Romney's Dog Whistle in Wisconsin
Frederick Clarkson printable version print page     Bookmark and Share
Thu Apr 05, 2012 at 11:22:04 PM EST
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 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.

The late D. James Kennedy offered a characteristic use of the term:

"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."

When I can confront folk using Secular when they are meaning Atheist; I try and point that out, as Chess is secular in that everyone plays by the same rules and your religion does not give your bishops extra powers, nor do you play without bishops if you religion does not happen to have them.

Unfortunately that does not work in situations such as you note where there is no chance to deconstruct what is said. But under that situation Secular is almost a minor contested concept. Some are nearly humorous like calling a person a thug for having an opinion, but watching Romney use Nurturing and Freedom dozens of times in a speech and never meaning what I would mean by it is quite scary.

Unless those concepts are all contested frequently the fake definition becomes the commonplace one, and we drift closer to an Orwellian World that that the vast majority (even on the other side) would not want. George Lakoff has been a voice in the wilderness trying to make this point for years.

by FreeDem on Fri Apr 06, 2012 at 07:02:32 AM EST

Hope it is OK if I use it?
_ _ _

Chip Berlet: Research for Progress - Building Human Rights
by Chip Berlet on Fri Apr 06, 2012 at 12:17:29 PM EST
Who knows what malicious detail he'll add to your construct?! H-he might use it to win in checkers or sumpin'!

by trog69 on Sat Apr 07, 2012 at 02:16:45 AM EST

In fact in Russia the bishop's piece is called 'slon' or 'elephant' which is a throwback to its importation from India.

by zowie on Sat Apr 07, 2012 at 09:00:55 AM EST

Thanks, Frederick, for posting this. It's thought-provoking. As we engage with the religious right, however, I think it's important for us to understand where they are coming from.

America has changed tremendously over the last 50 years, and religious right is not completely unjustified in feeling like their value system is under attack. They see the sexual revolution, Roe v. Wade, the end of school prayer, the break-down of the nuclear family, the removal of creationism from the classroom, the removal of the ten commandments from public buildings, the change from "Christmas Vaction" to "Winter Break" on school calendars, and the legalization of medicinal marijuana and same-sex marriage as examples of how their value system is losing ground to some other value system. They call it "secularism." And it's not hard to understand why they think of that value system as a belief system. They see this "other belief system" has consisting of a set of shared values, social norms, heroes, and even a creation story.

Our challenge, I think, is not to dismiss their rhetoric, but to engage with them in a way that brings down the volume. We don't need to fight fire with fire. We'll have better success by fighting fire with water. By that I mean we need to understand why they feel attacked and then help them see that there are no monsters hiding under the bed. There is no grand conspiracy to silence religion.

The problem is that none of them read this website! And the news sources that they rely on seem to be more concerned with fanning the flames of a percieved culture war than looking for reasonable ways for people of differing viewpoints to live together.

by dscribner on Mon Apr 09, 2012 at 06:38:50 PM EST

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