Social Issues in 2010: Are Candidates Preying on Prejudice?

Welcome to Politics Bites, where every afternoon at It's A Free Country we bring you the unmissable quotes from political conversations on WNYC. Today's Brian Lehrer Show took a close look at the use of religion in political races in New York and elsewhere, with WNYC political reporter and blogger Azi Paybarah, Jeff Sharlet, author of C Street: The Fundamentalist Threat to American Democracy and Matt Towery, conservative columnist and author of Paranoid Nation

Jeff Sharlet said the rhetoric isn't necessarily pandering. Some candidates believe it.

I think we make a mistake in dismissing a lot of that religious rhetoric as simply pandering. The reality is there is a very conservative religious strain within the Republican party that is speaking out of sincerity and which i think is once again empowered by the times to express some pretty hard right conservative religious views.

GOP gubernatorial candidate Paladino, on the other hand, seems to turn his religious fervor on and off, Paybarah said. As a landlord, he has rented space to an abortion clinic and a gay night club, while he opposes abortion and famously condemned homosexuality when speaking to a group of Hasidic Jews last weekend. Paladino has since back-pedalled on his anti-gay comments, but criticized Democratic opponent Andrew Cuomo for attending the gay pride parade with his children. Paybarah said it's hard to know precisely what Paladino believes.

He clearly is not a candidate that's disciplined. He clearly is not a candidate that has taken very careful positions. He's a guy that touts himself as talking very off the cuff. He has always said he is a conservative. He's always said he's against same sex-marriage. He's always said he's against abortion. Yet when he enters into a political context, he seems completely unaware that his comments will be reported as he says them and it doesn't always come with a half hour of explanations as he would like people to understand. He is delivering a message incredibly poorly, incredibly eradically and it's very confusing to find out where he stands sometimes.

Sharlet thinks the culture wars of the 1990's and the early 2000's have simply returned. He said they are on a cycle in American politics and have not been resolved. And some politicians are taking advantage of that sentiment.

You see a lot of the Tea Party candidates who are out there who allegedly are representivng a sort of only libertarian economic view, also coming forward very strongly for social conservative views and the Republican party is sort of hustling to catch up and get back on that script...My read of Paladino is he thought he could ride his libertarian anger to the governor's office and now he wants to be part of the new conservative dialogue. So he is struggling to find a way to participate in a very religiously-tinged anger without alienating huge constituencies in New York State.

The planned Muslim cultural center and mosque in lower Manhattan also exposed these cultural tensions this election cycle. Conservative activist and columnist Matt Towery called opposition to the cultural center opportunistic, since political sentiment in the country is opposed to the center. But he doesn't think extreme religious beliefs are steering public debate as much as they did when the Christian Coalition was ascendent.

I think you've got one of these situations where yes, the tone and the rhetoric is a little bit different. But we are in the heat of a major, major  potential movement in terms iof the leadership of Congress. I am not condoning it, don't get me wrong, but I am more than used to it and I'm not surprised by it.

Still, opposition to the lower Manhattan Muslim cultural center and mosque, gay rights and abortion are accelerators, Towery said, not the main reason for Republican strength.

I don't think we have a huge social values campaign occuring this year. The Republicans are picking up most of their support, quite frankly, off of the economy and this is just sort of an extra kicker.

Towery thinks gay marriage will soon recede as a motivating factor in elections, replaced by economic concerns.

Jon Meacham, co-host of "Need to Know" on PBS, agreed that social issues are not as much a driver in 2010 as in years past, because the Republican base is already motivated and angry over economic issues. Religious messages have still been used to gain political points, though, a practice Meacham roundly condemned.  

What's the consequence? You have a country in which political leaders use a fundemental part of the human experience that in almost every tradition is about unity and charity is to divide and conquer. I think its'a terrible thing. I think the use of religion for political purposes of division is reprehensible.

Listen to the entire discussion on The Brian Lehrer Show.