If the leaders of the religious right aspire to join forces with the Tea Party movement, their hopes were surely encouraged by the Values Voters Summit in Washington -- where such Tea Party celebrities Michele Bachmann and Jim DeMint shared the podium with Delaware sensation Christine O’Donnell -- all of whom enthusiastically blessed the proposed marriage. Certainly they have much to share in their seething fury at the President and the congressional Democrats.
Bringing together the disparate elements of the right without a charismatic and credible leader like Ronald Reagan remains a challenge, however, since many Tea Party voters are libertarians and independents who have never felt called to the battlements of the culture war. What they seem to share, aside from the perennial aversion to taxes, is a powerful instinct to stigmatize Muslims and seek confrontation with Islam.
Neither religious devotion nor public piety is a prerequisite for Islamophobia, after all, as we have seen in Europe, where mainly secular politicians of the right promote hostility to mosques and Muslims. Here in the United States, the fear, prejudice and ignorance broadcast by many opponents of the Park51 cultural center in Manhattan have found receptive audiences far beyond the evangelical right. For leaders of the religious right, attacking Islam offers an opportunity to contrast their own professed commitment to religious liberty with the strictures of Shariah law – and by doing so, to attract more secular independents to the ranks of the far right.
That theme was clearly sounded by Bryan Fischer of the American Family Association, one of the loudest anti-Muslim bigots in America today. Although Fischer explained that he believes all elected officials should be regarded as “literally ministers and servants of God” who must "align policy with the will of God," he denied that makes him a theocrat.
Instead, said Fischer, "If you believe in theocracy, then the dark and dangerous and devious religion of Islam is the religion for you."
Gary Bauer confirmed the convention’s apocalyptic tone with a ferocious speech accusing Muslims of "celebrating" the 9/11 terrorist assault by dancing in the street and handing out candy -- as if Muslim leaders across the world, including even those in Iran, had not denounced the attacks and offered condolences to the United States (and as if dozens of Muslims had not perished in the destruction of the World Trade Center).
Before he ran for president, Bauer spent ten years running the Family Research Council, the main sponsor of Values Voters, so he knew his audience. Like many of the weekend speakers, he suggested that Barack Obama -- if not a Muslim himself -- is far too solicitous of Muslims and far too friendly to Islam. Describing Obama as "the most anti-Israel president in the history of the United States," Bauer accused the president of being "too busy bowing to the Saudi king" to properly defend America.
While whipping up his audience, Bauer saw no need to confine himself strictly to the truth. "When the president says that Islam has played a major role in America from our very founding, it’s just not the truth," Bauer complained, referring to Obama’s remarks at the White House dinner marking the Ramadan holiday last month. "There was virtually no Islamic presence in America until just a few decades ago." In fact, Obama’s description of Islam’s history in the United States was far more modest -- he said only that it has “always been a part of America," which is undoubtedly true if only because many slaves imported from Africa were Muslim.
But Bauer wasn’t merely trying to smear Obama or warp history in distorting the president’s words. The underlying message of his speech, echoed by keynote speakes who followed him, was that violent confrontation between the Muslim world and the West is inevitable because of the fundamental tenets of Islam.
Like so many of those seeking to inflame Americans against their Muslim neighbors, Bauer ostentatiously poured scorn on the "foolish" Florida pastor who threatened to burn the Quran. "I would have suggested to the pastor that if he wanted to make a point, he should have read from the Quran," and asked whether Muslims believe "the sections that call on them to kill the infidel." Burning the holy book of Islam "would not have been the cause of violence," said Bauer, "but the excuse for violence…The cause of the violence is an Islamic culture that keeps hundreds of millions of people right on the edge of murder and mayhem 24 hours a day."
When William Bennett spoke, he too denounced Islam while denying that the right is "Islamophobic" or racist. "We are not Islamophobes. We do not fear Islam. We are angry at Islam and we have questions about Islam," said the former Education Secretary. "This is a righteous anger," he went on, provoked by what he described as the failure of Muslim leaders to denounce acts of violence committed in the name of Islam (although of course many have done so -- including Imam Faisal Rauf, the Park51 founder whom Bennett denounced by name). He wanted to know why the media have not investigated Rauf "the way they investigate the Family Research Council and conservative candidates for office… Meanwhile, we are told that we are racists. No we are not!"
Newt Gingrich may be a hypocrite and a fraud, but he is also a canny politician who understands how to build coalitions -- and he is still a would-be president. The former Speaker too denied being Islamophobic while fanning the fear of Islam with wholly fabricated claims that won repeated ovations at Values Voters. "We do not pick a fight with Islam, we are not Islamophobic," he claimed as he stirred up the audience against the Park51 project. "But we as Americans don’t have to tolerate people who are supporting of violence against us, building something at the site of the violence," he shouted to cheers. "This is not about religious liberty. I have no problem with the mosques in New York City that are peaceful and obey American law. But I am totally imposed to any effort to impose sharia on the United States," as if that is the purpose of the Islamic cultural center. "And we should have a federal law that says under no circumstance should sharia be used by any court to reach any judgment about American law."
Of course, no American judge has disposed of any case according to Islamic law, nor is any judge proposing to do so -- but in his effort to stoke paranoia, Gingrich insinuated that Justices Stephen Bryer and Elena Kagan, both of whom happen to be Jewish, might be leaning in that direction.
Given the character of the Values Voters speakers and their baldly partisan aims, it is tempting to dismiss their hateful spewing as a mere political tactic. Some of them desire actual war with Islam as a fulfillment of prophecy, while others feed the rubes whatever poison is at hand. But whatever they actually believe, these demagogues are encouraging the clash of civilizations -- and cynically endangering American lives at home and abroad. Independent voters who do not share the apocalyptic vision of our homegrown theocrats should beware.