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August 20, 2002

I make distinctions; you’re a bigot Journalist and one-time Arizona Congressman Sam Coppersmith, in his weblog LiberalDesert, has an observation about the uses of religion in modern American politics:
This summer gubernatorial candidate Matt Salmon appeared on Christian television to say he wanted to “reclaim government in the name of G-d” In interviews, he attacks “liberal judges” he claims want to expel religion from civic life: “[T]here has been an effort underfoot for many years to try to take G-d off our money and out of our national motto,” Salmon said.

Shortly afterward, anonymous “Vote Mormon” posters appeared next to Salmon’s campaign signs. Salmon, and [the East Valley Tribune], denounced the signs as “a cowardly, underhanded act of bigotry” aimed at anti-Mormon prejudice.

[…] Apparently, candidates may discuss their religious faith generally, or list church membership in campaign mailers, or “target” religious voters — but any specific discussion of a candidate’s actual religion by anybody else is unconscionable bigotry. “Politicians of faith” urge people to vote for them because of religious beliefs, but it’s offensive for anybody to oppose them based on those same beliefs. Religion is relevant, even essential, to politics — but only on the candidate’s own terms.

[…] Religion is a ratchet, shamelessly available to help a candidate, but never to oppose — just like politicians who use their families brazenly while campaigning, then demand “privacy” when that better suits their needs.

[05:13 PM]
Welcome to Electrolite's comments section.
Hard-Hitting Moderator: Teresa Nielsen Hayden.

Comments on I make distinctions; you're a bigot:

Derryl Murphy ::: (view all by) ::: August 20, 2002, 05:48 PM:

During the short time I lived in the US (Utah, hence my deeper interest), we went through the 2000 elections. It shocked me to read candidate bios in the Salt Lake Trib (note: the "secular" paper that was generally seen as enemy of the LDS Church) that included the candidate's religious faith. Of course, in a state that's over 70% Mormon, with a legislature that's closer to 95% Mormon, I eventually learned that this was not so shocking.

In other words, "Vote Mormon" means a very different thing in Utah, where it is pretty much a requirement (the exception is SLC mayor Rocky Anderson, who's either an ex or "Jack" Mormon", but SLC is now only about 1/2 LDS). That homogenized political religion is alive and well in such situations, and more often than not leads to the situation where you could run a fire hydrant for (insert party name here) and it would win.

Greg van Eekhout ::: (view all by) ::: August 20, 2002, 06:16 PM:

Some more details about Salmon's appearance on the local AZ edition of Praise the Lord.

Barbara Nielsen ::: (view all by) ::: August 20, 2002, 07:20 PM:

Subsequent to Matt Salmon's episode with the "Vote Mormon" signs, small signs began to appear next to front-running Democrat Janet Napolitano's signs "Vote Gay." Salmon had his friends, family and staff tear down the "Vote Mormon" signs, an act forbidden by law in Arizona, but Napolitano told her staff to let the gay signs stay where they were. She has repeatedly said that she is heterosexual, but if a woman chooses not to marry, the bashers will make her a target. She is currently Attorney General, so condoning illegal action would come back in the general election I'm sure. The Arizona statute defends posting the related signs as free speech; Salmon's stand has been that taking them down is also free speech. Salmon is the only gubernatorial candidate running on private money. The other candidates are all being financed by the states new Clean Election Law.

Derek James ::: (view all by) ::: August 21, 2002, 10:44 AM:

Yeah, LibDes is right about the idiotic double-standard regarding religion in politics. You can damn near eviscerate an opponent based on his/her views or actions in any other sphere, but religion is hands-off.

I watched a bit of the Democratic Governer Primary debate between Andrew Cuomo and Carl McCall. Cuomo had no problem reminding his constituency how Catholic he was, but also touted a firm belief in the separation of church and state. When discussing the molestation scandals, he said it was "a sensitive matter", and that he wouldn't be comfortable with the government regulating religious institutions in any way.

David Moles ::: (view all by) ::: August 21, 2002, 02:44 PM:

Double standard it may be, but I think there is still some meaningful difference between a candidate saying "Vote for me -- I'm one of us" and the opposition saying "Don't vote for him -- he's one of Them."

