Recently, I wrote a column in the Washington Post about the increasing use of faith as an issue in the 2012 presidential campaign. In the Western Republican Presidential Debate, the candidates appeared to double down on the use of politicized piety. Rick Santorum reaffirmed that a candidate’s faith was essential to his qualifications. Newt Gingrich, however, used the opportunity to again attack agnostics, atheists, and secularists – saying that you cannot trust any leader who does not pray.
Gingrich demonstrated vividly how leaders in this country and other countries have portrayed secularists and atheists as the new scourge and threat to world stability. Gingrich has just defended Romney and said that we should not attack people for how they pray or who they pray to. He then quickly took that uplifting message and turned it around to attack those who do not pray – or use religion to guide their policies. It was the perfect “don’t attack Mormons . . . attack secularists” moment.
In the debate (look around the 72 minute marker), Gingrich said religion was a “central part” of a candidate’s qualifications and then asked “how can you have judgment if you don’t have faith and how can I trust you with power if you don’t pray?”
The audience responded with rapturous applause to the attack.
In a speech in March, he promised to protect America from atheists, secularists and, incongruously, Muslims: “I am convinced that if we do not decisively win the struggle over the nature of America, [my grandchildren] will be in a secular atheist country, potentially one dominated by radical Islamists and with no understanding of what it once meant to be an American.”
Of course, terrorists pray. They just pray for the wrong thing and then kill people. Nevertheless, people like Tony Blair think that atheists may be a bigger threat than terrorists to the future of the world. Religious and political leaders around the world also opened up attacks on secularists as a growing evil.
It has become not just politically correct but politically popular to hate secularists, atheists, and agnostics. It reflects a deep insecurity among political leaders that faith-based politics could be challenged if people begin to evaluate their candidates solely on their performance and their credentials. For Gingrich, this means a type of prayer test — proof that you pray to God and will be guided by religious values in carrying out public duties. “Non-believers” have become the Willie Hortons of the 2012 presidential campaign and the implications of this new theme among the candidates is a dangerous form of demagoguery in a country dedicated to separation principles.