If public opinion isn't on your side, hit your opponent below the belt. This seemed to be the game plan for some Louisiana Democrats, who recently used religion to try and derail Republican rising star Congressman Bobby Jindal's run for the governorship.
In a commercial that debuted in mid-August, sponsored by the state's official Democratic Party, the Catholic Jindal is accused of being "anti-Protestant."
The unholy ads have run only in the Protestant-heavier north -- to play on Protestant fears without irritating the papists. According to the Almanac of American Politics 2006, "Catholic Cajun parishes (Louisiana has parishes rather than counties) cast about 30 percent of the state's vote, the New Orleans area casts around 25 percent or so, and about 45 percent are cast in Protestant parishes from Baton Rouge on north."
For a country that was founded by folks escaping religious persecution, the existence and exploitation of religious bigotry is ugly and unfortunate. We've seen it in the presidential race, with observers predicting that Mitt Romney's Mormonism will ultimately do in his campaign. And we're seeing it in Louisiana.
The accusation against Jindal is based on articles he wrote for New Oxford Review -- a politically conservative, Catholic traditionalist magazine -- in the 1990s as a young convert from Hinduism. The Indian-American Jindal was writing about religion for a Catholic audience, addressing religious topics, some of relatively parochial concern. And the Louisiana Democrats' reading of the articles is completely disingenuous: For instance, they accuse Jindal of having stated that non-Catholics are "utterly depraved."
Patricia Schroeder had it all wrong when she recently stated that Republicans don't read: It is apparently Louisiana Dems who can't read. Jindal did, in fact, use the words "utterly depraved" -- but in quotation marks, quoting John Calvin, a Protestant, who argued that all men are born "utterly depraved." (Jindal disagreed with the contention.)
Furthermore, Jindal wrote that "the Catholic Church must live up to her name by incorporating the many Spirit-led movements found outside her walls. ... "I am thrilled by the recent ecumenical discussions that have resulted in Catholics and Evangelicals discovering what they have in common, in terms of both theology and morality, and as exemplified by joining to oppose abortion and other fruits of an increasingly secular society, but I do not want our Evangelical friends to overlook those beliefs that make Catholicism unique. The challenge is for all Christians to follow Jesus wherever He leads; one significant part of that challenge is to consider seriously the claims of the Catholic Church."
How is any of that even remotely anti-Protestant? It's not, of course. But the temptation to string a few lies together to play on long-simmering hostilities and bigotries is apparently too tempting for Louisiana Democrats to resist. Louisiana, just two years after Katrina, has much more important things to worry about than articles a gubernatorial candidate wrote more than a decade ago. But priorities and appropriateness seem not to be the concerns of the Democratic Party in Louisiana.
Politically, though, is the party's strategy smart? Can it work? If Romney becomes the Republican nominee for president, would hitting Mormonism be a smart strategy for Hillary Clinton (who, unless Al Gore enters at the last minute, will be the nominee)?
Philip Jenkins, author of The New Anti-Catholicism, worries it might be. He predicts: "I hate to say it but ... in Louisiana, that large territory located just south of the United States, these ads could be much more effective than someone living elsewhere might suspect. ... What prevents appropriate anger about the Jindal ads is that most Americans don't realize how uniquely bitter religious relations still are in Louisiana, and why such rhetoric is so poisonous."
And as for the presidential race, Jenkins -- who is no ideological ally of Romney -- worries: "Mormons are still fair game, usually because most Americans, even those of benevolent disposition, don't have real, breathing Mormon neighbors against whom they can test the charges. Historically, what defused anti-Semitism was the sense of 'But that can't be true. Just think of the Cohens down the road.'"
Jenkins says, ominously, that watching "the outright denunciations of Mormonism" he's seen aimed at Romney, "takes us right back to the halcyon days of 1840s anti-Catholicism."
Calling Baton Rouge to put an end to the intolerance. Let us pray, anyway.