religious intolerance

Santorum Slamming JFK, Secularism

Fifty years ago, the man who would become America’s first Catholic president delivered a historic speech that helped reduce anti-Catholic prejudice in our public life. Five decades later, a man who would like to be the nation’s second Catholic president celebrated the occasion by slamming Kennedy. It’s a remarkable reversal. 

Former Senator Rick Santorum has been using the anniversary of then-presidential candidate John F. Kennedy’s famous address on church-state separation to decry the destructive forces of secularism that he says Kennedy unleashed. (People For the American Way is among Santorum’s targets.)
 
Santorum’s attack deserves attention, especially at a time when religious and political leaders, Santorum among them, are eagerly fanning the flames of religious intolerance. Much of Santorum’s recent speech – delivered in Houston on September 9 and reprised since then at events like Ralph Reed’s Faith and Freedom conference – is given over to repeated claims that Kennedy emboldened secularists who want a public square “cleansed of all religious wisdom and the voice of religious people of all faiths.” He says Kennedy’s speech launched a movement that is “repressing or banishing people of faith from having a say in government.”
 
These inflammatory claims are regularly advanced by Religious Right leaders who portray supporters of church-state separation as hostile to faith and religious liberty. But how can they be taken seriously?
 
Choose any topic that is being debated in the public square, and you’ll find people of faith advancing their values, probably on both sides of the issue – and not just on abortion and gay rights.  Religious Right activists spouted Tea Party arguments about the evils of government while progressive religious leaders worked hard to promote health care reform. The Catholic hierarchy is among the religious organizations working to deny gay couples legal recognition while other religious groups like the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism are working for full marriage equality.  At the same time, the two groups are both lobbying for humane immigration reform.
 
It’s a complicated scene, and it’s a noisy one. Who has been silenced? Not Ralph Reed, who is bragging that he’s planning to mobilize conservative evangelical voters to turn Election Day into a historic rout for Democrats.  And certainly not conservative Catholics like Santorum.  At Reed’s Faith and Freedom conference, a panel included leaders of two groups organized to promote conservative Catholic values in the public arena – Catholic Advocate and Faithful Catholic Citizens.
 
There are situations that bring constitutional values into tension. America, via the Supreme Court and civil rights legislation, has decided (Rand Paul notwithstanding) that a business owner’s desire to discriminate against racial minorities does not trump other individuals’ right to equal access to public accommodations, even if the desire to discriminate was based on sincerely held religious beliefs.  Courts and legislatures are wrangling with similar situations that consider religious beliefs about homosexuality, abortion, and contraception alongside LGBT Americans’ right to legal equality, and all Americans’ access to medical care.
 
But the fact that some court cases have gone against those seeking a religious exemption to a generally applied law is no grounds for claiming that religious people have been silenced, or no longer have the right to make their case in the public square. What Santorum seems to want is a kind of double standard: religious conservatives can take part in public debate but should be shielded from criticism. They can engage in legal and political advocacy, but if they lose they can claim the process has been stacked against them by sinister anti-religious forces.
 
Santorum argues that the secularist forces unleashed by Kennedy threaten peaceful coexistence and even put American civilization at risk. He says the founders believed that “if they fostered religion and the Judeo-Christian moral code we would achieve something that was never before seen in a country with so many competing faiths - a truly tolerant, democratic and harmonious public square.”
 
But Santorum himself is actively undermining the possibility for a “tolerant, democratic and harmonious” public square. He seeks political gain by branding his opponents as enemies of religious liberty. And he has played a significant role in inflaming an ugly anti-Islamic wave of public opinion that has resulted in fatal violence and could leave communities damaged and divided for years.
 
Santorum portrays himself as heroic, telling audiences, “I have been criticized in the media for daring to speak out on these sensitive moral issues.”  That’s not true.  Santorum is criticized not for “daring to speak out” but for saying things many people disagree with. Santorum has every right to denigrate the loving relationships of same-sex couples by comparing them to man-on-dog sex. But just as surely others have the right to criticize and even ridicule him for those statements.  
 
