Liberals love to say that right wingers hijack religion and exploit it for political purposes. Maybe. But liberals also made it very easy to do so.
For a group of people who – rightly – like to take credit for defending people’s rights, liberals still have a blind spot when it comes to religion in general and Christians in particular. This is particularly troubling because the liberal Christian tradition in America is so strong.
The latest lefty to fall into this trap is Irish American MSNBC talk show host Lawrence O’Donnell.
Last month, O’Donnell, who once worked as a close aide to sainted Irish American Democrat Daniel Patrick Moynihan, was doing what liberal talk show hosts always do -- bashing Mitt Romney.
Nothing wrong with that. In fact, Romney’s charge that Barack Obama is trying to “establish a religion in America known as secularism” is desperately in need of correction.
But what did O’Donnell do? Instead of taking Romney to task for wildly exaggerating Obama’s dedication to an anti-religious agenda, O’Donnell went after the Mormon faith.
“Religiously, Mitt Romney lives in the glass house of American politics,” he said.
O’Donnell then added, “Mormonism was created by a guy in upstate New York in 1830 when he got caught having sex with the maid and explained to his wife that God told him to do it. Forty-eight wives later, Joseph Smith’s lifestyle was completely sanctified in the religion he invented to go with it, which Mitt Romney says he believes.”
First of all, as O’Donnell later admitted in an apology, this is inaccurate. Most scholars believe Smith had his religious awakening prior to the scandal involving the maid.
But that is far from the most important point here. Irish Catholics, in particular, should be quite wary of pointing out the peculiarities in a given religion as proof that a candidate is somehow unfit for office.
After all, O’Donnell used to work with Moynihan, who was not only a senator but a first-rate scholar of the kind of bigotry Irish Catholics faced as they climbed the social ladder in America. More than that, Moynihan worked for the first Catholic president!
Lord knows, back in 1960 many people said things like this, “John F. Kennedy believes in a religion led by a guy who wears a funny hat, who never gets married, and claims to be infallible. They also decided that it’s OK to eat meat on Thursdays and Saturdays, but not Fridays. They also put ashes on their foreheads once a year.”
Every religion is open to criticism such as this. Which is why O’Donnell should not have attacked Romney the Mormon.
Instead, he should have attacked Romney the Republican. Or Romney, the exploiter of religious fear, which is what the Republican candidate was doing by implying that Obama -- who many
Republicans still believe is a Muslim -- holds anti-religious views.
Yes, it is true that O’Donnell ultimately apologized, but it really never should have come to that. There have been countless times where people on the left side of the political spectrum, who show respect and stand up for the rights of Jews and Muslims and atheists, nevertheless bungle the matter when it comes to Christians of varying stripes.
The reasons are obvious. Liberals tend to view conservative Catholics and Protestants as part of the power structure.
And, since they are in favor of taking on the power structure, liberals generally believe they are acting
bravely when they tackle issues cherished by religious conservatives.
But there are some problems here. First of all, in the case of Romney, he is, by every definition, a member of a religious minority.
To slam aspects of his faith, but then give others a free pass -- like, say, all those Democrats who call themselves Catholic but support abortion and the death penalty -- is unfair.
More importantly, liberals and their inability to debate religion well have created a truly bizarre scenario -- Christians who feel persecuted in the United States!
Yes, we have this state of affairs partly because right wingers are so savvy at exploiting this.
But they’d have nothing to exploit if O’Donnell and his colleagues didn’t consistently make such blunders.
If attacking Romney the Mormon is the Democratic plan for success in November, it’s going to be a long campaign.
(Contact “Sidewalks” at firstname.lastname@example.org or facebook.com/tomdeignan.)