Simon Shoedecker ::: (view all by) ::: August 21, 2002, 07:44 PM:

And just what would that meaningful distinction be? That's the question.

David Moles ::: (view all by) ::: August 21, 2002, 11:29 PM:

Maybe it's that the former appeals to the voters' best impulses and the latter to their worst. The former appeals to community; the latter to bigotry. The former asks voters to extend the benefit of the doubt; the latter asks voters to tar with as broad a brush as possible.

By contrast, "Don't vote for X because he's a member of group Y" insults X's integrity, group Y's identity, and the voters' intelligence. (Example: "A vote for Kennedy is a vote for the Pope of Rome." Message: Catholics are evil, JFK can't be trusted to be his own man, and you can't be trusted to make up your own mind.)

"Vote for me because I'm like you" only insults the voters' intelligence. :) (Example: Dianne Feinstein running as a Democrat. Message: What are you going to do, vote Republican?)

I'm not saying I find the incessant invocation of God any more attractive in politicians than I find it in, say, professional athletes. But attack them for being reactionary fearmongering authoritarian nutjobs, instead of trying to make God stand in for all those things.

Patrick Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: August 21, 2002, 11:34 PM:

I'm not sure I entirely agree, but you're making some very interesting points.

I do agree that there is some distinction, that we sense this to be the case, on some level.

Sam Coppersmith ::: (view all by) ::: August 22, 2002, 11:12 AM:

It's an appealing argument, that there's a moral difference between "Vote for me, I'm one of you" and "Don't vote for him, he's not one of us." However, I don't think it works in practice. In a campaign, you only make the "Vote for me, I'm one of you" argument if the other candidate isn't. During my time in politics, I faced opponents who talked about religion, ostensibly generally, but clearly in ways that made both arguments. As a Jewish candidate, is it proper for my opponent to talk about how he has accepted Jesus as his savior--thereby making the comparison that I haven't? Isn't that really making both points, the positive and the negative simultaneously?

The other objection is that candidates use religion as a way to avoid talking about values and principles in a way that might actually help voters understand what the candidate might do in office. E. J. Dionne wrote about this during the 2000 campaign, comparing the answers given by President Bush ("well, if they don't understand, it's hard to explain") with Gary Bauer's explanation, in terms not freighted with sectarianism, about how his faith shapes his views on poverty, hunger, and the death penalty. (There's something you don't see everyday--me complimenting Gary Bauer.)

Derek James ::: (view all by) ::: August 22, 2002, 11:51 AM:

David Moles wrote: "Maybe it's that the former appeals to the voters' best impulses and the latter to their worst."

A bandwagon appeal is appealing to voters' best impulses? And challenging a candidate on their ideology is appealing to their worst?

I would agree that it would be baseless to simply say, "Don't vote for her because she's Jewish", but I'd also say that when someone touts their religious background as somehow making them more qualified as a candidate that it opens the door and they should be able to be criticized on that basis.

For example, if my opponent opposes the death penalty on the basis of polls or cost/benefit analysis, it's all right to vigorously disagree with his/her stance. But if they say they disagree with the death penalty because they're Christian, is my ability to criticize then muted?

Patrick Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: August 22, 2002, 01:11 PM:

Some very interesting comments here. Thanks to Rep. Coppersmith for dropping by. (Is that right? I know former Presidents and Governors retain the honorific; do former Congresspersons as well?)

"The other objection is that candidates use religion as a way to avoid talking about values and principles in a way that might actually help voters understand what the candidate might do in office." Right. At least for some people, at some times, religion is more than just a tribal identity, which is why I can never sign off on generalized calls to "separate religion and politics." As long as lots of people are religious and some of them take it seriously, that's not going to happen, nor should it. Bono got Jesse Helms to ease up his opposition to certain African aid programs by appealing to Helms's Christianity. Should we be opposed to this? I doubt many people would think so.

Mary Kay ::: (view all by) ::: August 22, 2002, 01:26 PM:

Some very interesting points indeed. I don't think that saying, "Vote for me, I'm one of you," is a while lot different than, "Don't vote for her, she's not one of us." And neither of them is a good reason to vote or not vote for someone. That should be based on the candidates explicit statments about what they think is right/wrong, good/bad, whatever polarity you prefer, and on what that candidate plans to do in office if elected. Oh gosh, yes, I want them to talk about issues. What a dreamer, I tell you...


