In a post titled The glaringly simple formula for rightwing dominance of our national debate, I wrote:
There is a simple formula for rightwing dominance of our national debate, even when Democrats are in charge: move the conversation as extreme right as possible, then compromise toward the far right. Negotiation 101. And it’s completely lost on Democrats.
It’s no accident that in 21st century America, torture has been mainstreamed, climate denial has taken firm hold, book burning, racial dog whistles and brazen religious intolerance are part of our discourse and par for the course. This is how the right plays the game, using Limbaugh, Hannity, Fox, Drudge, blogs, chain emails, talk radio, etc. to shamelessly and defiantly drag the conversation as far right as possible.
Christine O’Donnell’s gaffe about the First Amendment is anything but a gaffe. It’s a successful reframing of the conversation about the separation of church and state, injecting a rightwing talking point into the national bloodstream:
O’Donnell is getting a massive amount of attention today because during a debate with Chris Coons, she asked: “Where in the Constitution is the separation of church and state?” But Sharron Angle said something very similar a couple months back and it got almost no national attention. During an interview with Jon Ralston, he confronted her over her 1995 statement that excluding religious schools from Federal funding is un-American and that the separation of church and state is an unconstitutional doctrine. Then this exchange ensued:
RALSTON: The separation of church and state arises out of the Constitution.
ANGLE: No it doesn’t, John.
RALSTON: Oh, it doesn’t? The Founding Fathers didn’t believe in the separation of church and state?
ANGLE: Thomas Jefferson has been misquoted, like I’ve been misquoted, out of context. Thomas Jefferson was actually addressing a church and telling them through his address that there had been a wall of separation put up between the church and the state precisely to protect the church from being taken over by a state religion. That’s what they meant by that. They didn’t mean we couldn’t bring our values to the political forum.
More from Candace Chellew-Hodge:
After watching the video, I don’t think O’Donnell was surprised in the least by the contents of the First Amendment, but was instead sending a signal to her right-wing base. Her facial expression is a dead giveaway. She raises her eyebrows, widens her eyes, slowly nods her head, and turns her mouth down into a “hmmm” expression. It’s the same expression my partner gives me when I’ve said something completely stupid or ridiculous.
Instead of being mystified that perhaps the First Amendment would say something about religion, I believe O’Donnell was simply signaling to her base that she tows the well-worn right-wing line that while the First Amendment may guarantee freedom of religion, it does not create a wall of separation between church and state. That phrase, of course, is not in the Constitution, but was used by Thomas Jefferson in a letter to the Danbury Baptist Association in 1802.
Her expression and the knowing nod showed that she thought Coons was the idiot for thinking that the language of the First Amendment automatically grants “separation of church and state.” The religious right has long propagandized that such a separation was never intended by the framers of the Constitution and has only been affirmed by “activist judges” throughout the centuries. Bryan Fischer at the American Family Association has even equated the separation of church and state as being “straight from the mind of Hitler”
Democrats should see this for what it is: another successful attempt to move the national discourse into fringe rightwing territory. Here’s the clip:
For Democrats, it’s always useful to get to know the opposition:
Senate candidate Marco Rubio revved up a crowd of about 200 supporters at the Alaqua Country Club Wednesday, but Rubio had a little help from the guy who introduced him.
David Barton primed the pump with his brand of America first, last and always political/religious revivalism. If you’ve not yet heard of Barton, named in 2005 as one of Time’s most influential evangelicals, there’s a good chance you will soon. He’s a favorite of the Tea Party movement and has emerged as Glenn Beck’s go-to-guy for all things historical.
Barton’s primary message Wednesday – and most days – is that the U.S. was founded as a Christian nation, was intended to be a Christian nation and would be a whole lot better if everyone started buying into that. Barton traces a number of social ills, for example, back to the prohibition of compulsory prayer in public schools.
Barton is an engaging ball of energy, riffing on the Founding Fathers and proclaiming “American Exceptionalism” – a staple of Rubio’s stump speech. Trouble is, many historians and religion researchers say Barton’s scholarship doesn’t match his salesmanship.
… Barton, for example, has declared the separation of church and state to be mythical, claiming that Thomas Jefferson, when he coined the phrase, meant for the wall to be “one-directional” – designed to protect the church from government interference but never intended to remove Christianity from government. Most historians dismiss his interpretation as badly off the mark.
