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PETER WICKHAM: Religious nonsense II


PETER WICKHAM: Religious nonsense II

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THIS IS A FAMILIAR TITLE as I have once before tackled similar issues and this central problem of religious intolerance has now re-emerged within the context of the Republican contest for the presidential nominee.

The basic facts are well known; however, this interpretation is less well understood. Initially, the Republican front-runner Donald Trump was asked what can be done about “those people . . . muslims” and he said “we’re going to take a look at that and a few other things”.

It is unfortunate that in the wake of this exchange, his detractors focused more on his hesitance to chastise the questioner for what could be referred to as a “religious slander” of President Obama, while ignoring the questioner’s inherent bigotry.

The political sensitivity that arises from the suggestion that Obama could be muslim is couched in our assumption about what people are prepared to tolerate politically. Such arguments are not new, but people change; hence in 1960 it was argued that America would never elect a catholic president and in 1961 they elected John F. Kennedy. Similarly, a black person was unelectable and less so one who carried the additional political burden of an Islamic name like Hussein.

The 2008 election challenged that perception as well, so the focus shifted to his 2009 inauguration and the extent to which it was unwise for him to use the name “Hussein” for his inauguration. With the inauguration out the way, public attention shifted to other things Americans “couldn’t tolerate” and one such was a president who was liberal on gay issues. As fate would have it Obama evolved and in the May, 2012 edition of Newsweek, that publication was moved to identify him as America’s First Gay President replete with his own rainbow halo.

These scenarios demonstrate the extent to which American views are amenable to change and it is therefore unfortunate that as conservative America manifests signs of bigotry, potential leaders prefer to pander to such ignorance, instead of inspiring change.

This type of intolerance also reflects a presumption that there is merit to the state being influenced by Christian values or a presumption that there is something undesirable about political actors who are NOT subject to such values or worst, subject to Islamic values.

It certainly seems reasonable to challenge the obvious preference of Americans to elect leaders who claim to be Christian and equally reasonable to question the extent to which christianity now appears to be modular.

Presidents Johnson, Reagan, Bush I & II, and Clinton all claim christianity, but have at different times bombed civilians, supported torture and warfare. At the personal level, at least two of them smoked marijuana (one without inhaling) and one was arrested for driving under the influence of alcohol.

The current president has been challenged on not being “Christian enough” but he is opposed to warfare and torture, while supporting gay marriage and a woman’s right to control her own body. As one struggles to find the commonality among these Christian presidents, it is ironic that the only tie that binds them is the fact that none of them attended church regularly.

The previously mentioned challenge of understanding exactly what are these christian values is therefore complicated by reference to the experience of christian presidents whose behaviour appears not to have been impacted by their professed faith.

This bring us to the present scenario which has now captured presidential candidate Ben Carson, who believes that a muslim should not become president.

His contention is unconstitutional and ridiculous but it is more important to understand his motivation which is related to an American fascination with christianity and the flawed assumption that a secular space should be influenced by religious beliefs.

As a neurosurgeon, Carson is clearly bright, but his understanding of politics is also clearly basic and he has perhaps incorrectly interpreted two recent incidents as an indication that his anti-muslim rant will help him defeat Trump.

On one hand the fact that Trump entertained Islamophobia and it hasn’t hurt him in the polls, suggests to Carson that he can capture these types of voters by overtly appealing to them with his anti-Islamic stance. Secondly, there is the extent to which secular roles should properly be influenced by religious beliefs and this is where Kim Davis comes in, since there is alarming support within Republican quarters for her attempt to fuse church and state which has no constitutional basis.

There is clearly a mad rush within Republican quarters to appeal to the extreme right without contemplating the absurdity of several resulting postulations.  If Carson’s strategy to gain Republican support were to succeed and he gains the nomination, it will be interesting to see how he manages the transition into a more broad-based appeal over the next few months.

Peter W. Wickham is a political consultant and a director of Caribbean Development Research Services (CADRES). Email [email protected]