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The spirit of demagoguery

Presidential candidate Rick Perry's latest TV ad attacking President Obama confuses faith with demagoguery.

December 12, 2011

It's a seasonal tradition, as predictable as wreaths and reindeer: Social conservatives accuse the news media, government, public schools and culture in general of waging a "war on Christmas." (One act of aggression they like to cite: Saying "Happy Holidays" instead of "Merry Christmas.")

Presidential candidate Rick Perry contemplates a bigger battleground, a war not just against Christmas but against religion — and its field marshal is President Obama. In a television ad airing in Iowa, the Texas governor says: "I'm not ashamed to admit that I'm a Christian. But you don't need to be in the pew every Sunday to know there's something wrong in this country when gays can serve openly in the military but our kids can't openly celebrate Christmas or pray in school. As president, I'll end Obama's war on religion. And I'll fight against liberal attacks on our religious heritage…"

This is demagoguery. Contrary to public opinion, the Supreme Court has not banned children from praying in public schools. What is prohibited are state-sponsored prayers or Bible readings — a perfectly reasonable ban given the requirements of the 1st Amendment of the Constitution. And there is no reason to juxtapose gays serving openly in the military with the issue of whether children can pray in schools. The offensive implication is that equality for gays in the military is somehow anti-religious.

But it's the reference to "Obama's war on religion" that is most irresponsible. The ad itself offers no examples, but Perry's campaign cited these:

• A Supreme Court case in which the administration argued that a teacher at a religious school can sue her employer under federal disability laws.

• The refusal of the administration to defend the Defense of Marriage Act in court.

• The administration's unwillingness to exempt some Catholic institutions from a regulation requiring health plans to cover contraception and abortion.

• The administration's rejection of a grant for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops to help victims of sex trafficking, because it doesn't provide full family planning, contraception and abortion.

In all of these cases, one or more religious groups took a position different from the administration's. But people of faith aren't monolithic on these or other issues. Many believe, as we do, in a strong separation of church and state. To characterize the administration's policies as a "war on religion" isn't just crude, it's corrosive.

Since the beginning of his term, Obama has had to contend with unfounded rumors that he's not a Christian. Now Perry is accusing him of leading a war on religion. The details are different, but the message is the same: He is not one of us.

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