack the other person does little to move the needle on voter awareness. Ones that attack a candidate’s faith largely because he or she is “different” than us probably creates more havoc in voter awareness than help. Yet, we get back to where we started—they do it because it works. My challenge to you, for this election season is just this: Do not let them mislead and distract you with campaign ads aimed to hijack Christian faith for partisan gain! Make them talk to us about the substantive proposals they have for the substantial problems we face. Do not let them only tell you why “he is the wrong guy,” make them tell you why they are the right person to take the helm of our country at this point. Remember, they do this kind of advertising because it works, and as soon as we make it “not work,” they’ll stop. Will you join us?
Chuck Gutenson is the co-author of Hijacked: Responding to the Partisan Church Divide, now featured at the Patheos Book Club.