God On The Campaign Trail

Months Shy Of November, Religious Issues Are Already Roiling The 2016 Presidential Election

Just days after a horrific terrorist attack on Nov. 13 left more than 120 people in Paris dead, Republican presidential hopeful John Kasich stood before a crowd of reporters and unveiled his plan for defeating radical Islam: creation of a federal department to promote “Judeo- Christian” values overseas.

            “U.S. public diplomacy and international broadcasting have lost their focus on the case for Western values and ideals and effectively countering opponents’ propaganda and disinformation,” Kasich, currently governor of Ohio, said during an address at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C. “I will consolidate them into a new agency that has a clear mandate to promote the core Judeo-Christian Western values that we and our friends and allies share.”

            Kasich said the agency would target Middle Eastern nations, Iran, China and Russia.

            Reaction to the proposal was swift – and not favorable. Liberals blasted the scheme as simplistic, patronizing and a violation of church-state separation. Conservatives complained about expanding the size of government by creating a new agency.

            A day later, Kasich backed off. Instead of a new department, he vowed that existing government entities, such as the Voice of America, would undertake the project. But Kasich, speaking at TV preacher Pat Robertson’s Regent University, didn’t back away from his proposal to promote faith-based ideas overseas. In fact, he doubled down on it.

            The scheme failed to impress U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), a rival for the GOP presidential nomination.

“I don’t think we should be promoting Judeo-Christian values in the Arab world,” Graham, told Real Clear Politics. “I think that was the Crusades.”

The flap was just one example of how religion is roiling the 2016 presidential race. While things have been relatively quiet on the Democratic side when it comes to the intersection of religion and politics, the same can’t be said for the Republicans.

The GOP race has been infused with religion from the start as a crowded field of candidates competes to win the support of the Religious Right. These voters make up a large percentage of the party’s base, and they tend to turn out for primaries.

Social conservatives have a pleth­ora of candidates to choose from. Former U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.), former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson, real estate magnate Donald Trump, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and others are actively courting this bloc of voters.

Unfortunately, more and more of the candidates are relying on incendiary rhetoric and religious division to win support.

The Paris assault, during which well-armed teams of terrorists affiliated with the radical Islamic movement ISIS attacked people at a concert hall, a sports stadium and in restaurants, has led to an outpouring of anger directed at Muslims – including those who have publicly disowned the tactics of ISIS. A Dec. 2 shooting spree in San Bernardino, Calif., by a Muslim couple who were influenced by ISIS that left 14 dead and 21 wounded further inflamed the situation.

During his term in office, President George W. Bush took a hard rhetorical line on Islamic terror groups but made it clear that bigotry against Muslim Americans would not be tolerated.

About a week after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks in New York City and at the Pentagon, Bush appeared at the Islamic Center of Washington, D.C., where he told a crowd, “The face of terror is not the true faith of Islam. That’s not what Islam is all about. Islam is peace. These terrorists don’t represent peace. They represent evil and war.”

            Added Bush, “America counts millions of Muslims amongst our citizens, and Muslims make an incredibly valuable contribution to our country. Muslims are doctors, law­yers, law professors, members of the military, en­tre­preneurs, shopkeepers, moms and dads. And they need to be treated with respect.”

That rhetoric is miles removed from what current GOP contenders are saying. None of the attackers in Paris was Syrian, nor were they refugees, but because a Syrian passport (almost certainly fake) was found near the body of one of the terrorists, focus has shifted to that country, where ISIS has seized land and holds itself out as an “Islamic state.”

ISIS’s brutal tactics, which include beheading captives, abducting boys for military service and forcing women into marriages and sexual slavery, have led hundreds of thousands of people to flee the country. These refugees, many of whom are Muslims, don’t want to live under ISIS’s violent and often inept government and are seeking resettlement in other nations.

About 10,000 Syrian refugees had been slated to enter the United States. Two thousand have already been approved under an intake process that can take up to two years, but a growing number of Republican candidates are pushing to slam the door on the rest of them; increasingly, they’re using the refugees’ Islamic faith to justify it.

Jeb Bush proposed allowing certain refugees to enter America – the Christian ones.

“I think we need to do thorough screening and take in a limited number,” Bush told CNN. “There are a lot of Christians in Syria that have no place now. They’ll be either executed or imprisoned, either by Assad or by ISIS. We should focus our efforts as it relates to the refugees for the Christians that are being slaughtered.”

Asked later how he would separate Christian refugees from Muslim ones, Bush stammered, “You’re a Christian – I mean, you can prove you’re a Christian. You can’t prove it, then, you know, you err on the side of caution.”

Cruz took a similar line, remarking, “There is no meaningful risk of Christians committing acts of terror.” Santorum tried to take an even harder stance and called for refusing even Christian refugees.

Two candidates went even further in their rhetoric. Carson compared the refugees to “rabid dogs,” telling an Alabama audience, “If there’s a rabid dog running around in your neighborhood, you’re probably not going to assume something good about that dog, and you’re probably going to put your children out of the way. It doesn’t mean that you hate all dogs by any stretch of the imagination, but you’re putting your intellect into motion.”

But it was Trump who really went around the bend Constitution-wise. The fiery upstart, who had previously raised the possibility of closing mosques in America, suggested a new level of surveillance and scrutiny for Muslims living in America.

“We’re going to have to do certain things that were, frankly, unthinkable a year ago,” Trump told Yahoo News.

When asked if this might include special ID cards for Muslims, Trump didn’t specifically back the idea but also declined to rule it out. “We’re going to have to, we’re going to have to look at a lot of things very closely,” he said. “We’re going to have to look at the mosques. We’re going to have to look very, very carefully.”