Wednesday, Barton’s penchant for absolutes was on display. He told his audience that of the 192 members of the United Nations, America stood alone as a beacon of stability. “We’re a very blessed nation,” he said. “We happen to be the only nation that does not average a revolution every 30 to 40 years. Of 192 nations, we’re the only one with that type of stability.”
Barton has twice addressed white-supremacist organization with ties to neo-Nazis, but both times has done so accidentally, he says. He has also been a leader in the movement to rewrite American history to remove Civil Rights leaders and knock down the wall separating church from state, arguing that it is a myth. He led the recent effort to rewrite Texas textbooks to describe America as a Christian nation.
People like Barton are the reason I caution against mocking Christine O’Donnell. If anything, Democrats need to do some serious soul searching about why such extreme views are dominating the public discourse.
UPDATE: From TPM:
David Barton, an evangelical and social conservative well known for his somewhat revisionist history and appearances on Glenn Beck’s show, yesterday took the opportunity on his radio show to ask that age-old question: “Why don’t we regulate homosexuality?”
Barton was talking about the government’s involvement in the health of the American people: “We have a Department of Health and Human Services; we have health care bills; we have health insurance and we’re trying to stop all unhealthy things so we’re going after transfats and we’re going after transparency in labeling to make sure we get all the healthy stuff in there.”
So if I got to the Centers for Disease Control and I’m concerned about health, I find some interesting stats there and this should tell me something about health.Homosexual/bi-sexual individuals are seven times more likely to contemplate or commit suicide. Oooh, that doesn’t sound very healthy.
Homosexuals die decades earlier than heterosexuals. That doesn’t sound healthy.
Nearly one-half of practicing homosexuals admit to 500 or more sex partners and nearly one-third admit to a thousand or more sex partners in a lifetime.
So, he concluded: “I mean, you go through all this stuff, sounds to me like that’s not very healthy. Why don’t we regulate homosexuality?”
Full transcript and audio here.
While Glenn Beck stages a religious rally masquerading as a non-political rally masquerading as a Tea Party convention, while we debate the size of Manhattan’s mosque-free zone, while President Obama’s faith is questioned by his political opponents and while we talk about burning the Quran, it’s worth noting this:
A Gallup report issued on Tuesday underscored just how out of line we are. Gallup surveyed people in more than 100 countries in 2009 and found that religiosity was highly correlated to poverty. Richer countries in general are less religious.
But that doesn’t hold true for the United States.
Sixty-five percent of Americans say that religion is an important part of their daily lives. That is compared with just 30 percent of the French, 27 percent of the British and 24 percent of the Japanese.
People are more religious in the United States than in any other industrialized country according to an international poll by the Germany-based Bertelsmann Stiftung. The survey found 89 percent of Americans are religious, and 62 percent are highly religious. At the same time, religion plays a much less important role in European industrialized countries such as France, Great Britain, Germany.
What to make of it?
I’ve been writing about the Ground Zero mosque because I live across the street from the World Trade Center site and I consider it an important debate about religious freedom and tolerance. Also, having grown up in Beirut, these issues are especially meaningful to me.
On August 3rd, Mike Bloomberg stepped up and showed Democrats how to stand for core principles without falling into rightwing traps. After three weeks of fumbling and bumbling by Democrats and crass opportunism by Republicans, Bloomberg once again shows how simple it is to take the moral high ground. Following are comments he made this evening:
“In recent weeks, a debate has arisen that I believe cuts to the core of who we are as a city and a country. The proposal to build a mosque and community center in Lower Manhattan has created a national conversation on religion in America, and since Ramadan offers a time for reflection, I’d like to take a few minutes to reflect on the subject.
“There are people of good will on both sides of the debate, and I would hope that everyone can carry on the dialogue in a civil and respectful way. In fact, I think most people now agree on two fundamental issues: First, that Muslims have a constitutional right to build a mosque in Lower Manhattan and second, that the site of the World Trade Center is hallowed ground. The only question we face is: how do we honor that hallowed ground?
