Religion, Bigotry, And Political Hypocrisy

[ Posted Monday, May 17th, 2010 – 18:18 PDT ]

Pat Buchanan, in his usual less-than-charming manner, brought up a point last week about the religious diversity (or lack thereof) of the Supreme Court. Buchanan pointed out that, if Elena Kagan is confirmed to the highest court (as seems likely), there will be only two religions represented on the court -- Judaism and Catholicism. He further points out that the court will be one-third Jewish, when Jews account for only two percent of the American population. Now, aside from the highly amusing spectacle of right-wingers advocating some sort of quota system, I think there's a deeper point here than Buchanan's "pity the unrepresented Protestant majority" theme. Because, even though virtually no politician would ever admit it, there is indeed a widespread (but unacknowledged) religious bigotry in America.

Of course, as I said, this bigotry is never publicly admitted, nor is it ever even discussed. Instead, any politician worth his or her salt can immediately come up with statements disavowing any sort of religious bigotry, when asked. Here is one random example, from yesterday's Face The Nation. Host Bob Schieffer asked Senator Dianne Feinstein about Buchanan's article, and whether a person's religion should be an appropriate thing to talk about when considering a judicial nominee. Feinstein's response:

Well, the answer to your question is no. I really do not believe it makes that kind of a difference. Actually, if she [Kagan] is confirmed, three members will be of the Jewish faith and the remainder will be Catholic. Does that bother me? The answer is no. Each one of the Catholic justices are -- are very different in how they approach the law. And I don't believe it's necessarily related to their -- their religion. And I think that they are total people. The products of their learning, their backgrounds, their experiences in life and that's the way it should be.

Now, I don't mean to single Senator Feinstein out in any way, here. She's not alone, in other words. That answer could have been given by just about any politician, Democrat or Republican. Because no politician wants to appear bigoted in public, in any way, shape, or form. But there's a followup question which really should have been asked, which cuts straight to the heart of the matter: "Would you support an atheist for the Supreme Court?"

Americans, as a whole, see religion on a scale of acceptability. There are acceptable religions, and then there are unacceptable religious beliefs (starting with having no religious beliefs at all). Now, over time, some religions slide back and forth along this scale. And, over time, bigotry has largely gone underground, because such things are no longer seen as acceptable in polite conversation. If you could travel back to the nineteenth century, you would meet people from actual political parties (or "movements," such as the Tea Party folks today) which defined themselves by being against one religious belief or another. Anti-Masonic fervor was probably the first wave of these "antis" to sweep across the political landscape in America, but it certainly wasn't the last. Anti-Semitism, Anti-Catholicism, Anti-Mormonism, and anti-just-about-everything-else have all had their day at one time or another. And if, on your time-machine voyage to the past, you told a member of one of these movements that, in the future, the Supreme Court would be made up of three Jews and six Catholics, their heads would likely explode right there on the spot. As I said, what is "acceptable" and "not acceptable" in the way of a public person's religion is a shifting concept.

Today, it takes someone like Buchanan to even point this sort of thing out. Now, over time, the concept of a religious-based (or ethnic-based, or gender-based) "seat" on the court has also diminished. There used to be "a Jewish seat" on the court, for instance. In other words, the majority would acknowledge Jews by giving them precisely one seat out of nine. There used to be a "black seat" on the court, and more recently, a "woman's seat" on the court. Today, these distinctions seem a little quaint, since in thirty years we've gone from putting the first woman on the court to (if Kagan is confirmed) having three (although there is still only one African-American, I should mention).

But, getting back to the subject of religion, whether politicians want to admit it or not, there are still "acceptable" and "unacceptable" religions, when it comes to discussing a candidate the Senate will have to approve for a lifetime appointment to the highest court. Does anyone believe, for instance, that in today's world a Muslim would be deemed acceptable for a seat on the Supreme Court? Put aside even the crazy "Obama's a Muslim" idiocy -- assume John McCain had won the presidency instead. Do you really think the Senate would confirm a Muslim candidate right now, even a conservative right-wing one? I don't. It just wouldn't be seen as "politically acceptable." Because the Senate is involved, politics is a big consideration in any judicial nominee. And every single senator, on some level or another, would be terrified of campaign ads which would inevitably run against them, for "putting a Muslim on the court." Some might bravely vote to confirm, but my guess is that most would not -- all the while avowing that "the candidate's religion has nothing to do with my decision."

I could be wrong about this, but I doubt I am. Of course, presidents don't like to have nominees defeated, so the real issue is that a president would never nominate someone in the first place who seemed too "radical" in their views -- even on religion -- to get confirmed.