Trump later told NBC News that he would “certainly” and “absolutely” create a database of Muslims in the United States. He added, “There should be a lot of systems beyond databases. I mean, we should have a lot of systems.”

Asked how such a database would work, Trump replied, “Different places. You sign up at different places. But it’s all about management. Our country has no management.” When a reporter asked Trump later if the system would be akin to the Nazis’ registration of Jews, he responded with a flip, “You tell me.”

With criticism mounting, Trump insisted a day later that he doesn’t favor a database of Muslims, but a few days later he called for banning all Muslim immigrants and tourists from the United States.

Religious Right leaders quickly jumped in. Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council, asserted in a column, “Obviously, not every Muslim coming to America wants to kill us – but so far, those who do want to kill us are Muslim.” (In fact, some of the worst acts of domestic terrorism, such as the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing that killed 168 people, had no connection to Muslims.)

Franklin Graham, Richard Land and other far-right leaders have also chimed in with anti-Muslims rhetoric. 

Incendiary talk like this hasn’t been limited to presidential candidates and the Religious Right leaders who ape them. Around the country, Muslims are finding themselves under attack. In Spotsylvania County, Va., what should have been a routine zoning request by a group of Muslims looking to expand their worship center has blossomed into a culture war.

The Muslims own the land and have had a small center there for 15 years. They want to build a larger mosque with about 200 parking spaces. A public meeting about the issue turned ugly in late November when two men began screaming that all Muslims are terrorists.

“I’ll do everything in my power to make sure that does not happen,” one of the men yelled. “We don’t want it because you are terrorists. Every one of you are terrorists. I don’t care what you say. You can smile at me. You can say whatever you want, but every Muslim is a terrorist.” (Several people applauded the remarks, and a sheriff’s deputy had to break up the meeting.)

In Sedgwick County, Kan., Commissioner Karl Peterjohn during a public meeting screened a slideshow of men named Mohammed who have committed crimes and remarked, “Unlike the president, my father was a Christian, not a Muslim. I did not have a Muslim stepfather, or educated in a Muslim school overseas…. My cry from the heart today was a cry for preparation from the citizens of this community, to use the old Boy Scout motto, ‘Be prepared.’”

A Rhode Island state senator, Elaine Morgan (R-Hopkinton), stirred controversy when an email she intended to send to one constituent ended up going to a much larger group of people. It said in part, “The Muslim religion and philosophy is to murder, rape, and decapitate anyone who is a non Muslim. If we need to take these people in we should set up [a] refugee camp to keep them segregated from our populous (sic). I think the protection of our US citizens and the United States of America should be the most important issue here.”

In Irving, Texas, a band of about a dozen people, some carrying assault weapons and shotguns, marched around a mosque on Nov. 21. The protestors claimed that they were concerned about Islamic law being established in America. One man told the Dallas Morning News, “We do want to show force…. It would be ridiculous to protest Islam without defending ourselves.” (Counter-protestors held a “Rally for Peace” Nov. 28 that drew a much larger crowd of about 200.)

With their basic civil liberties under assault, American Muslims are trying to stem the tide by pointing out that only a small percentage of the world’s 1.6 billion Muslims support ISIS and groups like it. A recent study by the Pew Research Center backs up this assertion; it found negligible levels of support for ISIS in several Muslim-dominated nations.

Aside from attacking Islam, many GOP candidates have been courting Religious Right voters in another way: by attending forums sponsored by Religious Right activists. Although these events don’t get as much media attention as the official debates, they are interesting because the candidates are grilled on religious questions that often aren’t asked in other forums.

In November, a controversial Colorado pastor named Kevin Swanson hosted an event he called the National Religious Liberties Conference. Only Cruz, Huckabee and Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal attended the event, during which Swanson stated his belief that the Bible mandates death for gays. (Jindal later dropped out of the race.)

Swanson quizzed the candidates on their personal religiosity, asking Cruz how important it is for the president to believe that Jesus Christ is “the king of the President of the United States.”

Cruz replied, “Any president who doesn’t begin every day on his knees isn’t fit to be commander-in-chief of this country.”

On Nov. 20, Iowa Religious Right activist Bob Vander Plaats hosted a similar forum that attracted a larger crop of contenders. Unlike Swanson, who lurks on the political fringe, Vander Plaats is an influential figure in the state, and candidates he has backed in the past have gone on to win the Iowa caucuses. Cruz, Huckabee, Rubio, Carson, Santorum, U.S. Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) and business leader Carly Fiorina attended Vander Plaats’ “Presidential Family Forum.”

MSNBC blogger Steve Benen reported that during the event, the candidates were asked what would be the first thing they would do if the United States were attacked by terrorists on Sept. 11, 2017. Carson and Rubio both said they would immediately contact the Department of Homeland Security, while Fiorina and Huckabee said they would fall on their knees and pray.

Fiorina added that it’s important that the president be a man or woman of faith. “I do think it’s worth saying that people of faith make better leaders because faith gives us humility, faith teaches us that no one of us is greater than any other one of us, that each of us are gifted by God,” she said. “And so I think it’s important that we elect a leader of faith and that we elect a leader, as well, who knows that more prayer, not less, is necessary in public life and in all our lives.”

The candidates were also asked “Where was god on 9/11?” and “When was the last time you cursed god?”

Although it’s a safe bet that questions like that are fairly low on the totem pole for most Americans, Election Day 2016 is still 11 months off and a lot of people haven’t really engaged with the process yet.

This leaves a vacuum that Religious Right groups are only too happy to fill. The bottom line is that for the next several months as GOP hopefuls continue to pander to the Religious Right, voters are likely to end up hearing more talk about Jesus and prayer than jobs and paychecks.