Just when you think that the presidential primaries can’t get any dirtier, the politicians come up with something new. The latest is religious bigotry by proxy, or bootleg bigotry, as I like to call it. With Texas governor Rick Perry polling lower than Michelle Bachmann and Ron Paul, his advisors wanted to posture him as the anti-Romney—that is, as the Republican candidate who, if somewhat unpolished and an uneven speaker, is still the candidate most unlike the voluble but hated Mitt Romney. And they knew very well that Romney is vulnerable because of his religion. How could they exploit this weakness without making Perry look like a bigot?
Enter religious-bigotry-by-proxy. It was not by co-incidence that Rev. Robert Jeffress, Pastor of First Baptist Church in Dallas, was asked to introduce Rick Perry to a group of social conservatives in Washington in October. Rev. Jeffress took the occasion to declare that Rick Perry was a Christian and Mitt Romney was not, for which he was taken to task on “Hardball with Chris Matthews.” Rev. Jeffress’ response to Matthews was calculated, well-rehearsed and rather clever. People should be able to vote for a Mormon if he’s the best politician available, Rev. Jeffress’ said, but all other things being equal, you’re better off voting for a Christian. Besides, he said, Mormonism is a cult.
Of course, when anyone mentions the word ‘cult’ it tends to make people think of something vaguely criminal and pathological, which Chris Matthews was quick to point out. Rev. Jeffress hastened to add that he meant only that Mormonism is a “theological cult.” But the damage had been done—once you use the word ‘cult,’ the mental associations jump into place. You can’t unring the bell, as the lawyers say.
Sometimes people ask this writer if Mormonism (or Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints) is part of Christianity, or something separate. The answer is interesting to students of comparative religion, but it should have no relevance to the choices I make in a presidential election. Mitt Romney isn’t running to be elected as the rector of my church; he’s running to be the GOP nominee for President of the United States. To meet my obligations both as a Christian and as an American citizen, I should consider only his qualifications as a candidate. His religion shouldn’t enter my calculations at all.
Will bigotry-by-proxy be used again? No serious candidate wants to look like a bigot, but they—and their advisors—become so focused on winning that they will do almost anything to get votes. If they think a particular kind of bigotry can get votes, they will be tempted to use it in an indirect way. There are two ways they can do that. One is by using coded language, which is the way that racist imagery in the southern states is often communicated under the radar of national media. The other way could be through surrogates—bootleg bigotry communicated by proxy through supporters or advisors of a particular candidate. Used cleverly, this can win votes for a candidate without making the candidate look bad, especially if he disavows a formal connection.
The fact that religious bigotry plays any role at all is because of the extremely conservative nature of the Republican base. In the 1960s, the GOP decided to recruit white southerners who disagreed with the Civil Rights movement, and over the years this demographic has become older, crankier and more bigoted. The second factor is the loss of America’s industrial base, which depresses wages and feeds the social anxiety and economic despair that fuel bigotry. A third factor are certain influential neo-cons, who mistakenly believe that Islamophobia can help Israel, and who operate through conservative think tanks to promote hatred against Muslims. Finally, there is the decision by Republican strategists to use fear-mongering and wedge issues to divide Americans in order to create electoral conditions favorable to their candidates.
Several of the Republican candidates have openly espoused Islamophobia, including the laughably vague Herman Cain and the irritatingly pompous Newt Gingrich. Cain has no staff in key states, leading many to conclude that he is playing the Sarah Palin card, angling to become a political celebrity rather than a viable candidate—promoting his new book and basking in the adulation of conservatives without really running for office. Mitt Romney is still the odds-on favorite, but has mainly refrained from using Islamophobia, no doubt partly because of his own vulnerability where religion is concerned. Religious bigotry, if it is used, is likely to be promoted by a surrogate like Rev. Jeffress—and that, in turn, means that the candidates’ advisors and associates are now receiving special scrutiny.
Mitt Romney has recently recruited some new foreign policy advisers, a nucleus of which—Robert Kagan, Eliot A. Cohen and Dov Zakheim—are former members of The Project for a New American Century (PNAC); they are unrepentant neo-conservatives. But along with these veteran Bush supporters Romney has also recruited Walid Phares, a shady extremist who has publicly talked about the dangers of “Sharia Law” being imposed on Americans. A product of the extreme rightwing of the organized Maronite [Christian] community in Lebanon, he emigrated to the US in 1990, and has appeared often on Fox News, written for FrontPageMag.com and the Jerusalem Post, and is often featured on the radio show of the fanatical Islamophobe Frank Gaffney. Despite his lack of academic credentials, Phares was selected by Romney to be co-chair of his Middle East working group, and a so-called Special Advisor.
Whatever else one may think about Romney, his staff has run a consistently disciplined campaign. It they want Phares, it’s for a reason. According to Jarad Vary, a writer for the digital version of the New Republic, Romney’s hiring of Phares may be a signal to Islamophobic conservatives in the Iowa caucuses that he’s on their side. But if Romney polls badly in the caucuses, his advisors won’t settle for symbolism—they may want Phares to get busy communicating to voters. Could Phares, or somebody he selects, be the proxy bigot who casts Romney’s Republican opponents as “Sharia-compliant?”
There’s another possibility. In the long run Romney may try, given the strong neo-con orientation of his foreign policy advisors, to reframe the Israel/Palestine conflict in a way that will show evangelical voters that he’s “one of them.” Let’s say that Phares argues in the Des Moines Register (or the Jerusalem Post) for the annexation of the West Bank by the Likudniks, and is simultaneously identified as a Romney advisor. This could win over some conservative middle-western Christian evangelicals, many of whom believe that the current Israeli government has a mandate from God. And it would also attract support from rightwing Jewish voters.
If Phares starts making public statements about “Sharia Law,” we should assume that Romney’s advisors intend to resort to Islamophobia by proxy, and Muslim and religious liberty advocates should react quickly. At the same time, all parties should denounce anti-Mormon rhetoric. If Muslim, civil rights, and religious liberty groups quickly and effectively discredit any form of religious bigotry when it arises, we may be able to prevent it from taking root in modern American presidential politics. That would be a blessing not just to us, but to all Americans.
Lawrence Swaim is the Executive Director of the Interfaith Freedom Foundation.