James Macdonald ::: (view all by) ::: August 22, 2002, 03:11 PM:

Meanwhile, off on the great state of New Hampshire, Gordon Humphrey (running again for governor) has said that the reason he lost to Jeanne Shaheen last time around was because Christians didn't vote for him.

Fair enough, I suppose, since most of the voters in New Hampshire are at least nominally Christian.

My personal suspiscion is that he lost because a) Jeanne was already doing a pretty good job as governor, and b) he included incessant spamming in his campaign mix, despite complaints to his ISP, his campaign, and to him.

But for him, it's that people didn't vote their Christian consciences. Newsflash for Gordon: I did.

Simon Shoedecker ::: (view all by) ::: August 22, 2002, 06:09 PM:

David Moles wrote,

The former appeals to community; the latter to bigotry.

Unfortunately that's pretty close to the sarcastic heading that Patrick put on this topic: "I make distinctions; you're a bigot."

I have to agree with Sam Coppersmith: all such slogans are implied bigotry and an attempt to evade discussing the issues.

Recall Rick Lazio's campaign against Hillary Clinton, in which he emphasized that he was a native New Yorker (and she was not). Not religion, but the same type of argument as the above. The question was, what difference did this make, and eventually Clinton persuaded enough people that she actually cared more about the state as a whole than he did.

Jason McCullough ::: (view all by) ::: August 22, 2002, 07:09 PM:

'The question was, what difference did this make, and eventually Clinton persuaded enough people that she actually cared more about the state as a whole than he did.'

As much as I supported Clinton over Lazio, she didn't win because she out-cared him. She won because more New Yorkers agreed with her political opinions.

Simon Shoedecker ::: (view all by) ::: August 23, 2002, 01:18 AM:

Excellent distinction, Jason. Let me rephrase: Lazio did not convince enough people that not being a native New Yorker was inherently iniquitous. (Possibly because many of the voters were non-natives themselves.)

Christopher Hatton ::: (view all by) ::: August 23, 2002, 11:32 AM:

Um, I'm not seeing this in the comments, so I'll just say it: anybody who says he's going to "reclaim government in the name of God" should be opposed by anyone who values separation of church and state.

Of course everyone includes their religion in the process of making decisions all the time, and our elected representatives do the same, and have a right to - but their right to do that ends where my freedom of religion begins.

I'll oppose anyone who wants to Christianize the public schools (more than they are, I mean). I'll oppose anyone who wants laws like the DOMA, regardless of why, but when they cite "God" as a reason, they're crushing my freedom of religion, because MY religion teaches that any two people can be married, and that the gods are fine with that. (MORE than two people in a marriage is still controversial among us.)

This adds righteous constitutional indignation to the battle. When politicians claim they're going to impose (narrow, right-wing) "Christian" values on any community I have a part in, I'll oppose them, not only because they're narrow and right-wing, but because they're unAmerican.

(Some of these people like to say that "well, if you don't have Christian values in your laws, then why have laws against murder, rape, and theft?" I trust I don't have to address that stupid point in this more intelligent venue.)

Vicki Rosenzweig ::: (view all by) ::: August 24, 2002, 09:55 AM:

On Clinton v. Lazio: it turned out that voters upstate weren't impressed by "I was born on Long Island, and she wasn't". Not compared to "I've been up here asking about your concerns, and he hasn't." It's a big state.

I agree with both Patrick and Sam: there does feel like a difference between "I support her, she's one of us" and "Don't vote for her, she's not one of us", but when only two categories are being considered, it comes to much the same thing. We don't get a lot of appeals to people because the candidate is an alumnus of a specific school, out of many--where most voters didn't go to any of the schools the candidates could cite--it's usually dichotomies.

Some of it is people wanting to protect themselves and their friends, and sensing that "vote for one of us" will help them, and "don't vote for one of them" (where "us" and "them" both refer to the same category) will hurt them. They may be right on both counts--and, more to the point, the harm done by the latter, for any category X, is probably greater than the good done by the former.