By Stuart Rothenberg
This is a true story. The names have been changed to protect the — well, just because I’d rather not name names.
The other day I received a telephone call from a producer at a television network. The caller inquired about whether I might be available to do an interview for a story scheduled to air later in the day. I often do interviews, so the call wasn’t all that unusual.
What was unusual, however, was the story that precipitated the call — or rather the angle that the piece was taking.
The story involved the possible execution of an Afghan Muslim who had converted to Christianity. As far as I know, that story made all of the network news shows that evening, and it was the lead on at least two broadcasts.
I didn’t know anything about the subject, and I said so. But the producer persisted, saying the angle they were hoping I could comment on was what President Bush had to do to respond to the possible execution to “satisfy” Christian conservatives.
Frankly, I was shocked at the question, since the underlying premise was that the president of the United States would respond to the possible execution primarily in the context of domestic political pressures.
I guess the people working on the story had visions of the president, Karl Rove and a couple of other White House staffers sitting around talking about what the president had to say to make Pat Robertson, James Dobson or Gary Bauer happy.
I know that people in Washington, D.C., assume that politics pervades everything, and that politicians don’t make a move without calculating the political costs. But in this case, I argued, that assumption simply was wrong.
“Are you suggesting,” I asked rhetorically, “that the president — or any normal American — would react differently if someone were being executed because he or she had converted to Judaism or to Islam?” Why else bring the Christian right into the story?
I know some journalists are obsessed with the political influence of the religious right, but the idea that the president’s response would, to a considerable extent, be crafted to pacify evangelical Republicans is ridiculous.
When I told that to the caller and added that I was not interested in being interviewed because of the premise of the piece, I heard silence, followed by a polite thank you.
I’ll admit that I wondered how the final piece would look, and I hoped the “Christian right” angle would never make it to air, since it seemed very unlikely to me that the White House would see the issue as how to “deal with” the Christian right.
But it did air and included an interview with Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council, apparently questioning American policy in Afghanistan.
The story ultimately included a nationally known political science professor commenting that the incident was a “nightmare” for the president since it “takes his base and divides it.”
The first thing I did was pick up my jaw from the floor. Then I shook my head in disbelief.
How exactly, I wondered, did the possible execution of a Christian convert in Afghanistan “divide” Bush’s base? Was I supposed to believe that there are Republicans who favor the execution and others who don’t?
Or, did the analyst mean that Christians want the president to act tough toward the Afghans, but non-Christian supporters of Bush don’t care or oppose a tough line?
Or am I supposed to assume that the “execution” of a Christian convert in Afghanistan would somehow turn Christians — and only Christians — in the United States against the war, if hundreds of deaths and kidnappings hadn’t done so already?
I suppose it is possible that if an execution takes place, some Americans who have been supporting the war might start to question whether the administration’s entire Iraq-Afghanistan policy is right.
But that view wouldn’t be limited to Christians, and it’s not even certain that the execution would change existing views on the president’s policies. If there is an execution, will Perkins call for the U.S. to leave Afghanistan immediately? Don’t hold your breath.
The entire incident from my phone conversation to the final version of the unfortunate piece drove home a key point: Even in Washington, not everything is a partisan or ideological issue, and not everything the president does or says involves political or electoral concerns. Even more to the point, not all presidential decisions are based on the political clout of the Christian right.
Some things involve simple truths that don’t require over-interpretation. Like the question of whether it’s OK to execute someone because of his or her religious beliefs.
This column first appeared in Roll Call on March 27, 2006. Copyright 2006 © Roll Call Inc. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.
Wednesday, March 29, 2006
By Stuart Rothenberg