Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney�s speech on
December 6 -- in which he tried to �explain� his Mormon faith -- was met with a
mostly sympathetic reception at George H.W.Bush Presidential 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
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 shortsightedness 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 alleged 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 is a Palestinian-American author and editor of PalestineChronicle.com. His work has
been published in numerous newspapers and journals worldwide. His latest book
Second Palestinian Intifada: A Chronicle of a People�s
Press, London). Read more about him on his website: ramzybaroud.net.