Election 2012: Q&A with DePaul Political Science Professor Scott Hibbard
By Irish Mae Silvestre and Steve Wojcik
The Red Line Project
Posted: Wednesday, Oct. 17, 2012
First, there was presidential candidate Mitt Romney’s highly publicized Mormonism. Then, there was the anti-Islamic movie promotion video that sparked riots across the Middle East.
Religion has long been used as an effective campaign tool, according to Dr. Scott Hibbard, associate professor in the department of political science at DePaul University. From “Innocence of Muslims” to Mormonism, he discussed how religion has played out in this year’s elections.
Q. Why is religion important in a presidential campaign?
A: [Religion] is a way of differentiating yourself from your opponent. Republican campaign strategists have used this since the 1960′s by promoting a conservative understanding of religion as a way of differentiating themselves from the Democrats and providing a religious language to the conservative religious positions.
Q. How does it come into play in the current presidential campaigns?
A: In various ways. Typically, religion comes into play in the context of a cultural war on issues such as abortion, gay marriage, stem cell research, etc. For a variety of reasons, the Romney campaign has sought not to pursue those divisive issues as a way of mobilizing the space. Instead, he’s focusing more on economic issues.
Q. How does Romney’s religion affect his proposed policies?
A: On the one hand, he’s theologically and politically conservative. The real difference is his ability to use a conservative religious discourse as a way of sanctioning his conservative politics. He has been able to use religion as a way of resonating with that demographic within his constituency.
What’s interesting is that in the primaries, his Mormonism was much more of
an issue and there were evangelicals that did not recognize him as a Christian
because he was from the Mormon tradition as opposed to one of the more mainline
denominations. [Now,] what you’re seeing are a lot of the evangelical groups
rallying around him in large measure because they’re keen to see the democrats
and President Obama defeated. So they’re backing him. He may be Mormon but the
[evangelical groups] see him as a man of faith guided by conservative values
and, ultimately, conservative politics.
Q. How does Islam figure in both campaigns?
A: Islam has become politicized in this campaign in the context of the releasing of the anti-Islamic video and the response overseas. And this is really what has tied the protests and the death of the American ambassador in Libya to the presidential campaign.
Q. How have both candidates responded to the video ‘Innocence of Muslims’?
A: I think both candidates have responded more or less correctly by condemning the video but by also arguing that American free speech tolerates even denigrating speech.
Q. How will the Libya attacks affect President Obama’s campaign?
A: I think in the long run they will actually help the Obama campaign and not hurt it. Typically, when there’s a foreign policy crisis, the initial reaction is to rally around the president and that played out to some extent.
The second issue is that the Romney campaign and Romney himself immediately attacked Obama for the statement released by the U.S. Embassy in Egypt and he had his facts wrong and came off as critical of the president in a misleading way. And he did so in a moment of crisis. It demonstrated that he was shooting from the hip and he was not being the presidential diplomat that he would need to be.
Q. How does that appear to voters?
A: The big danger is that it makes Romney look un-presidential. And that’s a challenge. If you watch the “60 Minutes” piece with Obama, the one thing that struck me was that he was so presidential. He did not degenerate into any kind of backbiting or any kind of demeaning comments toward Romney. He was very presidential in his demeanor and he was very presidential in his answers. And that helps convey this aura of authority that will ultimately help him.
Q. From Libya to the candidates’ response to the video, what does that mean for American Muslim voters?
A: It’s no surprise that American Muslims, particularly Arab Americans, feel very much under siege since the events of 9/11. Ironically, I would argue that it has actually gotten worse in the last five years. There’s a certain alienation and marginalization of these communities within the American society. The vitriol and the politicization of 9/11 and the anti-Muslim videos only heighten that sense of vulnerability within our society. And the events overseas don’t help the situation either.
President Obama’s comments in the U.N. and on the campaign trail have tried to reach out to Arab Americans and Muslim Americans. [He emphasized the importance of being able to] differentiate mainstream Muslim thought from the extremists overseas. I think he has done a very good job of that.