Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Religious Double Standards

I recently heard some individuals making fun of the idea that it would be demanded of a Moslem presidential candidate that he renounce sharia law. My question is, why is this such an unreasonable request? After all, when Kennedy ran, there were countless questions about the Catholic demand for obedience to the Pope and insistence Kennedy denounce such a belief. And, even more recently, when Romney ran there were questions about Mormon beliefs such as polygamy (a bit more peculiar, since the mainstream church itself has abandoned the practice). So, why would it be so unreasonable for people to make the same demands of Moslem candidates? Why can Catholics and Mormons be questioned about religious beliefs, but those of Moslems are off limits? I know we have been bending over backwards since September 11, 2001 to show we are not prejudiced against Islam, but it seems a bit absurd to completely disallow any questioning of the religion at all, especially on matters which have been addressed with candidates of other religions.

In a way, the whole issue is a bit silly, as no president will have the power to impose his religion upon the nation. Obviously, his religious beliefs will color his decision making, but would it really have changed Kennedy's behavior if he was simply a Catholic making decisions or a Catholic making decisions based upon the primacy of papal decisions? The outcome would be the same, so where is the issue? Similarly, even if Romney distanced himself from unpopular Mormon positions, he was still shaped by Mormon beliefs, so it is unlikely he would behave any differently after separating himself than before. And, in the case of a Moslem candidate, it seems unlikely merely stating one is not bound by an orthodox interpretation would change the decisions one would make. So, as I said, all of it seems a bit silly.

However, silly or not, it does seem a bit bizarre to not allow the same wrong headed questions on religion for Moslem candidates as one would for Christian candidates from less mainstream denominations. Unless it is our position that nonconformist Christian religions are acceptable targets for such "abuse" but Islam is not, which seems a rather untenable position for those claiming to be defending religious freedom.


Before someone tries to correct me by pointing out the number of Catholics or Mormons, or the rate of growth of either denomination, my designation of "non-mainstream" and "nonconforming" does not relate to absolute numbers or current popularity, but rather to the popular perception that a "normal American" is a member of some established protestant denomination (or, more recently, of a few evangelical/charismatic denominations). Whether or not this represents the true "average American", it remains the popular perception of what is the American mainstream, and so anyone deviating from it is seen as "nonconformist", be it Judaism or Islam or Mormonism or Catholicism or even Unitarianism. Even some relatively mainstream sects, such as Quakers are far enough form the norm to seem worthy of note in presidential elections, though in the case of Nixon, his long time as vice president kind of lessened this issue for him. But, as I was saying, the perception of "mainstream" has little to do with actual demographics, and much more to do with popular perception and media images of what the average American, especially the average American president, is.


I imagine what I am saying is not exactly clear, so let me simplify. Throughout our history, we have asked questions about those holding religious beliefs outside of the mainstream, which makes me think concern over Moslem beliefs is not anything out of the ordinary or a sign of anything other than the fact that Islam is now mainstream enough to possibly have a Moslem presidential candidate.  Personally, I find such questions absurd, as individuals may clearly deviate from the beliefs of their faith, after all, there are countless pro-choice Catholics, to offer just one example. And, as I said above, in any event, a public statement one does not embrace this bit of the creed or that is silly, as, if they are a true believer, then how much will such a denunciation mean?

As far as people objecting to current questions about Islam, I find it a bit unfair. Yes, most of those objecting to questions about Islam are also troubled by the questions once raised about Kennedy's Catholicism, but I don't recall them making much of a noise about questions raised over Romney's Mormonism. In addition, those arguing we should not question Islamic candidates are often the same people who loved to associate any religious conservative with Phelps and others likely to produce a negative public image, so it seems they have no problem with religious criticism, so long as it is not about Islam. And that is what troubles me here.

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