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Why Barack Obama and John McCain Face Similar Challenges, Based Upon Endorsements by Controversial Religious Leaders Who Preach Hate


Thursday, Mar. 06, 2008

Recently, Senators John McCain and Barack Obama have both been faced with a sticky situation: Each has been endorsed by a religious leader whose views are not only far from mainstream, but actually hate-filled.

The challenge and temptation for both candidates lies in the fact that each endorsement came from religious leaders who have a large group of loyal followers. The challenge is made even more difficult by the fact that both McCain and Obama are seeking to court the independent, moderate voter.

Fortunately, the Constitution has some guidelines that should inform both candidate's responses as they navigate the decision of how to handle such endorsements.

McCain's Dilemma, and His Response So Far

McCain was endorsed by Rev. John Hagee of the megachurch Cornerstone Church, in San Antonio, Texas. Hagee is known first and foremost for his preaching about the evil of Catholics, who he claims were in league with Hitler.

Notably, Hagee is quoted in newspapers as calling the Catholic Church "the great whore," a "false cult system," and "the apostate church." In Hagee's most recent book, Jerusalem Countdown, he refers to Hitler as a Catholic who murdered Jews while the Catholic Church did nothing, and claims that "[t]he sell-out of Catholicism to Hitler began not with the people but with the Vatican itself."

At a news conference in Phoenix on Monday, John McCain told reporters that "[i]t's simply not accurate to say that because someone endorses me that I therefore embrace their views." This suggests that he may try to simply avoid the questions raised by controversial endorsements like Rev. Hagee's.

Obama's Dilemma, and His Response So Far

Meanwhile, Obama was endorsed by the infamous Louis Farrakhan, leader of the Nation of Islam. For example, at McCormick Place, Farrakhan told a crowd of nearly 20,000 that "[w]e are witnessing the phenomenal rise of a man of color in a country that has persecuted us because of our color." Obama is in a more difficult position than McCain, because his own church, apparently, has some ties to Farrakhan, according to Richard Cohen in the Washington Post.

Farrakhan has a history of anti-Semitic remarks, of which Obama seems well-aware. At the Democratic debate in Cleveland, when asked about the issue, Obama responded, "I have been very clear in my denunciation" of these remarks. "I did not solicit [Farrakhan's] support," Obama continued. He made clear, as well, that there is no affiliation between his campaign and Farrakhan. However, Obama has also said he "cannot censor" individual endorsements, and, at the debate, that "I can't say to somebody that he can't say that he thinks I'm a good guy." Obama then said, "I have some of the strongest support from the Jewish community in my hometown of Chicago and in this campaign" - apparently to underline that Obama himself is not anti-Semitic.

Both Candidates Should Proclaim the Strength of the First Amendment's Speech and Religion Clauses and Exercise Their Rights Under Them

Both candidates have been given a golden opportunity to turn the public discourse to the higher constitutional values. Currently, they are trying to both distance themselves from these extremists, and refrain from offending the believers who follow them. But there is a better solution: McCain and Obama should proudly stand up for core First Amendment principles.

The First Amendment recognizes an absolute right to believe absolutely anything - as the Supreme Court made crystal-clear in Cantwell v. Connecticut. It is the only absolute right in the entire Constitution, and it is one of the principal reasons why people of all faiths, the world over, seek haven in the United States. McCain and Obama should emphasize this point.

Supreme Court First Amendment jurisprudence also hews to the idea of the "marketplace of ideas" -- a rich bazaar of viewpoints that, as a whole, furthers knowledge and exposes scoundrels. The debate caused by all of the voices in the system, taken together, is what makes our country great. Thus, both candidates should be praising the constitutionally-crafted system that permits individuals of all beliefs to be citizens, to speak publicly about their views, no matter how unorthodox, and to participate in the political process. At the same time, however, the candidates themselves should exercise their First Amendment rights to denounce hatred, no matter from which quarter it comes.

Emphasizing First Amendment Rights But Denouncing Hatred Is Not Only the Right Solution, But Will Allow the Candidates to Court Crucial Centrist Voters

As I noted above, these are two men, from opposing political parties, who are united in that they are seeking out the middle--the independent voters. Those are the voters who will have no patience for extremists, but will be very enthusiastic about a President who believes fervently in specified, real constitutional rights and their avid enforcement.

Thus, Obama and McCain can court these voters if they each distance themselves from the Bush Administration's blind deference to religious entities, simply because they are religious - and re-introduce the concept of decency and common sense.

Just because someone is religious does not mean that when they have said something, we should all bow to it. Rather, we should be applauding the constitutional scheme that opens the door to virtually all political discourse, precisely because all can speak, and none must bow. Our system's genius is precisely that it permits decent citizens, like McCain and Obama, to denounce ugly, hate-mongering extremists.

That is a vision for which voters seem to be yearning, and both candidates have been handed the issue on a silver (if religious) platter. Let's hope they do the right thing - by reminding the public of our precious right to believe whatever we want and to speak about our beliefs in public. Then, for decency's sake, they need to exercise their own First Amendment rights and speak out against hate more strongly than they have thus far. If either is more interested in pandering than in following this principled path, we have an insight into their character that should make a difference in the election.

Marci A. Hamilton is a Visiting Professor of Public Affairs and the Kathleen and Martin Crane Senior Research Fellow at the Program in Law and Public Affairs at Princeton University. An archive of her columns on church/state issues - as well as other topics -- can be found on this site. Professor Hamilton's most recent work is God vs. the Gavel: Religion and the Rule of Law (Cambridge University Press 2005), now available in paperback. Professor Hamilton's forthcoming book, which will be published this spring is entitled Justice Denied: What America Must Do to Protect Its Children (Cambridge 2008). Professor Hamilton's email address is

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