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Column: Religious Smear Tactics In Campaigns Raise Concerns

This story was written by Jake Meador, Daily Nebraskan


Among the many lessons we learned last Tuesday is this: Smears don't always work.

If you don't believe me, ask John McCain, Kay Hagan or the more extreme conservatives who peddled the most egregious of the smear attacks.

Whether it was accusations against Barack Obama - that he was a Muslim - or against Hagan - that she was an atheist - both resulted in disappointing losses for the GOP.

The response to these attacks, which were unfortunately mimicked with greater success by Democrats against Sarah Palin, was justifiable and swift. Condemnation was often bipartisan and appropriately severe.

Such truthful responses are important since - it bears repeating - Obama is not a Muslim and Hagan is not an atheist.

Yet, as citizens of an increasingly pluralist and hopefully democratic society, there's a more basic issue that must be addressed.

The problem with the smears of 2008 is not their existence. In a Web 2.0 world, it isn't difficult to debunk fictitious absurdities. Anyone with an Internet connection could get online and find out that Sen. Obama was a Christian, and anyone who read his book "Dreams from My Father" could even tell you how he became one.

You could then use that same Internet connection to find that Hagan is actually a member of Greensboro's First Presbyterian Church.

The problem with the smears of 2008 is their definition.

Apparently, being Muslim makes one unqualified for the presidency.

And being non-religious makes one unqualified for Congress.

These issues were not even addressed by many critics of the smear campaign, yet they betray troubling assumptions about the average American's perception of Islam and atheism.

Suppose Obama were a Muslim. What difference would it make?

Or suppose Hagan, who was targeted by vicious smear ads by the Elizabeth Dole campaign in North Carolina, were an atheist. So what?

It's a given that smear tactics must evolve to maintain relevance. After all, the content of Sean Hannity's rhetoric can't be identical to Joseph McCarthy's, even if his fundamental ideas are.

If Hannity tried to denounce Obama as a "pinko commie," he'd be rightly dismissed by everyone but the far-right for trying to revive the Red Scare of the '50s.

But what does it tell us that the evolution of the smear campaign now targets Muslims rather than those widely feared, seldom-seen commies?

More to the point, what does it tell us about our evolution as a people that one of the main crimes of the Communists of the '50s - atheism - is still thought to be the political kiss of death 50 years later?

Forgive me for stating the obvious, but one can be a fine politician without being a Christian.

After all, it didn't seem to hinder Benjamin Franklin, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison or any of the nation's other founding fathers who were more deist than Christian.

It's not that one's religious beliefs are entirely irrelevant to political office, as popular myth would like us to believe. Religious beliefs are certainly relevant. After all, we can all agree that we don't want Fred Phelps to be our next president.

Religious belief informs many life decisions: our view of people, our goals for the world and our ideas about how to get there.

But in a diverse, pluralistic society, our notion of acceptable politics must be broad enough to encompass Christians, atheists, Muslims and any other group existing in our society. If they aren't, then our talk of "government by the people, for the people" is just hot air.

Simly put, if the person believes in democracy and has the record to prove it, they're qualified.

Thankfully, some progress has been made. Keith Ellison, who represents Minnesota's fifth district in the House, is Muslim. In fact, it's Ellison who was sworn into office with his hand on the Quran, not Obama.

Likewise, Rep. Pete Stark of California's 13th district announced last year that he's "a Unitarian who does not believe in a Supreme Being."

In fact, Stark added that there are a number of other Congress members who share his non-religious views but haven't yet gone public with their non-belief.

The existence of these two men indicates that progress has been made. Though many Americans continue to hold to mythical ideas about Muslims, atheists and other non-WASPS, many do not.

And that is something to celebrate.

But our work isn't done yet. We must continue to work for a more reasonable politic that is broad enough to encompass anyone who believes in this nation's fundamental political ideals.

And when we've arrived at that politic, the days of smears will be at an end.

But it won't be that smears are no longer considered viable political strategy.

Rather, there won't be any groups left to smear.

Jake Meador is a junior english and history major. Reach him at jakemeador@dailynebraskan.com.

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