Mark A. Smith is professor of Political Science and an adjunct professor of Comparative Religion and Communication at the University of Washington. His research focuses on economic and religious groups, ideas, and influences in American politics. In his new book, Secular Faith: How Culture Has Trumped Religion in American Politics, Dr. Smith argues that religion is not nearly the unchanging conservative influence in American politics that we have come to think it is and is best understood as responding to changing political and cultural values rather than shaping them.
Earlier this week, rumors began to leak out that a number of advertisers, under pressure from a Christian group called the Florida Family Association (FFA), had pulled their advertising from TLC’s new reality show, “All-American Muslim.” The FFA had been urging companies to remove their ads from the show, claiming that it is “propaganda clearly designed to counter legitimate and present-day concerns about many Muslims who are advancing Islamic fundamentalism and Sharia law.” After the air cleared, it became apparent that the only major advertiser to pull its commercials was Lowe’s, the national hardware chain.
After a deluge of criticism, Lowe’s issued an apology, explaining that “individuals and groups have strong political and societal views on this topic, and this program became a lightning rod for many of those views. As a result, we did pull our advertising on this program.”
Consumer boycotts are a common tactic for television programs that depict hot-button issues: in the past, shows that featured pregnant teens or LGBT characters or depicted underage drinking have also been targeted. Islam is not an uncontroversial topic in the U.S., especially for evangelical Christians like David Caton, the leader of the Florida Family Association, who criticized the show for failing to disclose that “99.9 percent of Muslims agree with the principles of Shari’a law.”
As PRRI Research Director Daniel Cox explained in a recent interview with Voice of America,
American attitudes toward Muslims are changing, but overall there is still a significant level of discomfort. We find that Americans are really divided overall whether they’d be comfortable with a mosque being built in their neighborhood, a Muslim teaching elementary school or a Muslim woman wearing the burqa. And you see an even greater discomfort among certain religious groups like white evangelicals.
Most Americans don’t believe that American Muslims are trying to establish Shari’a law in the U.S. Only 3-in-10 Americans believe that American Muslims ultimately want to Shari’a law as the law of the land, and under half (46%) of white evangelical Christians believe the same. Americans are more divided over whether the values of Islam are compatible with American values (47% agree, 48% disagree). A significant minority remain uncomfortable with certain aspects of Muslim religious expression (for example, 48% report feeling somewhat or very uncomfortable with Muslim women wearing the burqa).
Evangelicals’ views about American Muslims are more negative than the general public’s. Roughly (6-in-10) of white evangelicals believe that the values of Islam are at odds with American values and about as many (62%) report that they would feel uncomfortable with a mosque being built near their home.
However, and perhaps not surprisingly, few Americans report being well informed about the religious beliefs and practices of Muslims. Only 14% of Americans overall and 16% of white evangelicals say they know a lot about Muslim religious practices. But the more frequently Americans have conversations with Muslims, the more positively they feel about Muslims and about Islam, which is why shows like “All-American Muslim,” which familiarize Americans with Islamic values and traditions, often lead to greater social acceptance for the groups they feature.
The controversy might have saved the show, which got tepid reviews and garnered some criticism from Muslims who said that it did not accurately represent their community, is front and center in the news, and ad time for last night’s episode was sold out. Protests against Lowe’s actions led to an outpouring of support for American Muslims. And the Florida Family Association made it into the pages of the New York Times. In this sense, the firestorm over the ads may have been a net win for everyone – except, of course, for Lowe’s.