Last week I wrote about the victory scored in Indiana by school choice advocates when a far-reaching bill allowing parents of poor and middle class children to send their kids to private and religious schools rather than a failing public system. The Indiana Supreme Court ruled constitutional a measure that rightly allows a percentage of state education funds to follow the kids to whatever school was best for them. The principle here is that allowing a government monopoly on public education is something that prioritizes the needs of unions and bureaucracies rather than then needs of children. Vouchers create more engagement of families in education and provide much-needed competition for a public system that needs it in order to be forced to improve.
However, there was one argument against school choice that I did not address last week. That is the possibility that public funds could be used to finance private or religious schools that teach hate or undermine democracy. Ironically, the emptiness of that point was underscored by a news story out of Tennessee where Governor Bill Haslam is trying to shepherd his own vouchers bill through the legislature. In contrast to other venues throughout the country where liberal ideologues who wish to defend the government education monopoly are the prime obstacles to reform, in the Volunteer State the problem is a faction of conservatives who have no objection to helping parochial schools, so long as the faith upheld in them is their own.
Anti-gay violence is despicable and those who encourage it are to be deplored. The murder of an openly gay candidate for mayor in a Mississippi town has provoked some discussion about the source of such violence. That is a topic that deserves serious discussion. But there is a difference between sober soul-searching about instances of violence in our society and jumping to conclusions whose only possible purpose is to provoke a different sort of prejudice.
Unfortunately, that’s exactly what Rabbi Brad Hirschfield has done in the latest edition of his On Faith blog for the Washington Post. Hirschfeld, whose day job is serving as president of the non-denominational Jewish group CLAL-The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership, leads an on-line discussion that he begins by admitting he doesn’t know why Marco McMillian was killed or who or what could have incited the brutal crime or if, indeed, anyone one or any group had any role in doing so. But that doesn’t deter him from beginning his piece with the provocative title “What role does Christianity play in the murder of the openly gay mayoral candidate in Mississippi?” According to Hirschfeld, Christians are clearly guilty until proven innocent.
One doesn’t have to condone the awful crime of anti-gay violence or even oppose gay marriage to understand that the assumption that an entire faith—or any faith that does not approve of homosexuality—is somehow responsible for what happened to McMillian is itself prejudicial. Of course, Hirschfeld doesn’t come right out and say that himself. But by posing that question and steering the discussion in a way that puts Christianity on trial in this manner, what he has done is to incite bias against traditional beliefs that are in no way connected to violence against gays.
Two years ago when the Ground Zero mosque controversy was at its height, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg was not only among the most ardent defenders of the plan to put an Islamic center in the shadow of the site of the 9/11 attack, he was also among the loudest of those accusing the project’s critics of bigotry. Saying that those who questioned the appropriateness of the plan should be “ashamed of themselves,” the mayor proclaimed that nothing less than the principle of religious liberty was at stake in building the center. But as the cover of the latest issue of Bloomberg Businessweek demonstrates, squeamishness among our elites — even those who run a magazine that is named for the mayor’s business empire — about even the appearance of prejudice is often limited these days to things that might offend Muslims. When it comes to Mormons, anything still goes.
The cover, which takes a piece of Mormon iconography in which Jesus is depicted as speaking to Mormon prophets, provides a caption bubble in which he instructs them, “And thou shalt build a shopping mall, buy stock in Burger King and open a Polynesian theme park in Hawaii that shall be largely exempt from the frustrations of tax…” to which one of the prophets responds, “Hallelujah.”
While the business affairs of the Mormon church are fair game for coverage, one has to ask the same question about this cover that can be posed about many of the cheap shots at the Mormons (or Catholics, for that matter): Would Businessweek be any more likely to mock the Prophet Mohammad in this manner than the veterans of the South Park comedy series were when they produced a Broadway hit satirizing the church?
One of the unpleasant aspects of analysis of the 2012 election is the fact that religious prejudice is likely to play a not insignificant role in determining the outcome. That’s confirmed once again by a Gallup Poll that reaffirms the persistence of anti-Mormon bias among the voting public. As previous surveys have shown, more Americans are still willing to say they won’t vote for a Mormon for president than those who refuse to support a Catholic or a Jew. And whereas the numbers of those expressing such prejudice against Catholics and Jews have declined during the last half-century, resistance to a Mormon commander-in-chief remains more or less constant during the same period. This makes it a possibility that to some degree Mitt Romney’s chances of being elected president will be diminished by lingering anti-Mormon attitudes.
However, the good news for Romney is that the number of those saying they will not vote for a Mormon has actually declined in the last year from 22 to 18 percent. Of course, that means the number is pretty much the same as it was in 1967, a sobering realization for those who might think religious prejudice is a thing of the past. But the decline may have more to do with support for the Republican candidate than anything else. Because there has probably been more Mormon-bashing in the mainstream media and popular culture in the last 12 months than in recent memory, for there to be a drop in anti-Mormon prejudice means rather than feeding bias, the Romney candidacy has put a dent in it. That bodes well for the GOP in the fall.