“The wounds of 9/11 are still very much with us. And I know that is true for Talat Hamdani, who is here with us tonight, and who lost her son, Salman Hamdani, on 9/11. There will always be a hole in our hearts for the men and women who perished that day.
“After the attacks, some argued – including some of those who lost loved ones – that the entire site should be reserved for a memorial. But we decided – together, as a city – that the best way to honor all those we lost, and to repudiate our enemies, was to build a moving memorial and to rebuild the site.
I’ve explained why I support the Ground Zero mosque even though Muslims were my mortal enemies in Lebanon and I’m a longtime lower Manhattan resident who lost friends in the towers. I’ve also cautioned against slandering 9/11 victims’ loved ones, emphasized that this is a matter of principles, not people, and argued that whatever we call the project, those principles don’t change. Still, I’m almost certain opponents of the mosque/community center will win the debate.
Here’s why: the rightwing noise machine is extremely adept at creating controversies around individuals. From Fox, Drudge and rightwing blogs to websites, talk radio and elected officials, they are masters at superbly orchestrated takedowns based on manufactured outrage. Remember Shirley Sherrod? Van Jones? Dan Rather?
The two-pronged anti-mosque strategy is crystal clear: find the most egregious name for the project, one that pushes emotional buttons, then hammer away at the individuals associated with it, searching for an angle to destroy them. Thus the laser-like focus on the Imam behind it, Feisal Abdul Rauf, and on his wife, Daisy Khan. Witness the Wall Street Journal today:
A leader of a planned Muslim community center near Manhattan’s Ground Zero compared opposition to the project to the persecution of Jews, in comments that could add to the controversy over the center’s proposed site.
Opponents will likely win this argument because they are forcing proponents, media and neutral parties to play by their rules. Case in point: we are now arguing about whether it’s “Park51″ or the “9/11 Mosque” (Sarah Palin’s choice), whether Rauf is an extremist or moderate, whether or not his wife is a radical. We’ve seen one media profile of Rauf after another, but few in-depth pieces about the Constitutional principles at stake.
Once you’re on the right’s turf, they are halfway to victory. It doesn’t help that Democratic leaders have been completely muddled on an issue of basic rights.
From day one, proponents should have been firm about one thing: this is not about names or people, it’s primarily about core values. That’s not to say that the individuals behind the project are completely irrelevant – of course not – but that the principles must come first.
I return to Mike Bloomberg’s pitch-perfect speech:
Muslims are as much a part of our city and our country as the people of any faith. And they are as welcome to worship in lower Manhattan as any other group. In fact, they have been worshipping at the site for better, the better part of a year, as is their right. The local community board in lower Manhattan voted overwhelmingly to support the proposal. And if it moves forward, I expect the community center and mosque will add to the life and vitality of the neighborhood and the entire city.
Political controversies come and go, but our values and our traditions endure, and there is no neighborhood in this city that is off-limits to God’s love and mercy, as the religious leaders here with us can attest.
I doubt the Ground Zero mosque will ever be built there, but I hope proponents stand firm on the ideals and avoid getting sucked into the right’s ‘name and blame’ game.
The first minute of this video should give every American pause – it is a stark illustration of what the future might look like: explosive confrontations along religious and racial lines.
UPDATE: Apparently, the subject of the crowd’s wrath is a union carpenter.
This reminds me of an experience I had at an Iraq war protest. A small pro-war group started waving American flags and hurling insults at marchers. When I heard the words “traitor” and “Saddam sympathizer,” I walked over and calmly asked where they were when I was under fire in battles with Muslim fanatics in Lebanon. Silence.
It’s easier to practice intolerance than tolerance. The latter takes compassion and self-discipline, the former is based on crude emotions and ignorance.
Not atypically, Democrats are making a mess of their response to the ‘Ground Zero’ mosque, fumbling what should be the unquestioned moral high ground. From Obama to Reid to Pelosi to Dean, we’re getting confusion and mixed messages.
So why was it so easy for Mike Bloomberg to say this:
“Our doors are open to everyone. Everyone with a dream and a willingness to work hard and play by the rules. New York City was built by immigrants, and it’s sustained by immigrants — by people from more than 100 different countries speaking more than 200 different languages and professing every faith. And whether your parents were born here or you came here yesterday, you are a New Yorker.
