“I hear evangelicals say it [that they are persecuted by secularists] all the time, and it drives me crazy because it’s not true,” says Alan Wolfe, director of the Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life at Boston College. “They believe, ‘We are a victimized minority.’ ”
Plenty of Republican candidates speak to this fear of the anti-God secularists, but Romney brings something that others — not even Baptist minister Mike Huckabee — cannot. That is, Romney actually belongs to a religion that has been persecuted in this country.
“There is one group that could say that, and that is Mormons,” says Wolfe. “Theirs really has been a history of persecution.”
In Thursday’s speech, Romney coldly appropriated that history to connect himself with the persecution fantasies of evangelicals, lamenting that there are those who “would prefer it if I would simply distance myself from my religion” or even “disavow” its tenets.
And who, according to Romney, said such a thing? Those who are “intent on establishing a new religion in America — the religion of secularism”; those who “regard religious freedom as something to be destroyed”; those who persecuted Brigham Young along with two early heroes of American Baptists: Anne Hutchinson and Roger Williams; and those who offer either a modern Europe of empty cathedrals or else an Islamist “creed of conversion by conquest.”
If indeed there are such forces at work in America today, it is unlikely they are exerting much influence on the GOP nominating process. To the extent that anti-Mormon bias is working against Romney, it is coming from a small percentage of rabid evangelicals. That small pocket of resistance went unmentioned in Romney’s speech — they will never vote for him, Woodard says, and were not the intended audience for the speech.
So if there are no anti-religionists working to block Romney’s success in the Republican primaries, what does a candidate do? Simple: he deliberately casts nonbelievers in his speech as anti-American and incompatible with freedom. Sure enough, his speech was followed by a predictable deluge of complaints that Romney disrespects atheists and agnostics — probably the highest compliment one could receive on the GOP campaign trial, and surely the best set of detractors Romney could hope for.
It is an awfully brazen argument for a man who has lived Romney’s life of wealth, privilege, and political success — in Massachusetts no less! — to paint himself as a victim of religious persecution.
But it was equally counterintuitive for Gibson to claim that powerful forces were blocking the public from viewing his film, which opened on 3000 screens in the US and broke box-office records.
As Boston University professor Paula Frederickson has written, Gibson, a traditionalist Catholic, faced “a marketing challenge”: how do you score a big commercial success with a movie whose “whole message was obviously and strongly Roman Catholic,” when the bulk of the American movie-going public is primarily Protestant?
In a brilliant marketing ploy, Gibson began speaking to Christian conservatives about the mythical opposition to his film more than a year before its opening, declaring on Bill O’Reilly’s Fox News program that his Passion project “does have a lot of enemies.”
To ensure evidence of the works of these enemies, Gibson sent a copy of his rabidly anti-Semitic script to an interfaith group, and then leaked the comments that they sent in return.