It is a common and hyperbolic refrain that Democrats have been (and still are) the anti-religion party. Now, however, Republicans may be running into religion problems of their own as evangelical and Roman Catholics become more engaged with issues such as poverty and climate change.
"Like a moth to a flame, Democrats can't help themselves when it comes to denigrating and demonizing Christians," said Rep. John Hostettler (R-IN), on the House floor in 2005.
This perceived hostility by Democrats to faith -- Christianity, in particular -- has been used as an effective wedge issue in tight political campaigns. In 2004, as an example, the Republican National Committee, then under the direct control of President George W. Bush, sent out mailers to voters in West Virginia alleging that his general election opponent, then U.S. Senator John Kerry, a life long Roman Catholic, would ban the Bible if elected President.
Barack Obama spent much of the 2008 election and his presidency defending his Christian faith from other politicians and political commentators who charged that the president was either lying about his faith or being a secret Muslim.
The rhetoric became so ugly towards President Obama that a coalition of diverse religious leaders, many of who did not support his policies, issued a statement coming to his defense:
President Obama has been unwavering in confessing Christ as Lord and has spoken often about the importance of his Christian faith. Many of the signees on this letter have prayed and worshipped with this President. We believe that questioning, and especially misrepresenting, the faith of a confessing believer goes too far...
Still, the attacks have not stopped. Evangelist Franklin Graham, son of Billy Graham, had no trouble vouching for the Christian faith of GOP candidates running for the presidency in 2012 but said he could not make a similar statement about President Obama. He said in 2012 and again just this year, that President Obama's foreign policy is influenced by Muslim sympathies. In short, Graham believes Obama's allegiances are with Muslim radical fundamentalist terrorists and not the United States of America.
Jeb Bush, the former Florida governor, opened his campaign for the 2016 GOP presidential nomination with an attack on Hillary Clinton's faith. Salon.com reports:
When Jeb Bush claimed Hillary Clinton said that if religious Americans oppose progressive policies, their religious beliefs "have to be changed," in his campaign kickoff speech Monday, I assumed he was misrepresenting his Democratic rival, and that the media would point it out. But he got in the hilarious juvenile "That's what she said!" joke, and that's all reporters talked about.
In fact, Bush pulled that small quote from Clinton's inspiring "Women in the World" speech in April -- and in doing so, shamelessly distorted it's meaning. And he got his slur from the far right: Glenn Beck's The Blaze and Tucker Carlson's Daily Caller tried to make the case that Clinton's words applied to domestic disputes over abortion and contraception at the time -- but nobody fell for it, because it was such a silly claim. So far, Bush has gotten away with it. But he shouldn't.
Clinton was talking about countries where girls don't go to high school, where domestic violence is legal, where high maternal mortality rates are tolerated. And she did say: "Deep-seated cultural codes, religious beliefs, and structural biases have to be changed."
No matter the context of Clinton's remarks, Bush will distort them for partisan game.
Here the political atmosphere gets ironic. Bush and Rick Santorum, both among the GOP Roman Catholics presidential candidates, and both what you'd call "climate change deniers" told Pope Francis, ready to issue a statement declaring climate change a human caused problem with theological dimensions, to stay clear of this issue. The New York Times reported that Bush said:
"I hope I'm not going to get castigated for saying this by my priest back home, but I don't get economic policy from my bishops or my cardinals or my pope," Mr. Bush said. "And I'd like to see what he says as it relates to climate change and how that connects to these broader, deeper issues before I pass judgment. But I think religion ought to be about making us better as people and less about things that end up getting in the political realm."
The irony is that the GOP has been digging political trenches with U.S. Roman Catholics over issues like marriage equality and opposition to birth control to such and extend that I felt compelled to write ann open letter in 2012 to Timothy Dolan, then the representative of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, urging that the bishops engage in public policy advocacy but not partisan political activity:
Several bishops have directly attacked the president during this period and encouraged the divisive and completely untrue notion that the President is attacking religious liberty or waging a war against religion. Frankly, the rhetoric used by some bishops resembles GOP presidential candidates.
At the same time you have launched this unprecedented attack against President Obama -- essentially calling him an opponent of the Christian faith, a false and malicious charge -- it is sad to note that you have remained silent as Mitt Romney, Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum (along with many Congressional leaders) have advanced political platforms directly at odds with Roman Catholic social teaching without a word of descent from the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. On issues ranging from cutting aid to the poor, to eliminating foreign aid, to war and peace, these candidates promote an agenda that most Christian bodies oppose, but from your office there has been silence.
It seems obvious there is a double standard where the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops is concerned: you'll start a nuclear political war with a pro-choice Democrat but allow a pro-life Republican to get away with anything -- from starting real wars to supporting the death penalty to having an open marriage and repeatedly divorcing.
Since Pope Francis has taken office, the partisan rhetoric has largely died down from the Roman Catholic Church. The Vatican has still continued to advocate for issues that the United Church of Christ, as an example, might take different stands on. But that is their right (I'd argue even their obligation as a church). Still, these debates can take place by religious leaders without replicating the harsh political speech of those political leaders who would misuse faith as a tool to divide people.
Bush and the GOP want a religious political war where the Democrats are portrayed as the opponents of Christianity and all that is good. Pope Francis might be trying to put religion back where it belongs: the public square. Pastors and priests have every right to speak on issues such as climate change. Jeb Bush does not get to dictate to the church universal what issues we can and cannot speak on.
In a pluralistic society like the United States, the people can freely decide whether or not to listen to the great diversity of religious voices speaking on the moral issues of our day. It is critical, however, that while our religious institutions be open to working in partnership with governments to meet the obligations of the common good that churches, synagogues, and mosques never become mere tools of politicians that take orders from Jeb Bush or any else.