You know that old time dog-whistle you heard the other day -- you know the one -- the one that helps demagogues to name a problem in society, or people who do or say things they don't like, and assign blame? Well, that was Mitt Romney engaging in a foundational part of his campaign to appeal to the Religious Right voters he needs by denouncing "secularism."
While this has been part of the narrative of the Religious Right for decades, few of us outside of the Religious Right and those who study and write about it, have much appreciation for how important this is for the pols who engage in it, and for their audiences that are conditioned to hear it in a certain way.
I wrote an essay about this in 2008 when the dog whistling had gone bipartisan and Mitt Romney had begun his presidential campaign by whistling for the dog while also trying to claim that he supports the separation of church and state. The Democrats who were afflicted at the time, seem to have since come to their senses about the politics of secular baiting. But it has become a standard part of Romney's act, as it has with Rick Santorum -- and if we listen carefully, we are likely to hear much more of it as the campaign season heats up.
The demagogic pols who do this know that their intended audience is hearing something different than the rest of us. For most of us, secularism means one of two main things: A non-theistic belief system; or the idea that a "secular" government, is neutral with regard to religion, and yet an uncompromised guarantor of the right of religious and non-religious belief. But Religious Rightists hear something different.
Chip Berlet, the senior analyst at Political Research Associates, explained in 1998 that for decades, the Religious Right had already promoted a conspiracy theory that Christianity is under attack by “secular humanists.”
The idea that a coordinated campaign by “secular humanists” was aimed at displacing Christianity as the moral bedrock of America actually traces back to a group of Catholic ideologues in the 1960s. It was Protestant evangelicals, especially fundamentalists, who brought this concept into the public political arena and developed a plan to mobilize grassroots activists as foot soldiers in what became known as the Culture Wars of the 1980s….The late D. James Kennedy offered a characteristic use of the term:
The idea of a conscious and coordinated conspiracy of secular humanists has been propounded in various ways by a variety of national conservative organizations and individuals.
“God forbid that we who were born into the blessings of a Christian America should let our patrimony slip like sand through our fingers and leave to our children the bleached bones of a godless secular society. But whatever the outcome, one thing is certain: God has called us to engage the enemy in this culture war.”Here is Romney's April 3rd dog whistle in Wisconsin:
“I think there is in this country a war on religion. I think there is a desire to establish a religion in America known as secularism.”
“They gave it a lot of thought and they decided to say that in this country that a church — in this case, the Catholic Church — would be required to violate its principles and its conscience and be required to provide contraceptives, sterilization and morning after pills to the employees of the church."
"Those of us who are people of faith recognize this is — an attack on one religion is an attack on all religion."Don Byrd, the blogger at the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty, challenges Romney's claim:
Actually, churches and houses of worship are explicitly exempt from the coverage requirement, and President Obama announced his intention that the final rule should likewise exempt religious organizations that object to the mandate on religious grounds. HHS has asked for public comment on how best to accommodate the views of religious organizations like schools and hospitals while providing women with access to effective health care. How can that be a national religion of secularism?Of course, a rule that makes such sweeping exemptions can hardly be called an attack on religious freedom or the establishment of a "religion of secularism," whatever that is.
When Romney and Santorum claim that president Obama, or anyone else, is trying to foist a religion of secularism on America, their audience hears something like what D. James Kennedy said without any need for elaboration. It has been stated so many times in so many ways as the fundamental battle of our time. If there is a culture war, this is what it is about. When you hear about the "war on Christmas" this is what it is about.
There is no more crass, calculated or profound a pander to the Religious Right than when Mitt Romney claims that minor federal rule making constitutes an effort to establish a "religion of secularism."