HOW INCONVENIENT IT IS for Robert McDonnell, who just won election to be Governor of Virginia, that a big supporter of his happens to be a well-known extremist: Rev. Pat Robertson. And how inconvenient for the Governor-elect that people are asking whether or not he will distance himself from Robertson's extremism.
Especially since earlier this week when Robertson once again engaged in what can only be described as bigoted Muslim bashing. Islam, he said, is "not a religion -- it’s a political system, a violent political system bent on the overthrow of the governments of the world and world domination. That is the ultimate aim…. You’re dealing with a, not a religion. You’re dealing with a political system. And I think we should treat it as such and treat its adherents as such, as we would members of the Communist Party or members of some fascist group…"
There's no mistaking what Robertson meant or that it is dangerous and un-American. If some say he was taken out of context or that liberal media deliberately twisted what he meant to say, why then would he have said the same thing over and over again? What's more, according to the Washington Post today, a spokesman for the Christian Broadcasting Network says Robertson stands by his position.
So it seems pretty straight forward, right? If the Governor-elect is the representative of all Virginians, as he has said, and a man of reason and civility, as he should be, this should be an easy call. Say it: Rev. Robertson's statements are a threat to Muslims, who risk being targeted by those who agree with the minister's views of Islam, and to all the rest of us, who know that views like these erode the fundamental values that have made this a great nation. This is an easy call, isn't it?
I'm not saying the burden to put Robertson in his rightful place rests solely on Mr. McDonnell's shoulders. Leaders of all shapes and sizes should do what's right here and show that Robertson's views (and those of others who've said similar things) belong far outside the mainstream of acceptable American public discourse. That's not censorship, as some will say to change the subject. Extremist views are free to exist in open society like ours. No, it's the way a nation maintains itself as enlightened, democratic and proudly pluralistic society. It's alarming that there hasn't been more of an outcry about this, by the way.
But McDonnell has a special responsibility, given his relationship with Robertson. McDonnell attended Robertson's Regent University, where he wrote a graduate thesis that spilled over far-from-mainstream ideology so extreme that even he repudiated those views during his race for Governor. And, as the Post reported, "According to the Virginia Public Access Project, a nonpartisan group that tracks campaign giving, McDonnell received donations just before the election totaling $40,000 from Pat Robertson, his son and daughter-in-law. In all, Robertson donated $35,000 to his campaign for governor and $66,000 to his campaign four years ago for attorney general."
Okay, that's awkward, and, as we saw when the controversy around Barack Obama's relationship with Rev. Jeremiah Wright erupted, it's a tough thing for a politician to repudiate friends. As political observers like to say, politics is the art of addition (of supporters) not subtraction, and repudiation of someone like Robertson or Wright, who have followings, is tricky. In Obma's case, it took some time for the Presidential candidate to do finally what he had to do to distinguish what he stands for from what Wright stands for. But he did it eventually and in pretty certain terms, and I don't have to tell you what that did for his election fortunes.
Indeed, if it's political standing McDonnell thinks might be tarnished if he does the right thing here, I have to believe that he will do himself good to repudiate Robertson's remarks -- if not the man himself. Why? Because I think that most Americans believe in civility and are fair-minded and tolerant of other groups, notwithstanding the higher-profile examples of bigotry and extremism that would lead some to think otherwise.
That's not to say that there aren't some troubling signs within American public opinion about Islam and Muslims. According to a Pew Research Center study in August: "Views of the link between Islam and violence have fluctuated in recent years. Currently, a plurality (45%) says Islam is no more likely than other faiths to encourage violence among its believers, compared with 38% who say that Islam does encourage violence more than other religions. This is similar to positions on this issue in 2005. By contrast, in Pew Research Center surveys conducted in 2004 and 2007, more people said Islam does encourage violence than said it does not."
If you break down the numbers even more, you can see why it is so important for someone like McDonnell to speak out against the views of Robertson -- who still stands for something among his more conservative and evangelical followers. "Among conservative Republicans," Pew says, "55% say Islam is more likely than other faiths to encourage violence, down 13 percentage points in two years. However, conservative Republicans are still more likely than other political groups to express a negative view of Islam on this question. Views of Islam and violence have also changed considerably among conservative and moderate Democrats (with the number saying Islam encourages violence more than other faiths down nine percentage points since 2007), while holding steady among other political groups.
"White evangelical Protestants are significantly more likely than other religious groups to say Islam is inclined toward violence, with more than half (53%) taking this view. Within other religious groups, fewer than four-in-ten people express this opinion (39% of white mainline Protestants, 38% of white Catholics, 33% of the religiously unaffiliated and 30% of black Protestants)."
Again, if McDonnell won largely by appealing to more conservative voters, many probably evangelical (I haven't looked at the numbers, but I can guess), I can see why his office is trying to ignore questions about whether or not to repudiate Robertson. According to the Post, "McDonnell spokesperson Tucker Martin would not comment last week, saying only that McDonnell is 'very focused on the transition as he prepares to take office in January.'"
My question is what should he be focused on if not on keeping a part of his constituency -- there are more than a few Muslims in Virginia -- safe and unharrassed and by setting a tone that is worthy of the commonwealth that produced Thomas Jefferson.