Misusing religion to bash for votes

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By Charles C. Haynes
First Amendment Center
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 Prince 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 percent of Americans say religious affiliation will be very important in determining their vote in 2010. Another 25 percent say it will be somewhat important.
For 36 percent of voters, religious affiliation will be “not at all important.”
Among Protestants, 60 percent say religious affiliation is important, as compared with 44 percent of Catholics — and 17 percent of those not practicing a religion.
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 campaigns.
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.
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Charles C. Haynes is director of the Religious Freedom Education Project at the Newseum, 555 Pennsylvania Ave., N.W., Washington, D.C. 20001. Read more of his opinions at firstamendmentcenter.org; contact him at chaynes@freedomforum.org.