This is the definition of prejudice. Any occupant of the White House is simply not going to consider people for a high court appointment who hold certain religious views, because it would just be seen as "too controversial." Because presidents (of any party) weed candidates out in this fashion, senators are spared having to make such difficult decisions. But, again, this is pre-judging a candidate solely on their religious beliefs (or lack thereof). The most brilliant legal mind of the century would simply be passed over for such an appointment, if he worshipped the Flying Spaghetti Monster.

As I said, it's hard to pinpoint where on the sliding scale of mainstream acceptability each and every religion would fall. Catholics, most mainstream (non-snake-handling) Protestant denominations, and Judaism are all squarely on the "acceptable" side of the scale, of course. Atheism and agnosticism are likely at the other end of that scale (of the over 100 Supreme Court Justices, only one -- David Davis -- was "unaffiliated with any church").

But there are a whole lot of religions which fall somewhere in between. And any one of them could have made for a dandy followup question to the softball "do you think religion should be considered" question Schieffer lobbed at Feinstein. "Would you support an atheist for the Supreme Court?" is just the easiest way to expose this hypocrisy. Because any politician (again, not to pick on Feinstein in particular) would have to think twice about answering that. On the one hand, they don't want to wear their bigotry on their sleeve. They may even, on a personal level, be quite comfortable with an atheist on the high court. But they also can instantly visualize the attack ad which their next political opponent will run if they answer the question in a non-bigoted way: "Senator X actually said he would support an atheist on the Supreme Court!" But answering "No, I don't think I could support an atheist" would also show that the platitude "Religion shouldn't be a factor" is the sheerest hypocrisy. There isn't supposed to be any sort of religious test to hold any office in the United States, but while there is no overt test, there is indeed a hidden test.

I fully admit, it's a "gotcha journalism" kind of question, which some people deplore on general principles. And you can substitute a lot of religions in the question for "atheist," and show the same bigotry or hypocrisy. "Would you support... a Wiccan, a Satanist, a Rastafarian, a practitioner of Santeria, a pagan...?" The list is a long one of religious beliefs that are seen by most Americans as being so far out of the mainstream that it's OK for politicians to express bigotry towards its members. There are also a large number of religions which would truly cause a politician to think long and hard about their answer. Mormons, Buddhists, Muslims, Hindus, Christian Scientists, Scientologists, and plenty of other groups are in a borderline area somewhere in the middle of the religious scale of acceptability to the general American public. These are religions which are generally seen as being acceptable enough for people to publicly practice without any sort of condemnation, but would likely not be acceptable (at this particular time) for a Supreme Court Justice. Time, though, is a factor, as religions move around on the acceptability scale quite a bit -- usually migrating from "unacceptable" to "somewhat acceptable" and sometimes all the way to "fully acceptable."

This is a tough subject for most Americans to admit. Generally, we like to see ourselves in a very idealistic light -- "we're not bigoted, we're inclusive, we're tolerant," we tell ourselves. At the most, we can acknowledge this scale of acceptability by projecting it upon all our fellow citizens -- "well, I can see that a Satanist would likely be deemed controversial and unacceptable by everyone else...."

But ignoring it altogether, and watching media types and politicians pat themselves on the back for stating that "religion is simply not a consideration" means that this hypocrisy and bigotry will continue. By not even asking the hard questions, we tacitly give approval to the uncomfortable thought that religion is indeed a consideration, on one level. Look at the outcry over a member of Congress being sworn in on the Koran recently, if you don't believe this to be true. Sure, the people making the outcry were those folks who don't mind wearing their religious bigotry on their sleeves. And, as I said, it's becoming more and more unacceptable to the general public to espouse such viewpoints. But that doesn't mean that standing up for Muslim (or Hindu, or Mormon) rights to freely practice their religion doesn't mean that there are some religions (some even derogatorily dismissed as "cults") which are simply beyond the pale when it comes to deeming what is acceptable and what is not for a Supreme Court Justice (or for an American politician, for that matter).

As I said, presidents (from both parties) are generally smart enough not to test the bounds of what is and what is not acceptable, at least not too much. Because if a president were bold enough to try, the bigotry would suddenly burst out into raw public view. Imagine what Republicans in the Senate would have to say if President Obama had just nominated a Wiccan, if you don't believe this.

Americans believe in the concept of freedom of religion. Up to a point. That point moves over time, and we are now inclusive of Catholicism and Judaism. But that wasn't always the case. And, while journalists and politicians are free to pretend that we actually are warmly inclusive of all religions, this is simply not true. America does exhibit bigotry towards religions that are seen as "too far outside the mainstream," and we always have. Covering this fact up with the hypocrisy of "religion would never, ever be a factor for me" doesn't change this basic fact, either.


