Commentary: Free speech for me but not for thee
By Paul Kengor
I got the email in late afternoon. "In a major liberal initiative to curtail discussion of President Obama's religious identity," the email began, "over 70 Christian leaders and denominational heads have signed a letter saying that questions about the religious philosophy of the president of the United States should be ignored and suppressed by the major media."
This couldn't be correct. No doubt another Internet hoax by the vast right-wing conspiracy. I wasn't taking the bait.
Rather than hit delete, however, I took a moment to open the hyperlink. Lo and behold, the letter, signed by over 70 self-described "Christian pastors and leaders," proclaimed:
"(We) are deeply troubled by the recent questioning of President Obama's faith.... (T)he personal faith of our leaders should not be up for public debate.... Therefore, we urge public officials, faith leaders, and the media to offer no further support or airtime to those who misrepresent and call into question the president's Christian faith."
Likewise remarkable was the letter's appeal to political neutrality. "This is not a political issue," the pastors insisted.
The letter was posted at the website of Eleison Group, whose president, Burns Strider, offers faith-based political advice to Democrats like Hillary Clinton and Nancy Pelosi. Signers include Jim Wallis, who is synonymous with faith and politics, widely known for his group Sojourners and bestseller God's Politics.
Most striking is the letter's stunning demand that the media offer no airtime to anyone questioning the president's faith, even as this president has arguably the most unconventional faith profile of any president in history, understandably creating confusion among the public.
No airtime? Obviously, such a demand presents a host of thorny considerations, beginning, of course, with the First Amendment.
Would refusal of "airtime"--which I assume includes print and web media--extend to those arguing in favor of claims that Obama is a Christian? Apparently not. Would it apply to those who question Obama's faith or (much broader) "call into question?" Who determines the difference?
And how about claims against other presidents?
Liberals constantly questioned Ronald Reagan's faith, because of his infrequent church attendance, his wife consulting stargazers, his Central America policy, his welfare policy, his environmental policy. Reagan suffered these suspicions even as he repeatedly stated he was a Christian. He endured a question during a nationally televised presidential debate with Walter Mondale. Two weeks later, in another televised debate, Reagan was asked if his beliefs about Armageddon fueled his nuclear policy.
Still today, liberals ask me about Reagan's faith, including if he was really a Christian.
Reagan is far from alone. Some 200 years after his presidency, Thomas Jefferson's faith is ever-maligned. He's accused of all sorts of things. Even the beliefs of Lincoln and Washington are debated.
What about our most recent president? I can't tell you how many times I addressed serious inquiries about whether George W. Bush was seeking to impose a theocracy, or why Bush supposedly believed Christ had ordered him to defang Saddam. It took every bit of charity to suck it up and respond with patience. I never thought to stomp and sniff: That question should not be permitted airtime!
Most disturbing, but, frankly, not surprising, is that this push comes from self-anointed apostles of diversity and tolerance, who tell us the Religious Right is intolerant. It reminds of Nat Hentoff's classic saying: "Free speech for me but not for thee."
Not only does this letter make these pastors look bad, but it would probably backfire. When I hear CNN, MSNBC, or even Fox mention the latest poll on Obama's faith, the reporter typical starts: "The latest poll shows nearly one in four Americans think Obama is a Muslim. In fact, Obama is a Christian...."
Don't these liberal church leaders realize the media is on their side?
If they don't like free discussion about the president's faith, they should do what Americans have always done in their free society: Go to the public square--i.e., the media--hash it out, make your case, and persuade. Debate.
Dr. Paul Kengor is professor of political science at Grove City College and executive director of The Center for Vision & Values.