WENY News - Steve Bannon's shameful dog whistle

Steve Bannon's shameful dog whistle

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By Raul A. Reyes

Editor's note: Raul A. Reyes is an attorney and member of the USA Today board of contributors. Follow him on Twitter @RaulAReyes. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

(CNN) -- As incredible as it may sound, Steve Bannon has hit a new low. He was in Alabama on Tuesday, stumping for Senate candidate Roy Moore, when he lashed out at Mitt Romney, his family, and by implication, an entire religion. Bannon, the chairman of Breitbart News, was apparently angry at a tweet by Romney saying Moore in the Senate would be "a stain on the GOP and on the nation."

In response, at a rally that was ostensibly about Moore, Bannon went ballistic on Romney. He ripped into the former Massachusetts governor for not serving in the military. "You hid behind your religion. You went to France as a missionary while men were dying in Vietnam. Do not talk about honor and integrity." He pointed out that none of Romney's five sons served in the military, adding that "Judge Roy Moore has more honor and integrity in his pinky finger than your entire family."

Even for a figure as nihilistic as Bannon, these remarks were shameful. It speaks volumes that Bannon felt the need to go after Romney rather than focusing on a positive message for Moore's candidacy, if such a thing exists. Romney's lack of military service has nothing to do with the Alabama election. Bannon was shrewdly playing to some evangelicals' long-held mistrust of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (Mormons) -- and getting in a few ugly personal attacks as well.

It is ironic that Bannon would praise Moore's "honor and integrity" over Romney's. Whatever you think of Romney, he has never been accused of sexual misconduct, let alone with teenagers. Unlike Moore, Romney does not hold bigoted views on Muslims. Romney was never removed from public office for defying the laws of our country; Moore was removed from his post as chief justice of the Alabama Supreme Court for refusing to take down a monument of the Ten Commandments (in 2003), and suspended again (in 2016) for flouting the Supreme Court decision on same-sex marriage.

Playing the veteran card against Romney is pure hypocrisy on Bannon's part, considering he never denigrated his former boss and continued confidant, President Donald Trump, for his lack of service. Trump received multiple deferments for military service during the Vietnam War, and none of his children served in the military either. And unlike Eric Trump and Donald Trump Jr., who have been involved with their father's campaign and presidency, Romney's sons are private citizens. Leave them out of this.

For the record, many Mormons have served in the military with distinction, including in Vietnam and Afghanistan.

Romney was not hiding behind his religion when he could have been wearing a uniform. Missionary service is recommended for Latter-Day Saints Church members who are physically able and mentally capable of serving (including women, now), and it is a commitment that is taken very seriously. Mormon missionaries spend two years away from home, and are allowed only two annual phone calls to their families. While not the same as fighting in a foxhole, Mormon missionary service is noble compared with what Trump has called his "personal Vietnam" -- avoiding sexually transmitted diseases during his single days in the 1990s.

Bannon's remarks about Romney rightfully drew condemnation from Sens. Orrin Hatch and Mike Lee, both Mormons from Utah. Yet what was especially insidious about Bannon's comments was that they were a dog-whistle of religious bigotry.

Some members of the Southern Baptist Church do not accept Mormons as Christians, because of Mormons' belief in the prophet Joseph Smith and his teachings. In taking aim at Romney, Bannon was deliberately reviving these old prejudices and suspicions about a religion that remains unfamiliar to many Americans.

In 2007, when Romney was running for president, a Pew Center study found that the No. 1 term Americans associated with Mormonism was "polygamy," despite the fact that it has been banned by the LDS Church since 1890. A 2012 Pew study found that Mormons reported feeling hostility from evangelical Christians, exactly the type of sentiment that Bannon was attempting to stir up in Alabama.

Sure, Romney is not perfect. Who can forget his infamous "47%" remark that roughly half of Americans pay no taxes, or his call for "self-deportation" of undocumented immigrants? Yet he does not deserve to be slandered by Bannon simply because the Breitbart Bully can't find much good to say about Moore. At least Romney has not feuded with Gold Star families, which is more than can be said for our President.

Bannon's remarks about Romney were divisive and offensive. They perfectly captured his warped, dystopian worldview.

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