Obama’s ‘war on religion’: Breaking down Romney’s new attack ad

AP Republican presidential candidate, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney arrives in in Bedford, Mass., Thursday, Aug. 9, 2012. Nearly four … Continued


Republican presidential candidate, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney arrives in in Bedford, Mass., Thursday, Aug. 9, 2012.

Nearly four years ago this week, Ariz. Sen. John McCain’s campaign released a punishing religious attack ad, entitled “The One.” The segment was stuffed with enough complex symbolism to make Sigmund Freud, Carl Jung, Dan Brown, and the authors of the Left Behind series look like pre-school finger-painters. It aspired to depict then-Sen. Barack Obama as some sort of cocky, Kool-Aid ladling, cult figure about to lead America into apocalyptic oblivion.

I guess early August must be the faith and values killing season. Mitt Romney’s team has just aired an aggressive spot accusing the incumbent of declaring a “war on religion.” “When religious freedom is threatened,” asks a narrator, “who do you want to stand with?” That more than half of the thirty-second ad is comprised of footage of Romney’s recent visit to Poland interspersed with images of Pope John Paul II is not, as we shall see, a coincidence.

The change in messaging across the election cycles is subtle but significant. The McCain commercial depicted Obama as a religious quack. Romney, however, paints the president as an enemy of religion. What we need to figure out is why the presumptive GOP nominee is now pursuing this line of attack and whether it will be effective.

The Context – An Uneasy Silence: Let me start off by noting that those of us who have been tracking religious politicking in the 2012 presidential election are, well, disappointed. Unlike 2008, which we recall with fondness and awe, there has been little over-the-top faith and values campaigning. Indeed one of the biggest religion stories so far has been the absence of religion stories! (Needless to say, the Santorums, and Gingriches, and Perrys, and Cains, and Bachmanns of the GOP primaries gave us much to ponder. We salute them all.)

The reasons for this absence are complex and not entirely clear. I as well as others have offered a few basic surmises. Foremost among them is this: anti-Mormon prejudice, regrettably, is still alive among some sectors of the population. This forces the very devout Romney to be exceedingly cautious about how he publicly discusses a religion that many Americans know very little about.

President Obama, for his part, has run afoul conservative Catholics and Protestants because of his acceptance of gay marriage and most notably his administration’s HHS mandates (requiring employers to provide contraception coverage in their employees’ insurance packages).

The latter policy has absolutely incensed the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops; no amount of concessions by the administration can quell the bishops’ anger. “Religious freedom” has become their rallying cry and white conservative evangelicals have been more than happy to join along.

It emerges from this that the president himself must be very cautious about further alienating the American church and, by association, the game-changing Catholic vote. As far as President Obama’s team sees it, the less said about religion until Election Day, the better.

The Strategy: In fact, it is precisely here where the Romney team has sensed vulnerability and opportunity. The ad itself makes much of Romney’s recent trip to Poland. That trip, not coincidentally, was widely seen as an effort to reach out to American Catholics–the largest single denominational voting bloc in the country.

In my own research I have noted that when white conservative evangelicals and conservative Catholics lock arms (as they did in the 2004 election) they are a force to be reckoned with. Romney’s decision to invoke the “religious freedom” rhetoric used by the religious right throughout the year makes sense.

The Backstory – Not Bleak Enough: Yet while it might make sense, it may also be an indication of message sprawl, if not outright panic. Throughout this campaign Team Romney has been adamant about focusing on the economy, the economy, and the economy.

The problem is that the economy, while not necessarily thriving, is not tanking either. Washington Post writer Greg Sargent is on to something when he suggests Obama’s strategy is to fight Romney to a draw on the economy. In light of the fiscal news we have been hearing recently, I wonder if the Romney team now believes they have to pivot away from the economy towards more volatile “social issues.” Put differently, the economy isn’t bleak enough. Romney needs to launch a new offensive.

The Score: Will it work? I am not sure. “Religious freedom” advocacy reached an absolute fever pitch in the early spring. Yet, some signs indicate that anger over the HHS mandates is not necessarily growing beyond its base of religious conservatives.

Many congressional Republicans, perhaps worried about looking like they are carrying out a “war on women,” seem to have lost their zeal and zest for the issue.

Moreover, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops staged a well-organized protest last month entitled “Fortnight for Freedom,” which received almost no media attention.

If the economy continues to not implode, Romney may need to expand his message towards other non-economic “social issues” in order to overcome Obama.

Jacques Berlinerblau is associate professor and director of Jewish Civilization at Georgetown University. His next book “How to Be Secular: A Call to Arms for Religious Freedom” will be released in September. Follow him on Twitter @Berlinerblau.

  • Brittman1

    Typical Republican content-free crap. “Let’s throw it against the wall and see if it sticks.”

    Romeny is the worst GOP presidential candidate in my lifetime.

  • mancorn

    Mitt can’t be worse than Bush.

  • Brittman1

    True – except Bush won. Mitt won’t.

  • terry brennan

    Instead of a fake ‘War on Religion’, lets have a real war on stupidity. Since the Crazies have taken over the GOP, this is truely a more rationalized way of dealing with those who don’t seem very bright or may not even know the difference between right and wrong. Nobody chooses to be retarded but apparently that isn’t quite true.

  • persiflage

    Rmoney makes another wrong move…..the guy has two left feet when it comes to politics and voters are beginning to notice. Oh well, he was the best that the GOP had. Yikes!

