In July of 1844, word reached New York that Joseph Smith Jr., founder of the LDS Church, had been murdered by a mob in Illinois. Reporting for the New York Herald, James Gordon Bennett wrote, “There can be no doubt that political feeling entered largely into the popular excitement in that region against the Mormons.” He noted that the Whig party worried LDS Church members would support their rival, Democratic candidate James K. Polk, in that year’s presidential election. In turn the party’s newspapers in Illinois had created much of the anti-Mormon sentiment that led to the assassination. “This affords another and most melancholy illustration of the pernicious, demoralizing, brutalizing influence of the party presses,” Bennett wrote, “which are daily influencing the passions of the people by the vilest and most incendiary tirades against their respective opponents.”
One hundred and sixty-eight years later, the “incendiary tirades” of political parties are alive and well. Americans instinctively know this, and as the election nears, their televisions are inundated with political commercials. On Thursday (August 9), Mitt Romney’s campaign released a new advertisement, dubbed “Be Not Afraid,” a line that Pope John Paul II made famous during the Cold War. Splicing footage of Romney in Poland with a newspaper headline, the 30-second ad lambastes Obama for his “war on religion.” Though the ad never mentions the statute by name, it references the HHS mandate, the Obama administration’s order for insurance to provide contraception coverage, which can apply to religious groups who oppose it. The voiceover intones: “President Obama used his healthcare plan to declare war on religion, forcing religious institutions to go against their faith.”
Watching the commercial, I was reminded of a column from John L. Allen Jr. in National Catholic Reporter last month, which Amy Sullivan also cited in a blog post. Allen critiqued the Catholic bishops for using the phrase “war on religion” when referring to the president’s healthcare mandate. “There are undeniably important church/state issues in play in America,” Allen wrote, “but if they constitute a ‘war,’ it’s a metaphorical one, waged in legislatures and courthouses.” He countered by listing examples where a “literal war of religion” is taking place around the world. Examples of such wars continue to multiply. In Wisconsin, just four days before Romney released his ad, a white supremacist killed six Sikhs on the grounds of their own temple. On Monday, a mosque in Joplin, MO was destroyed by fire, which officials suspect was the work of arsonists. That same day, 19 Nigerians were shot and killed in a church, presumably by an Islamist group as part of the country’s ongoing religious conflict. These lives were undoubtedly under siege for their faith.
In 1844, the religious violence committed against Joseph Smith and his followers was real. In 2012, Romney’s invocation of a “war on religion” is not. The rhetoric does a disservice not only to the real costs of warfare, both also to the violence so often done in the name of religion. The fact that the ad comes from a candidate whose faith has long been the target of religious persecution is as shrewd as it is misguided. Candidate Romney suffers a double bind: on one hand, his biography strongly identifies with the plight of those seeking religious freedom; on the other hand, his campaign’s accusations stir up the same incendiary sentiments that plagued his spiritual ancestors.
The ad also edges close to a common meme about Obama—that he is not a real Christian, that he is too secular or liberal to be faithful. Yet the president talks openly and often about his own faith. He has hosted prayer breakfasts and White House seders, commemorated Ramadan and the Hindu festival of Diwali. Obama’s 2008 campaign ran extensive outreach efforts to faith-based communities, and he utilizes a faith-based advisory council. He not only kept open Bush’s White House Office on faith-based initiatives, to the chagrin of his more secular supporters, but he expanded it. Moreover, he is president of one of the most religious—and religiously diverse—countries on earth, one that affords tremendous religious freedoms. Those facts have not changed under President Obama’s leadership.
To be sure, Obama’s HHS mandate is problematic, and as such, constitutes savvy and astute political fodder for the GOP. At Religion & Politics, we have published a lengthy critique of Obama’s handling of the mandate, even with the White House’s expanded exemptions for religious organizations. The president’s Democratic allies have also been critical of the rule’s scope. Writing in the Washington Post, E.J. Dionne said the president “botched” the mandate and “threw his progressive Catholic allies under the bus.” Sister Carol Keehan, who supported the passage of the Affordable Care Act as head of the Catholic Health Association, has called on Obama to make further adjustments to the statute. The HHS mandate is a policy issue, a constitutional issue, and a political issue. But it’s not a war.
When we created Religion & Politics, we heard from supporters and colleagues that it was a needed space. We knew that too often the debates, dialogue, and conversation at the intersection of religion and politics were at best unhelpful, and at worst, inflammatory. The Constitution protects free speech of all stripes, but it is up to us to choose our vocabulary wisely. Words matter. As scholars and writers on religion, we are particularly sensitive to misused rhetoric on the topic, especially in election cycles. If we could declare a moratorium on the phrase “war on religion” in all but the most apt circumstances, we would. We urge other media outlets, the president, and Mr. Romney to do the same.
Tiffany Stanley is managing editor of Religion & Politics.