Disenfranchising Americans

May 06, 2011

As the 2012 presidential race heats up, some candidates are trying to establish themselves by demonizing other Americans. In particular, Muslims are being targeted, which is sadly not surprising since I noted in my new book that Muslims are among the disenfranchised classes in our age of confessional politics. Long-shot Republican candidate Herman Cain has probably gone further than most. Cain declared that he would not appoint any Muslims to his presidential cabinet or as a federal judge. As he tried to justify his exclusion on religious terms, Cain ironically invoked the First Amendment. In a later interview, Cain attempted to defend himself by claiming that "[m]any of the Muslims" in our nation "are not totally dedicated to this country, they are not dedicated to our Constitution." This questioning of their status as real or trustworthy Americans is an insidious attack that has been used in the past to target Catholics and other minority groups. Cain also invoked the First Amendment as he argued that Muslims should not try to convert the rest of us (which raises the question of if he has actually read the First Amendment). Cain stated:

The role of Muslims in American society is for them to be allowed to practice their religion freely, which is part of our First Amendment. The role of Muslims in America is not to convert the rest of us to the Muslim religion. That I resent. Because we are a Judeo-Christian nation, from the fact that 85 percent of us are self-described Christians, or evangelicals, or practicing the Jewish faith. Eighty-five percent. One percent of the practicing religious believers in this country are Muslim.
His "logic" here is quite odd because he would probably be one of the first to complain if someone said that evangelical Christians are free to practice their religion as long as they do not try to convert anyone!

Not to be outdone, Newt Gingrich traveled to the San Antonio megachurch Cornerstone Church to attack not only Muslims but atheists as well (another key group disenfranchised in our age of confessional politics). The church Gingrich spoke at is pastored by John Hagee, the controversial pastor that John McCain campaigned with in 2008 before then rejecting Hagee's endorsement because of negative media attention. Invoking his grandchildren, Gingrich claimed he was worried about the future of our nation:
I am convinced that if we do not decisively win the struggle over the nature of America, by the time they're my age they will be in a secular atheist country, potentially one dominated by radical Islamists and with no understanding of what it once meant to be an American.
That is quite an impressive confessional political twofer that I did not realize was possible--a nation that is both atheistic and Islamic at the same time! Cain needs to step aside and let the master show him how it is done. Although Gingrich's comment seems obviously absurd, this type of rhetoric could resonate with many people. It seems that atheists and Muslims will continue to be used by some politicians as boogeymen to score political points.

Other candidates have joined Gingrich and Cain, including Rick Santorum (who was questioned about if he was "anti-Islam" during the first GOP debate of the 2012 cycle last night). Unfortunately, it seems that the efforts to disenfranchise Muslims that we saw in 2008 will continue (perhaps even grow) in the 2012 campaign. What we need now are Christians who will speak out against this type of divisive politics. Charles Kimball, author of the new book When Religion Becomes Lethal, wrote an Ethics Daily column earlier this week urging Christians to seek interfaith engagement in the aftermath of bin Laden's killing. Kimball was one of the speakers at the national Muslim-Baptist dialogue in Boston two years ago (the picture is from him at the event). Hopefully, GOP candidates--especially those who most often talk about being Christians--will follow this path of dialogue and engagement.