Cross-posted at The Huffington Post

Follow Chris on Twitter: @ChrisWeigant


-- Chris Weigant


7 Comments on “Religion, Bigotry, And Political Hypocrisy”

  1. [1] 
    Hawk Owl wrote:

    By chance, I read this when very fatigued and, though I am glad to see this subject brought up so candidly, I lack the energy right now to respond with anything more than a couple of favorite observations:

    "Every man thinks God is his side. The rich and powerful know he is." -- Jean Anouilh

    and from H.L. Mencken:

    "We must respect the other fellow's religion, but only in the same sense and to the extent that we respect his theory that his wife is beautiful and his children smart."

  2. [2] 
    LewDan wrote:


    First, you are correct.

    Second, though the constitution prohibits any religious test for government office, the founders considered the law to be "the will of the people" and the constitution to be "the permanent will of the people." I've always considered that a fair assessment. Though we, as a nation, have never fully met our constitutional obligations or lived up to our ideals we have moved ever closer to doing so.

    The hypocrisy and de facto religious tests represent politicians, as you suggest, expressing the will of the people. But the ever broadening range of "acceptable religions," the hypocritical consensus that there should be no religious test, as well as generally held observations and opinions such as yours indicate that the constitutional injunction against such tests also truly represents "the permanent will of the people." Religious tolerance really is one of our core ideals and not just hypocrisy.

    We're simply weak and imperfect--real imperfect, but we are trying--and we are learning.

  3. [3] 
    Osborne Ink wrote:

    Chris, did you know the south used to be full of Jews? Yes, they even fought under the Confederate flag. In fact, rural Mississippi used to have a hundred synagogues...but not anymore.

    The reason is that Judaism (unlike the largest protestant denominations in the south) encourages children towards educational achievement and more-rewarding employment. The rabbi at Temple B'nai Israel in my hometown once explained to me that he had watched every Jewish child in town grow up, become valedictorian, earn a degree...and leave to find greener pastures. The last three generations in particular have seen southern Jews migrate to larger cities like Atlanta, or out of the region altogether, in pursuit of jobs and salaries that small southern towns simply do not offer.

    Why is this relevant to the question of Jews and Catholics on the SCOTUS? Well, Catholicism has a similar academic bent; but the largest and fastest-growing forms of protestant religion in America don't share that educational ethic. The last few decades have seen American protestantism subsumed in culture wars. Just look at what passes for "Christian" educational values in Texas!

    So if anyone is to blame for protestants falling behind, it is people like Buchanan. They have retarded social and educational progress. Instead of finding a new theology, key protestant leadership insists on protecting old ones from innovation. Just look at the Southern Baptist Convention on gender issues, for instance.

  4. [4] 
    Chris Weigant wrote:

    Hawk Owl -

    Here's two more for you:

    "One man's religion is another man's belly laugh."
    -Robert A. Heinlein

    "Among the Anglo-Americans there are some who profess Christian dogmas because they believe them and others who do so because they are afraid to look as though they did not believe in them."
    -Alexis de Tocqueville, "Democracy In America"

    LewDan -

    I agree. We're always striving to achieve the ideal, which is part of what makes America the place it is. We don't ever reach the ideal, and sometimes we even backslide, but we are, in general, committed to the notion that we should indeed be striving to get there.

    Osborne Ink -

    That's interesting. The first Japanese-American woman I ever knew said something similar. She said that Japan was so humiliated by WWII that they dedicated themselves to one simple idea to save face: my children will be better educated than I am. This, generations later, has proven to have had a profound influence on Japanese-Americans, to the point now where if some universities didn't have a quota for white people, the entire student body would be Asian. It is interesting to consider how highly some groups of people value education, and the societal trends it can bring about later.


  5. [5] 
    Michale wrote:

    Well, yer gonna get your panties in a twist again, CW.. Because it looks like you have universal acceptance of ANOTHER commentary.. :D

    I don't really have any nits to pick, save one..

    But first...

    But, again, this is pre-judging a candidate solely on their religious beliefs (or lack thereof). The most brilliant legal mind of the century would simply be passed over for such an appointment, if he worshipped the Flying Spaghetti Monster.

    Don't forget. Linus blew the election for {school} President when he professed his belief for The Great Pumpkin.. :D

    Now, my nit..

    Americans believe in the concept of freedom of religion.

    Americans SHOULD also believe in the concept of freedom FROM religion as well..

    Sadly, as you point out, this is not the case...

    Great commentary.. So far, yer 2 fer 2.... :D


  6. [6] 
    Michale wrote:

    For the record, my "nit" to pick wasn't with the commentary content, so much as it was with the majority of American people and their unreasonable attitude regarding freedom FROM religion.


  7. [7] 
    Michale wrote:

    Speaking of bigotry and political hypocrisy...

    I wonder how many here will be willing to condemn Democrats Blumenthal for his fantasy claims of service in Vietnam....

    Anyone?? Anyone????? Buehler?????


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