Rep. Michele Bachmann’s (R-Minn.) “devil in the details” comment during Tuesday night’s debate may have just been a poorly delivered joke to most viewers, but the implication and indictment it carried were far more sinister. As candidates like Bachmann are nearing the end of their electable legitimacy, they are slowly turning to dog-whistle religious calls in an effort to mobilize the evangelical base and try to secure victory. This use of religion as a political wedge is harmful to both discourse and the political process.
Trying to appeal to the religious base is hardly new. Mobilizing conservative religious voters over social issues such as abortion or gay marriage is a time-honored strategy for GOP hopefuls, played to perfection in Bush’s 2004 re-election. Today, shoring up evangelical credentials is almost a de facto requirement in the Republican primary. Just look at Texas Governor Rick Perry’s “prayer summit” prior to launching his campaign or Bachmann’s calculated departure from her outspoken and notably loony church less than a week before officially kicking off her campaign.
Religion is especially leveraged by candidates in hard-fought Republican primaries. While evangelicals make up just under 25% of voters, their high potential for mobilization, coupled with the fact that they vote almost exclusively Republican, means that pandering to their most rabid followers is almost necessary to get past primary season.
While Democratic strategists may cheer at religion being used to bloody up Republican candidates before the general election, the divisive nature of the religious wedge is harmful to political discourse and the country in general.
Last week, after introducing Perry to the Values Voter Summit, Dallas pastor Robert Jeffress argued that Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell needs to be reinstated because “70% of the gay population” has AIDS and “it’s a fact that it’s a gay disease so there’s a reasonable reason to exclude gays from the military.” He went on to argue that Islam “promotes pedophilia” and makes Muslims inherently violent, qualifying his remarks by stating that “it is our love for Muslims that demands we speak the truth about Islam.” Not content with merely disparaging Islam and members of the military, Jeffress also took a shot at Mitt Romney, warning that “Mormoninsm is not Christianity. The decision for evangelical Christians right now is going to be, do we prefer someone who is truly a believer in Jesus Christ or someone…who is a part of a cult?”
Although this sort of open bigotry plays well with the evangelical base, it alienates the majority of Americans and polarizes the public on social issues unnecessarily. Candidates should stick to addressing issues important to the American public such as economic recovery, job creation, and national security, rather than pandering to 20% of the population in order to mobilize fringe bases in an effort to elbow out primary competition.
In defending his faith during his candidacy, President John F. Kennedy called out his opposition for using religion to “obscure…the real issues in this campaign.” Kennedy clearly stated, “I do not speak for my church on public matters, and the church does not speak for me.” Kennedy boldly declared that, “whatever issue may come before me as president…I will make my decision… without regard to outside religious pressure or dictates. And no power or threat of punishment could cause me to decide otherwise.” This modern crop of Republican candidates should stand on their records rather than on whose version of the Bible is more righteous and focus on getting Americans back to work rather than getting them out of church and into the voting booths.
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