  • stanchaz

    Mitt’s TRUE faith is MoreMon-eyism for the 1%.
    Romney’s new attack ad prominently pictures the late Pope John Paul II, saying “Be not Afraid”. Mitt is obviously -and crassly- trying to garner some “posthumous” political endorsements. But the Pope was actually quoting Jesus Christ -who ALSO said things like: “it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle. than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God” and “whatsoever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.”. Mitt, since you’re the proud proud poster-boy for ”I’m-not-concerned-about-the-very-poor”-Vulture-Capitalism, if I were you I’d be VERY afraid…for your soul.
    Or what’s left of it.

  • ccnl1

    Tis not a war on religion. It is the search for the truth and if one looks, this is what one finds:

    • There was probably no Abraham i.e. the foundations of Judaism, Christianity and Islam are non-existent.

    • There was probably no Moses i.e the pillars of Judaism, Christianity and Islam have no strength of purpose.

    • There was no Gabriel i.e. Islam fails as a religion. Christianity partially fails.

    • There was no Easter i.e. Christianity completely fails as a religion.

    • There was no Moroni i.e. Mormonism is nothing more than a business cult.

    • Sacred/revered cows, monkey gods, castes, reincarnations and therefore Hinduism fails as a religion.

    • Fat Buddhas here, skinny Buddhas there, reincarnated Buddhas everywhere makes for a no on Buddhism.

    A quick search will put the kibosh on any other groups calling themselves a religion.

    e.g. Taoism

    “The origins of Taoism are unclear. Traditionally, Lao-tzu who lived in the sixth century is regarded as its founder. Its early philosophic foundations and its later beliefs and rituals are two completely different ways of life. Today (1982) Taoism claims 31,286,000 followers.

    Legend says that Lao-tzu was immaculately conceived by a shooting star; carried in his mother’s womb for eighty-two years; and born a full grown wise old man. “

  • peace man

    Some believe that compassion takes the fish from our children and gives it to foreign regimes, CEO bonuses, and bad investments in the businesses of rich friends. I think it’s better to create more fish hatcheries, and teach people how to run them. Giving temporary handouts is great, but not if we don’t set people free to work.

    I know the rich man, Obama, doesn’t really believe in what Jesus says, but he has still only made life more difficult for me. I’m pretty close to being among the 1 in 6 Americans that are living in poverty under his management.

  • peace man

    One thing that never makes sense to me about your comments is that you seem to feel you are Omniscient (knowing all things in the Cosmos, and what is and is not there) yet, you also deny the existence of an Omniscient Higher Power. Doesn’t your all-knowing state make you the very deity that you deny? It’s so confusing…..

  • ccnl1

    New members only!!

    Beyond the politics of contraceptives:

    The reality of se-x, contraception and STD/HIV control: – from a guy who enjoys intelligent se-x-
    Note: Some words hyphenated to defeat an obvious word filter. …

    The Brutal Effects of Stupidity:

    : The failures of the widely used birth “control” methods i.e. the Pill (8.7% actual failure rate) and male con-dom (17.4% actual failure rate) have led to the large rate of abortions and S-TDs in the USA. Men and women must either recognize their responsibilities by using the Pill or co-ndoms properly and/or use safer methods in order to reduce the epidemics of abortion and S-TDs.- Failure rate statistics provided by the Gut-tmacher Inst-itute. Unfortunately they do not give the statistics for doubling up i.e. using a combination of the Pill and a condom.

    Added information before making your next move:

    from the CDC-2006

    “Se-xually transmitted diseases (STDs) remain a major public health challenge in the United States. While substantial progress has been made in preventing, diagnosing, and treating certain S-TDs in recent years, CDC estimates that approximately 19 million new infections occur each year, almost half of them among young people ages 15 to 24.1 In addition to the physical and psy-ch-ological consequences of S-TDs, these diseases also exact a tremendous economic toll. Direct medical costs as-sociated with STDs in the United States are estimated at up to $14.7 billion annually in 2006 dollars.”

    And from:

    Consumer Reports, January, 2012

    “Yes, or-al se-x is se-x, and it can boost cancer risk-

    Here’s a crucial message for teens (and all se-xually active “post-teeners”: Or-al se-x carries many of the same risks as va-ginal se-x, including human papilloma virus, or HPV. And HPV may now be overtaking tobacco as the leading cause of or-al cancers in America in people under age 50.

    “Adolescents don’t think or-al se-x is something to worry about,” said Bonnie Halpern-Felsher professor of ped

  • persiflage

    ‘Romney, however, paints the president as an enemy of religion. What we need to figure out is why the presumptive GOP nominee is now pursuing this line of attack and whether it will be effective.’

    This was nothing more than a political afterthought from the least charismatic republican presidential nominee in modern times…..there was little conviction behind this attack, which is typically Romnian. Now with the addition of Ryan, he’s got a real religious firebrand on the stump.

    As to the employment picture – team Romney has absolutely no chance of changing the economic profile in America in the near term, and in fact would make the deficit very much worse if the slash and burn Ryan budget became an actuality.

    As for Ryan and religion, this guy is an anti-abortion, pro-personhood proponent from way out in right field – he has no fear of bringing religion into the mix in a very big way. Along with his rightwing politics, this is exactly why Ryan got the nod……the Santorum appeal that originally swayed evangelicals throughout the South.