I am not someone who thinks sharp elbows are necessarily a bad thing in politics or among the punditocracy, but sometimes rhetoric can lead any of us astray into mis-characterizations of our opponents’ positions. And, sometimes, rhetoric can lead some people into simple bigotry.
Last night, while flipping channels to get analysis of the primary results in Wisconsin, I came across a teaser for Lawrence O’Donnell’s “Re-Write” segment which promised to discuss Mitt Romney’s “religion problem.” I do not expect much from Mr. O’Donnell, who seems intent on taking for himself Keith Olbermann’s claim to being the most inane commentator on the left. Alas, it was worse than expected. Video is below.
O’Donnell played a clip of Romney saying that there was a “war on religion” in this country and that President Obama and others were intent on establishing a new religion, secularism, as the governing faith of the government. Now, I have been pretty out front on the issue of the Obama administration’s over-reach regarding the HHS mandates, but I have not seen any evidence that the President took his decision as part of a strategic war on religion. I can also see why the president’s actions in this regard, coming after the Department of Justice brief in the Hosanna-Tabor case and its decision not to renew the USCCB’s contract for work with the victims of human trafficking feels like a war on religion to some. But, feelings are not facts and the rhetoric about a war on religion can easily find a home in political campaigns where it will be put to improper ends.
Mr. O’Donnell, however, interpreted Romney’s words to mean that he was calling President Obama an atheist, an interpretation he repeated several times. Setting aside the fact that Romney never used the word "atheist," O'Donnell's charge is strange coming from a liberal. I would have thought he might have noted that in America, yes, our government is secular and the issue with the HHS mandates and other such situations is how a secular government interacts with religious organizations in a pluralistic society, which is an interesting question and, in a country where our society has long been deeply religious even while our government is secular, also a perennial question. One can be a devout believer and committed to a secular government at the same time and the political squabble will be about where to draw the lines, not a questioning of people’s right to religious expression or the value of a non-sectarian government.
Let’s take a moment and give two cheers for secularism. Yesterday, I was talking about religious liberty and the persecution of Christians in different parts of the world with a group of friends. The two threats to the faithful – denial of religious liberty and religious persecution – are not the same thing and often require different responses. For example, in Cuba, it is the denial of religious liberty that seems paramount, because the government restricts the agency of the Church and of individual believers in ways we find offensive to human dignity and to human freedom. There, an aggressive secularism is used to justify the government’s repression. On the other hand, in Nigeria or Pakistan, where Christians are sometimes killed, secularism on the part of the state might be part of the solution: In countries where religious strife is common, often overlaid with ethnic and other concerns, our American sensibilities about religious tolerance and the secularism of the State would be a welcome tonic.
O’Donnell went further, attributing Romney’s motives to the fact that, as a Mormon, he needs to change the discussion of religion from a negative to a positive. He went on to offer a gross characterization of the Mormon faith that is simply unworthy of anyone except the most bigoted anti-Mormons. And, all on prime time TV. Watch the video yourself and you will see that O’Donnell traffics in the same kind of histrionic characterizations of the Mormon faith that anti-Catholic bigots once hurled at Catholics. I do not know Mr. O’Donnell’s religion, but I am sure that, temperamentally at least, he and Paul Blanshard could have talked long into the night.