Two news items in the past few weeks reveal a regrettable double standard when it comes to criticism of religion in politics.
First, there came Joy Behar, co-host of ABC’s The View. The discussion there turned one day to White House staff refugee Omarosa Manigault, who had just been quoted on another network saying negative things about Vice President Mike Pence, including: “He’s extreme … He thinks Jesus tells him to say things.” Behar commented that “It’s one thing to talk to Jesus. It’s another thing when Jesus talks to you. That’s called ‘mental illness’ … hearing voices.” She followed this comment with a joke: “My question is, can he talk to Mary Magdalene without his wife in the room?” Later in the show, she flatly said she did not believe that Pence was mentally ill, and that he would make a better president than Donald Trump.
Cue the crocodile tears. One day later, Pence whined:
I actually heard that ABC has a program that compared my Christianity to mental illness. And I’d like to laugh about it, but I really can’t. I have to tell you—to have ABC maintain a broadcast forum that compared Christianity to mental illness is just wrong. And it’s an insult, not to me, but to the vast majority of the American people who, like me, cherish their faith.
Behar promptly telephoned the vice president to apologize personally for the “insult.” But that wasn’t enough. He demanded a public shaming, à la the pillory in Puritan times: “that she use the forum of that program or some other public forum, to apologize to tens of millions of Americans who were equally offended.”
What ensued was a coordinated campaign of outrage from the Media Research Center (a group that calls itself “America’s media watchdog” and whose “sole mission is to expose and neutralize the propaganda arm of the Left: the national news media”). It generated some forty thousand protest phone calls being placed to the network and another nine thousand to the show’s advertisers. Worse yet were the angry questions at a shareholders’ meeting of Walt Disney Corporation, which owns the ABC network. When the big boss calls, employees listen. On March 13, Behar apologized on the air to the universe: “I was raised to respect everyone’s religious faith and I fell short of that. I sincerely apologize for what I said.”
Lost in the shuffle here is Manigault’s original claim. Was she exaggerating, or is it true that our vice president thinks Jesus tells him to say things? If so, what are the specific things Jesus has told him to say? It would be helpful for Manigault and/or Pence to clarify this. There have in fact been politicians who claimed they “heard voices” from God. Most notable, perhaps, is Mohandas Gandhi, whose campaign to turn what should have been a normal political transition to Indian independence into a religious proselytizing opportunity helped ruin millions of lives. He claimed to hear the voice of God in his head, giving him minute political instructions. There are also disputed reports that George W. Bush was told directly by God to invade Iraq. Nikolas Cruz, who killed seventeen students at Florida’s Stoneman Douglas High School, is also reported to have been responding to voices inside his head, though we don’t know whose voices he thought they were. We already know that Pence is influenced by the general tenets of evangelical Christianity, but if Manigault is aware of something more explicit than that, she should tell us what it is. So should Vice President Pence.
Then there’s Gayle Jordan. She’s not as well known as either Mike Pence or Joy Behar, but she is an exceptionally courageous American who waded into what she knew would be a sea of vitriol by running in a special election in an extremely conservative state senate district near Murfreesboro, Tennessee. She is undoubtedly more liberal than most of that district’s electorate on matters such as legal rights for women and gay people, but what really gets her in trouble is that she freely admits having given up on faith in a supernatural power. She used to be religious, and now she’s not. Worse yet, she offers guidance to millions of others in the same boat by running a nonprofit called Recovering from Religion.
The level of insult this woman endured for expressing her religious beliefs was stupefying—being called “kooky” and even “dangerous,” having doctored pictures circulated showing her wearing a tinfoil hat, and using her self-deprecating humor against her. For example, she once joked while presiding at a legal same-sex wedding that she was “doing my part to destroy the fabric of American society,” then saw that quote used against her as though she were dead serious. “I am the Christian candidate,” her opponent proclaimed, suggesting it was one of his chief qualifications for office. Meanwhile his supporters urged ministers to break the law by endorsing him directly from their pulpits. The Tennessee Republican Party condemned Jordan’s religious beliefs, calling her an “anti-Christian extremist,” and the lieutenant governor urged voters to reject “her assault on faith.”
Jordan lost in a heavily Republican district by a wide margin. This was no surprise, although she did come a little closer than she did the previous time she ran. What’s interesting to me is the contrast between the massive uproar for apology about a relatively innocuous joke about Mike Pence’s religious beliefs, versus the utter silence from everyone about the far more offensive insults piled on Gayle Jordan for hers.
I’ve published many thousands of words over the past ten years, with a slant highly critical of the role of organized religion—all of it—in public life. I don’t think I have ever criticized an individual because he or she holds any particular beliefs about the supernatural, though, unless there was some action taken (like letting a child die) because of those beliefs. And I’ve voted for quite a few politicians with strong religious beliefs out of sync with mine, because I don’t think those beliefs matter. What matters is what kind of job the candidate will do if elected. Joy Behar was right to apologize for suggesting that people who think God is telling them to do something (as I did, long ago) suffer from mental illness. But if the smug bigwigs in the Tennessee Republican Party had an ounce of decency, they would offer an even stronger apology to tens of millions of nonbelieving Americans for smearing Gayle Jordan because of her religious beliefs.