Anatomy of a Smear: The Religious Right’s Dishonest Attack On Senator Cory Booker

Graphic from National Organization for Marriage email sent with subject line "Booker Bans Believers"

Religious Right leaders are waging an outrageously dishonest smear campaign against Sen. Cory Booker. Their distortions and ludicrous lies would be shocking if they were not part of a long pattern of conservative Christian leaders smearing their political opponents as enemies of faith and freedom.

This episode started with the Senate confirmation hearing for secretary of state nominee Mike Pompeo. Booker raised important questions about Pompeo’s long and close association with promoters of anti-Muslim bigotry and conspiracy theories.

When Pompeo basically refused to address that record, Booker moved on to Pompeo’s opposition to legal equality for LGBTQ people, and his embrace of harshly anti-LGBTQ rhetoric. And when Pompeo again tried to dismiss those concerns, Booker asked him pointedly about whether he considered homosexuality a perversion.

This was in the context, Booker made clear, of the fact that the secretary of state represents U.S. values abroad, and his question had a clear policy implication. During the Obama administration, the U.S. government was a powerful advocate for the lives and rights of LGBTQ people in places where they face brutality from their own governments. Booker wanted to know if the U.S. would abandon those vulnerable people in order to placate Religious Right groups that have resented and resisted American pro-equality advocacy.

But Religious Right groups immediately jumped on Booker’s questions as a way to divert attention from Pompeo’s long association with religious bigotry, and to portray Pompeo as victim of religious persecution. And once they got started, Religious Right leaders seem to have set their sights on an even bigger goal than confirming Pompeo: trying to tarnish the reputation of a prominent Democratic politician.

On April 12, the day Pompeo testified, right-wing pundit Todd Starnes, who promotes a lot of questionable claims of anti-Christian persecution, called Booker’s line of questioning “offensive” and said Booker—who is himself a Christian—came “dangerously close to suggesting Pompeo’s Christian faith and religious beliefs made him unsuitable to be secretary of state.” Starnes said the “sordid” hearing was evidence that religious liberty in America is “under attack.”

The next day, a column in the Heritage Foundation’s publication Daily Signal labeled Booker’s questions an “inquisition” meant to “silence” conservatives. But author Daniel Davis unwittingly made Booker’s point; Davis slammed Obama administration advocacy for LGBTQ human rights as “cultural imperialism.”

Right-wing pundit Ben Shapiro said Booker’s questioning was “anti-Christian bigotry.”  Shapiro, who is either completely ignorant of Religious Right groups’ efforts to write their anti-gay views into law, or was being completely disingenuous in the service of a rhetorical point, claimed, “The only people on the political spectrum interested in using government as a proxy for imposing heaven from above live on the Left.”

Late to the game but willing to kick it up rhetorically, anti-equality activist Brian Brown weighed in on April 17 with an email to supporters with the subject line “Booker Bans Believers” over a graphic merging a photo of Booker with a picture of someone holding a Bible with the word BANNED stamped over it. Brown’s breathtakingly dishonest take on the hearing: “Senator Cory Booker berated and harassed President Trump’s nominee for Secretary of State simply for being a Christian.” NOM launched a website devoted to promoting this lie: Brown is urging people to lobby Sen. Rand Paul, who has expressed differences with Pompeo’s foreign policy views, because Brown says that voting against Pompeo “would only work to the advantage of liberals who will claim Pompeo was rejected for being a Christian believer in the sanctity of marriage.”

Family Research Council Action’s Tony Perkins also pushed out an anti-Booker petition campaign on Tuesday, accusing the senator of creating “a litmus test that says you MUST choose between your faith or the job you are seeking, and you can’t have faith and serve your country.” The American Family Association sent out an action alert making the same “religious test” charge.

Then, on April 18, Liberty Counsel Action, the political arm of the stridently anti-LGBTQ-equality legal group headed by Mat Staver, went even further, putting out a press release headed, “Sen. Booker Hates Christians.” The press release said, in a pants-on-fire lie, that Booker “now says he will not vote for Pompeo because of his Christian faith.”

A few important points about this smear campaign:

Religious freedom and religious pluralism are core American values that are protected by the constitutional ban on a religious test for holding public office. No American should be denied the rights of citizenship or the ability to serve their nation based on their religious beliefs.

But that’s not what’s happening to Mike Pompeo.

It may be jarring to watch an out-of-context clip of Booker asking Pompeo if he believes that gay sex is a perversion, and Booker’s questions may have reflected frustration with Pompeo’s stonewalling. But the point of his inquiry was clearly not about an inquisition or the establishment of a religious test, it was an effort to determine how Pompeo’s publicly expressed views would influence American advocacy for human rights and legal equality.

Religious Right leaders have long claimed that opposing the political agendas of right-wing groups or politicians, or questioning their tactics, is an attack on religious freedom or on Christianity itself. It’s a way to try to distract attention from their own extremism, wrap themselves in the mantle of religious liberty, and silence opposition.

But their track record is very different from their rhetoric. When you hear Tony Perkins railing about religious litmus tests and religious freedom, keep in mind that Perkins and FRC have had a very selective track record on religious liberty.  FRC Vice President Jerry Boykin has said that American Muslims do not deserve the protection of the First Amendment because Islam “is not just a religion, it is a totalitarian way of life.” Perkins said banning Muslims from immigrating to the U.S. would not be imposing a religious test because “only 16 percent of Islam is a religion.” And Perkins has said pro-LGBTQ Christians don’t qualify for the same religious liberty protections as more “orthodox” Christians.

And when you read something from the American Family Association complaining that questioning a nominee amounts to the imposition of an unconstitutional religious test, keep in mind that AFA radio host Bryan Fischer uses his media platform to declare that “Muslims can and should be excluded from Congress.” Fischer is one of the Religious Right figures who contends, wrongly, that the First Amendment was meant only to protect Christians.

The threat to religious liberty and equality under the law does not come from Sen. Booker’s effort to get Mike Pompeo to talk about his record, it comes from Religious Right groups who would deny equality to others. Like their political hero Donald Trump, they are apparently willing to tell whatever lies they think will help them achieve their political objectives.