Gen. David Petraeus said on Tuesday that “images of the burning of a Quran” would “inflame public opinion” and “incite violence” around the world, endangering American soldiers.
The U.S. and NATO commander’s dog-whistle message signaled to conservatives that they needed to speak up for Islam and speak out against the Quran burning at the Dove World Outreach Center in Gainesville, Fla. Their patriotic duty required them to take a pro-Muslim position in order to help the war effort, something that ran counter to what they’ve been doing for years.
While the church’s pastor, Terry Jones, announced late Thursday afternoon that the planned burning was canceled, the dynamic that activated religious conservatives is instructive about their moral leadership.
What Petraeus did is called dog-whistle politics. It happens when leaders send a message that is uniquely heard by certain audiences. As dogs hear the high-frequency of dog-whistles that humans don’t hear, selected audiences hear code words that the general audience may not hear.
Another example of dog-whistle politics happened when Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) answered a question on “Meet the Press.” Asked if he believed that President Obama was a Christian, McConnell could have replied, “Yes.” A simple and straight answer would have ended the discussion and helped to correct a misperception.
But McConnell said, “I take him at his word.”
He was signaling to the Obama-haters and opponents that the only evidence about Obama’s faith came from what Obama had said. Nothing else. No evidence of churchmanship. No testimony from other Christians. No proof of faith in action.
Of course, McConnell and others bear responsibility for much of the misperception that Obama isn’t one of us – an American in general and a Christian in particular.
Dog-whistle politics is powerful and often unnoticed.
Notice, however, how conservative religionists all of a sudden started lining up in opposition to the planned burning in Gainesville. That’s after they have stoked the fires of Islamic fear and stirred the pot of hate toward Muslims.
Glenn Beck challenged the rightness of the Quran burning. Sarah Palin called the Florida church’s plans “an unnecessary provocation.” Chuck Colson called the plans “foolish and contemptible.” Pat Robertson accused Jones of being “so egotistical that he would sacrifice the lives of missionaries and soldiers.” Franklin Graham spoke out.
John Hagee based his opposition to the burning first on Petraeus’ opposition. Hagee wrote in his letter, “Pastor Jones, the Nazis burned books! Christians do not.”
Southern Baptist Convention leader Richard Land added his name to the growing list – having been silent about the outrageously provocative statements by his fellow fundamentalist travelers. No outcry from him when former SBC president Jerry Vines said in June 2002 that “Islam was founded by Muhammad, a demon-possessed pedophile.” No opposition from him when Robert Jeffress, pastor of the First Baptist Church of Dallas, said only two weeks ago in the church sanctuary that “around the world today you have Muslim men having sex with 4-year-old girls. Taking them as their brides because they believe the Prophet Muhammad did it.” Jeffress said that Islam is “an evil religion” and “an oppressive religion.”
It took a general with a dog-whistle to get these and other leaders to bark for political reasons.
Unlike those who need the high-pitched sound of a dog-whistle to know the right thing to do, many goodwill Baptists have already been seeking common ground with Muslims.
A little more than 18 months ago, a Muslim leader asked U.S. Baptists for assistance.
“We need your help,” Sayyid Syeed, national interfaith director for the Islamic Society of America, told a room full of Baptists and Muslims. We had gathered together in Boston in January 2009 for the first ever national dialogue between the two groups.
“We need to understand how you were able to define the role of religion in a democracy,” said Syeed.
“We need to learn a lot from Baptists because they have been here for centuries and they have carried on this struggle of separation of church and state,” he continued. “So you have to help us open the doors of different, other institutions where we can – just like this – sit together, talk together and take this new pilgrimage together.”
EthicsDaily.com caught Syeed’s plea, part of which appears in our documentary “Different Books, Common Word: Baptists and Muslims.”
We knew then that the time was ripe for Christians and Muslims in the United States to embrace the common word in both their traditions: love God and love neighbor.
It is not enough to criticize the Quran burning. Goodwill Baptists need to take action to change the playing field. If you haven’t ordered “Different Books, Common Word,” please get a copy.
I’m certain someone in your community needs to see it. I’m equally certain that our culture will be roiled in conflict between Christians and Muslims all too soon.
Robert Parham is executive editor of EthicsDaily.com and executive director of its parent organization, the Baptist Center for Ethics.