August 24, 2015

Elected Officials Promoting Religion

Rick Santorum praysIf you have been following the political news out of the U.S., you are undoubtedly aware that some are taking offense over the use of the term "anchor baby" by Donald Trump, Jeb Bush, and others on the political right. Not surprisingly, others are arguing that this is yet another example of political correctness run amok and that there is nothing inherently offensive about the term.

This post is not about whether I find the term offensive, whether they should have used it, or even about the intriguing subject of outage culture. Instead, I'd like to use this recent controversy and the outrage around it as an excuse for discussing a broader issue that I suspect may be of somewhat greater interest to secular activists who are passionate about the separation of church and state.

Suppose that an elected official in your local community (e.g., someone holding a city or county position to which he or she was elected) was to take to Twitter in the wake of the "anchor baby" controversy and tweet something like this:
Trump is right. We need to deport the anchor babies...all of them! They are a drain on society.
Imagine that your local news media covers this story so that the tweet is shared far and wide. Everybody sees it, and it is widely discussed. Not surprisingly, it generates controversy. Many of your friends and neighbors are outraged.

Some are clearly outraged primarily because of the content of the tweet. They perceive it as racist or xenophobic. They might tell you that they don't really care who said it because the fact that anybody said it is problematic. And yet, I'd argue that an important part of why most who are outraged are upset has as much to do with the source of the tweet as it does the content. The content, while almost certainly offensive to some no matter who tweeted it, takes on an entirely different level of significance because it was tweeted by an elected official. If your drunk uncle was the one who tweeted it, hardly anyone would have even noticed. When a government official tweets it, it becomes newsworthy.

Understanding why this is the case seems fairly easy. We are generally surprised to see elected officials making such statements, and we are inclined to think that it represents an abuse of their office. We expect them to represent the interests of all their constituents and not just the ones they like or with whom they agree. We also expect them to avoid unnecessary controversy by refraining from making divisive statements. After seeing such a statement, we might reasonably wonder whether an immigrant living in our area could expect to be treated fairly by this official.

With all that in mind, I have to ask why we keep seeing our elected officials promoting their religious beliefs (like Mayor Tony Yarber of Jackson, Mississippi) and why there often seems to be so little outrage when they do so. It is inappropriate for an elected official to use his or her office to promote his or her religious beliefs. It is needlessly divisive, unnecessarily alienating some of those who expect to be represented by such an official, and it raises questions about the sort of treatment those of us who do not share this person's religious beliefs can expect to receive.

I suspect that the answer to the question of why we keep seeing this involves religious privilege. Here in Mississippi, that means Christian privilege. My guess is that it never occurred to Mayor Yarber that anyone would have a problem with him promoting his Christian beliefs on Twitter. He's likely surrounded by evangelical fundamentalist Christians and is rarely reminded that some of his constituents are atheists and others who object to an elected official promoting his religion in this manner.

Many people, including some atheists, perceive a government official promoting his or her religion as being relatively harmless in comparison to what they might consider racism or xenophobia. I'm not sure I agree. I'm inclined to think that both are sufficiently problematic that they should get our attention.

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