Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney’s speech on December 6th – in which he tried to ‘explain’ his Mormon faith – was met with a mostly sympathetic reception at George Bush Library in Texas.
The speech has been long anticipated, not so much for its relevance to the pressing debate on the defining role of religion in American politics, and how this undermines the very meaning of secular democracy. It was awaited simply because Romney belongs to the wrong faith. Recent polls indicate that one out of every three Republicans will not vote for Romney because he is a Mormon.
The whole affair has done much to reveal the hypocrisy of institutional democracy in the United States. While every presidential candidate, Republican or Democrat, has unreservedly uttered lip service to democratic ideals, very few have dared push the boundaries by actually explaining their personal views on what separation of church and state means.
Given the Republicans’ reservations on Romney and the fact that the religious vote has long been shown to be a formidable factor in determining who claims the throne of the Oval Office, one can easily deduce that religion is hardly a personal matter in the American political milieu. Imagine, for instance, the sort of chances a presidential candidate would have as a dedicated atheist, or worse, as a devout Muslim.
It might be a long time – if ever – before the possibility of a Muslim candidate representing a major party is put to the test. But one need not wait that long to appreciate the narrow-mindedness of the media and politicians, and how this influences public opinion.
While the urgency of ‘responding’ to Islamic fundamentalism has been consistently highlighted in the ongoing presidential campaign, very little has been said about Christian, Jewish or other religious fundamentalisms. Rarely has a candidate with the exception of Democrat Dennis Kucinich dared to examine the relationship between Christian fundamentalism and the Iraq war, or Jewish fundamentalism and the Israeli occupation of Palestine. Religious fanaticism and fundamentalism are rarely discussed as perilous phenomena in their own right; if it’s not ‘Islamic’ it simply doesn’t count.
Such short-sightedness has wide-ranging and deeply harmful implications. All that a volunteer for Senator Hilary Clinton’s presidential campaign needed to do to temporarily disrupt the recent gains of Barack Obama’s campaign was to distribute an email suggesting that Obama was a Muslim intent on ‘destroying’ the United Sates. As laughable as this may sound, one cannot underestimate the impact that such rumours have on voters filled with fear and disdain for everything Muslim. Of course, Christian fundamentalist President George W. Bush’s wholesale destruction of a Muslim country, Iraq, is not a mere rumour. That this is not considered noteworthy is most telling. Chances are Obama will do his utmost to distance himself from the rumour as he has done in the past – which could reinvigorate the old accusation that he spent time studying at a Muslim school. Obama previously responded by vowing to respond severely to Muslim terrorism, going so far as to say he would bomb Pakistan if necessary. Whether he will upgrade further his hostile language to show his worthiness to lead America is yet to be seen.
Although Islam and Muslims were hardly relevant to Romney’s speech, Naomi Schaefer Riley of the conservative Wall Street Journal couldn’t prevent herself from shoving Islam into the picture, predictably in an unfavorable light. In her article, ‘What Iowans Should Know About Mormons’ (December 7), Riley cites a recent Pew poll which shows that “only 53% of Americans have a favourable opinion of Mormons.” She then observes: “That’s roughly the same percentage who feel that way toward Muslims. By contrast, more than three-quarters of Americans have a favorable opinion of Jews and Catholics.”
Riley then gets to her main and vindictive point: “Whatever the validity of such judgments, one has to wonder: Why does a faith professed by the 9/11 hijackers rank alongside that of a peaceful, productive, highly educated religious group founded within our own borders?”
Not only did Riley isolate 9/11 from the pre and post 9/11 contexts (again conveniently neglecting the fact that nearly a million Iraqis were killed by those who mostly profess the Christian faith), she also implicitly indicated that Mormonism is everything that Islam is not. The latter religion is thus hostile, unproductive, backward and alien.
Riley was hardly satisfied with selectively linking a religion professed by over a billion people of all colors and ethnicities worldwide – including millions of Americans – to a few hijackers. She used the rest of her inadequate ‘analysis’ to inappropriately bring Islam to a discussion from which it should have been entirely spared.
One can understand the urge of the faithful of any religion to make preferences for presidential candidates on the basis of their faith. One can thus also understand why politicians cater to the religious sensibilities of their constituents, even if this means resorting to untruths. But one cannot in any way sympathize with the mainstream media perceived largely as ‘liberal’ for failing to realign the debate by bringing it back to its proper boundaries: that of equitable democracy vs religious prejudices, looking at Romney as a man who can do good, or bad for America rather than a man who professes a ‘wacky’ or ‘cult-like’ faith.
It’s odd that in the first decade of the 21st century, the media still validates the same religious thoughtlessness that had prevailed in America when Catholic John F. Kennedy made his famous statement in 1960 asserting that the Pope would not sway his presidency. Indeed, the media should have chastised the entire debate which ranks potential presidents based on whose God is best, or whether comparative religion should be discussed at all. Needless to say mediocre journalism like that of Riley should have never made it to print in the first place.
RAMZY BAROUD teaches mass communication at Curtin University of Technology and is the author of The Second Palestinian Intifada: A Chronicle of a People’s Struggle. He is also the editor-in-chief of PalestineChronicle.com. He can be contacted at: email@example.com