by Jay Johansen | Dec 13, 2006
There's an interesting web site out there called religioustolerance.org. At some future date I might discuss this web site more generally, but right now I'd like to discuss one particular article that they have posted. It's called, Prejudice of Americans towards various religions. The gist of this article is to say that Americans are religious bigots because, according to a survey they quote, large numbers of Americans say that they would not vote for a political candidate whose religious beliefs are different from their own, even if that candidate was the nominee of their own party and was, quote, generally well-qualified, end-quote.
The survey they quote seems to me to say almost the opposite of the title they put above it: It finds that 92% of Americans would vote for a Jew and 99% for a Mormon, for example. As both those groups are a tiny minority of the U.S. population, clearly the vast majority of people who say that they would have no problem voting for a Jew or a Mormon are Protestants and Catholics. The only groups that didn't get over 90% acceptance were Atheists, at 49%, and homosexuals, at 59%. (I wasn't aware that homosexuality was a religion, but they casually toss it in with "Baptist", "Catholic", "Jew", "Mormon", etc. with no explanation.)
So if they have any point at all, it's not that Catholics are prejudiced against Protestants or that Baptists are prejudiced against Methodists, but rather that Christians are prejudiced against atheists and homosexuals. Exactly why they find a need to confuse the issue by claiming that there is general religious prejudice when the very statistics they quote say the opposite is not clear, but whatever.
The catch to this conclusion is that it assumes that not voting for someone is an act of prejudice. I'd like to ask the authors of religioustolerance.org a question: Suppose that your party nominated a "generally well-qualified" person who was a fundamentalist religious bigot. Would you vote for him? I'd be curious to hear their answer. If they say "no", then doesn't that make them guilty of exactly the same sort of religious bigotry that they condemn in others? If they say "yes", then doesn't that mean that their pronounced love of religous tolerance is, in fact, a sham, that will be promptly sacrificed to party loyalty and political expediency?
The key to their argument is a classic propaganda technique: Phrase the question in a way that assumes the conclusion that you are supposedly trying to reach. Anticipating the obvious objection that an atheist or a homosexual is likely to have different ideas about what society's goals should be than would a Catholic or a Baptist, they don't ask, "Would you vote for a candidate who disagrees with you on every conceivable subject and who is also of a different religion?" To call someone who answers "yes" to that a "bigot" would be too obviously ridiculous. Instead they toss in the qualifier that this hypothetical candidate is from "your party" and is "generally well-qualified". In other words, if we start with the assumption that this person shares all your most fundamental beliefs about law and morality and public policy, the fact that he is of a different religion wouldn't be relevant, would it? But that's quite an assumption. It's a little like the silly questions that children will sometimes ask, like, "If cows had wings, would they be able to fly?" "If dogs could talk, would German Shepherds speak German?"
I'm a born-again Christian. If you asked me if I would be willing to have an atheist or a homosexual as a friend, my answer would be "yes, of course". That's easy because it's not a hypothetical question: My best friend in college was a homosexual, and I have had several good friends over the years who were atheists. I can love a person as a friend without approving of everything he does or agreeing with everything he believes. Maybe that just seems obvious to me because I'm not a bigot.
But voting for a person for public office is quite a different thing. The whole point of voting is supposed to be to select people who agree with you on the political and social issues of the day, so that policies that you believe to be effective and/or morally right can be enacted. If it is "prejudice" to vote against someone because he supports policies that you oppose, then on what basis would you vote? I don't care how nice a guy someone is: if he supports laws that I think are morally questionable or misguided, I'm not going to vote for him.
Of course it doesn't necessarily follow that someone's religion is relevant to any given political issue, or that other factors might not outweigh it. Jimmy Carter is a Baptist, as am I. Neal Boortz is an atheist. But I would vote for Boortz before I'd vote for Carter, because I think Jimmy Carter's policies, however well intentioned, are poorly conceived, and Boortz, while starting from totally different premises than I do, nevertheless comes to most of the same conclusions on public policy.
If my homosexual friend had run for office, I doubt that I would have voted for him. The day after voting against him I would gladly have invited him to my home for dinner and chatted about the campaign. But I wouldn't vote for him. (That's not an unlikely scenario either: He was very active in politics, and if he hadn't died of AIDS at a young age he might well have run for office.)
Saying, "I disagree with you" is not bigotry. Working within the democratic process to advance goals that you believe in and fight things that you oppose is not inherently prejudice. Accusing people of bigotry and prejudice simply because they defend their own beliefs which happen to differ from yours ... that's bigotry and prejudice.
© 2006 by Jay Johansen
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