The First Amendment is a two-way street. But that seems to be one truth that Santorum and his allies refuse to acknowledge.
PFAW

A Cynical Election Strategy

The GOP has already set to work making the proposed Islamic community center in lower Manhattan – and President Obama’s support for the project – into a midterm campaign issue. Sharron Angle accused President Obama of siding “against the families of 9/11 victims.” John Boehner called the President’s stance “deeply troubling.”

But Mark Halperin at Time Magazine urged the GOP to reconsider its cynical strategy:

It isn't clear how the battle over the proposed center should or will end. But two things are profoundly clear: Republicans have a strong chance to win the midterm elections without picking a fight over President Obama's measured words. And a national political fight conducted on the terms we have seen in the past few days will lead to a chain reaction at home and abroad that will have one winner -- the very extreme and violent jihadists we all can claim as our true enemy.

Greg Sargent of the Washington Post concurred, writing:

It's one thing for Republicans to argue the case against the center on the merits. Fine. Agree or disagree, the same First Amendment that protects the right of the group to build the center also protect the right of conservatives to make a case against it.

But it's another thing entirely if Republicans adopt criticism of Obama's speech as part of a concerted electoral strategy. As Halperin notes, doing this strays perilously close to stoking anti-Muslim bigotry and religious intolerance in the quest for electoral gain.

Incidentally, if Rep. Boehner was really interested in honoring the victims of September 11, I can think of at least one more positive thing he could have done on their behalf: voted for the 9/11 Health and Compensation Act of 2010, which would have helped the many 9/11 heroes who are still with us afford health care for long term injuries and illnesses caused by the attacks. Boehner and many of his fellow GOP Representatives obstructed that particular bill from becoming law, choosing instead to focus their energies on a publicity war against Muslim Americans.

PFAW

Conservatives Against Religious Tolerance

Recently the right wing, including Sarah Palin and other prominent Republicans, has been loudly protesting the proposed construction of an Islamic center and mosque in the vicinity of Ground Zero. The center is intended to help build an interfaith community in downtown Manhattan. But to hear the National Republican Trust tell it, radical Islamic terrorist-supporters are planning to build a mosque next to the world trade center site in order to celebrate the 9/11 attacks. In one ad, the NRT Pac pairs disturbing images of 9/11 with this message:

"On Sept. 11, they declared war against us. And to celebrate that murder of 3,000 Americans, they want to build a monstrous 13-story mosque at Ground Zero. This ground is sacred. When we weep, they rejoice. That mosque is a monument to their victory and an invitation for more. A mosque at Ground Zero must not stand."

It’s hard to count everything that is wrong with this statement: there is no link between the organizers and extremist Muslim groups; the project is a community center, not just a mosque, complete with a swimming pool and art exhibition space; the building isn’t even visible from Ground Zero; and the list goes on. As New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg made clear in an eloquent speech, conservatives’ misleading rhetoric does a disservice to the American spirit of religious tolerance that was attacked on September 11.

In a statement, PFAW President Michael Keegan said:

Of course a Muslim community center should be allowed in lower Manhattan. This is not a close question.

Our country is built upon the bedrock principle that people of all faiths and of no faith at all are equally welcome in our nation’s civic life. No community should be told to move away because of its religion. Arguing that Muslims are unwelcome anywhere is a threat to religious liberty everywhere. Religious intolerance is not the American way.

Those political leaders who have spoken out against religious intolerance should be applauded—they have taken a stand for our most essential values. It’s deeply disappointing that so many of their colleagues chose instead to use this incident to inflame religious strife.

I just can’t get over the hypocrisy of Sarah Palin tweeting “Peace-seeking Muslims, pls understand. Ground Zero mosque is UNNECESSARY provocation; it stabs hearts,” while her Republican colleagues in the House of Representatives blocked a health care bill for New Yorkers and first responders sickened from inhaling toxins from the 9/11 attacks.

That’s right, Americans, the GOP will NOT be there to help if you are made permanently ill in the aftermath of a terrorist attack – but don’t worry, they’ll fight to protect the site of the attack from “peace-seeking Muslims.”

PFAW