“We may not always agree with every one of our neighbors. That’s life. And it’s part of living in such a diverse and dense city. But we also recognize that part of being a New Yorker is living with your neighbors in mutual respect and tolerance. It was exactly that spirit of openness and acceptance that was attacked on 9/11, 2001.
“Whatever you may think of the proposed mosque and community center, lost in the heat of the debate has been a basic question: Should government attempt to deny private citizens the right to build a house of worship on private property based on their particular religion? That may happen in other countries, but we should never allow it to happen here.
“This nation was founded on the principle that the government must never choose between religions or favor one over another. The World Trade Center site will forever hold a special place in our city, in our hearts. But we would be untrue to the best part of ourselves and who we are as New Yorkers and Americans if we said no to a mosque in lower Manhattan.
“Let us not forget that Muslims were among those murdered on 9/11, and that our Muslim neighbors grieved with us as New Yorkers and as Americans. We would betray our values and play into our enemies’ hands if we were to treat Muslims differently than anyone else. In fact, to cave to popular sentiment would be to hand a victory to the terrorists, and we should not stand for that.
“For that reason, I believe that this is an important test of the separation of church and state as we may see in our lifetimes, as important a test. And it is critically important that we get it right.
“Muslims are as much a part of our city and our country as the people of any faith. And they are as welcome to worship in lower Manhattan as any other group. In fact, they have been worshipping at the site for better, the better part of a year, as is their right. The local community board in lower Manhattan voted overwhelmingly to support the proposal. And if it moves forward, I expect the community center and mosque will add to the life and vitality of the neighborhood and the entire city.
“Political controversies come and go, but our values and our traditions endure, and there is no neighborhood in this city that is off-limits to God’s love and mercy, as the religious leaders here with us can attest.”
I’m not about to tell the family member of a September 11th victim that their opposition to a mosque in the vicinity of Ground Zero is due to xenophobia, racism, or narrow-mindedness. Attributing those motives to every person who opposes the mosque is something I refuse to do.
All I can do is make my case:
I’m an American citizen with a Jewish-American mother and Christian-Lebanese father. I was raised in Beirut during the height of the Lebanese civil war, where Christians and Muslims slaughtered each other by the tens of thousands. I lived and breathed the same kind of horrors we see in Afghanistan and Iraq, endless carnage, indiscriminate killing of civilians, shelling of entire neighborhoods, kidnappings and car bombs. I ducked and dodged the grim reaper on too many occasions.
As a teen, I was conscripted into the Lebanese Forces, a Christian militia, and served for three years. My opponents were Muslims of all nationalities, Syrians, Palestinians, everyone who was attacking the Christian enclave north of Beirut and endangering my family, my friends, my life. It was a matter of survival. Muslim friends who I grew up with became mortal enemies. A country that was the model of interfaith co-existence was torn apart at the seams.
I moved to New York in the 80s and have lived here ever since. My daughter was born in New York. For years, my home has been the beautiful riverfront neighborhood of Battery Park, a two minute walk across from Ground Zero. On the day the towers came down, my wife and I were headed to WTC Building 7 for a meeting. We were delayed by a phone call and then switched on the tv and realized we weren’t going anywhere and that the world we knew had changed forever. I lost friends in the towers and I watched my city get amputated. Every time I walk near the site, I look up in pain at the hole in the sky. New York will never be the same to me. I will never forget.
When I heard about the plans for a mosque, my first thought was Lebanon and the beautiful days of coexistence before the war. Tolerance and compassion are things have we to work at. Living our values and principles is not an easy thing. My love of our Constitution and the freedoms enshrined in it come from my time away from the USA. I want to be true to its ideals, to practice what the Constitution preaches. I believe supporting the mosque accomplishes that goal.
And what’s more, placing a mosque next to Ground Zero strikes me as a direct affront to the vicious murderers who took those precious lives. Few things are more satisfying than letting a violent perpetrator know that their violence has had no effect and that it has only strengthened our resolve and stiffened our spine. I want the terrorists to know that nothing they do will make us relinquish our values, that we honor the lives lost by sending a message that anyone can worship anywhere in America. We are not defending people, we are defending principles.
I see that as victory and I hope those who oppose this mosque see it that way too.