The first person to speak always seems right until someone comes and asks the right questions. — Proverbs 18:17 (ERV)
Excited and nervous, in 1999 I returned to my hometown of Roanoke after a decade teaching in Taiwan in order to teach again in Virginia. That summer of moving my young family across 8,000 miles, taking on a new job, getting ready to launch the last semester of the old millennium, and welcoming our new students was a whirlwind. However, despite the energetic frenzy, one conversation with a new colleague is still emblazoned in my mind over twenty years later.
A few of us were at a restaurant enjoying some social time a few days before classes began when one wise, insightful teacher warned me about a pernicious trend that was taking hold in 1990’s America: “The prohibition of questions.”
Puzzled, I asked what that meant.
The answer was, there are more and more things you simply cannot ask about, questions you simply cannot state. As a result, the range of “safe” topics shrinks, the range of “taboo” topics expands, and the fields of free thought and inquiry gradually evaporate.
That encounter flashed back in my mind recently as I read coverage about the May 25 debate among Democrat candidates for Virginia Lieutenant Governor.
Recent headlines blared “Islamophobia” and “TV Station Apologizes for Islamophobic Question.”
(The first article I saw was from Al Jazeera, which is owned by the Royal Family of Qatar, an oil-rich, Muslim country in the Persian Gulf. Al Jazeera has been accused of links to terrorism and anti-Semitism. So, when reading anything, consider the source.)
Curious, I wanted to know more. What exactly was the “Islamophobic question”?
To consider the source in this case, I found the exact wording of the, well, “question in question.” It came from moderator Dave Lucas, a veteran journalist with TV station WJLA.
Here it is, verbatim:
“My question is to Delegate Rasoul. The Washington Post reported your fundraising effort is ‘category leading,’ because of some out-of-state donors connected to Muslim advocacy groups. There’s nothing wrong with that” (Hands raised for emphasis), but that was the case. Talk a little bit about your fundraising and, can you assure Virginians if you’re elected, you’ll represent all of them, regardless of faith or beliefs?”
That question ignited a firestorm and howls of unfairness. Within hours, the TV station issued a groveling apology, calling the question “inappropriate and disrespectful.”
- How is a question about campaign finance “inappropriate and disrespectful”? That issue is usually a hot topic, because money buys influence.
- How is a question about a candidate’s beliefs and worldview–and how they may or may not influence one’s job performance–“inappropriate and disrespectful?”
- How is a question about a candidate’s ability and willingness to represent the broader population “inappropriate and disrespectful”?
(For the record, the top donor to Rasoul’s campaign is a pharmacist in Florida who gave over $74,000 to the campaign. Why is a pharmacist in Florida giving that sort of money to a politician in Roanoke? Is that an “inappropriate” question? As a Roanoke Valley resident, I certainly am curious as to why someone four states away is putting down that kind of money. Furthermore, that pharmacist is a board member of the Council of American Islamic Relations (CAIR), a controversial group often accused of being anti-Semitic and anti-free speech.)
As I read the accusations, I observed one common theme. How dare they ask that of a Muslim? No one else or member of another faith group is ever singled out that way!
But wait–is that true?
Consider former Vice President Mike Pence (R) of Indiana. How many on the left, and that would include many if not most in the media, hated and still hate that man’s guts?
Remember the common talk over the past eighteen months or so, even among the most ardent Trump-haters? “We’d better be careful what we ask for, because if we impeach Trump, we’ll get stuck with Pence as president”?
Why do many despise Pence?
Clearly, it is because of his Christian faith, which he has taken seriously all of his adult life, and which informs his worldview, values, and policies. Therefore, many of his detractors said, in so many words: “Pence does not represent all Americans.”
Would it be fair game for a moderator in a debate or open forum to ask Pence about his beliefs and their potential consequences? I think so.
(Ironic: Speaking at Liberty University in January 2016, then-candidate Donald Trump made a reference to the book of “Two Corinthians” in the Bible, which most American Christians call “Second Corinthians.” Many had a field day over Trump’s verbal flub, citing it as evidence that he knew nothing of the Bible. So there you have it: Pence gets excoriated for being too religious, while Trump gets excoriated for not being religious enough.)
Even more recently, Supreme Court nominees Brett Kavanaugh and Amy Coney Barrett were raked over the coals for being devout Catholics. (In Kavanaugh’s case, the Left came within a hairbreadth of destroying not only his nomination, but his entire reputation and career.)
Do you remember Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) and her nasty remark in 2020 to Judge Coney Barret? “The dogma lives loudly in you.”
Basically, Sen. Feinstein was castigating Judge Coney Barrett for taking her faith seriously and seeking to live it out.
As a linguist, social scientist, and educator, I wonder: why does a question about a Muslim’s faith trigger cries of “Islamophobia,” but a question about a Christian’s faith does not trigger cries of “Christophobia”?
As a career educator and concerned citizen, I think we need to be asking more questions and encouraging others to do the same, especially at election time. That is better than creating an environment of fear and intimidation where people are afraid to inquire.
Do you suffer from Questionophobia?
– Scott Dreyer