by Ronald Aronson
This article appeared in the October 27, 2008 edition of The Nation.
Part of this article was adapted from Ronald Aronson’s Living Without God: New Directions for Atheists, Agnostics, Secularists and the Undecided (Counterpoint).
As the fading Bush presidency is being greeted with indifference or rolling eyes, one might expect eight years of faith in the White House to have discredited religion in the public square for years to come. But after a generation of the religious right, America is not yet ready to move on to a sensible public understanding of religion. The electrifying arrival of Sarah Palin on the national scene demonstrates the continuing vigor of conservative Christianity and the political power of religiosity.What about the Democrats’ approach? In their hands this troubling trend may be softer and sweeter, but there is great danger that religion will continue to invade public life in unacceptable ways. It’s not just that Democrats are courting the evangelical vote; they are treating secularists as if they are invisible and have acquiesced to the twenty-first-century “religious test” for public office. They seem blithely willing to undermine our constitutional commitment to the separation of church and state.
In his 2006 speech “Call to Renewal” Barack Obama struck an ambiguous chord, paying homage to the separation of church and state while insisting that religion must not be left “at the door before entering into the public square.” He set out what seemed to be a reassuringly sophisticated path for bringing religion into politics:
“Democracy demands that the religiously motivated translate their concerns into universal, rather than religion-specific, values. It requires that their proposals be subject to argument, and amenable to reason. I may be opposed to abortion for religious reasons, but if I seek to pass a law banning the practice, I cannot simply point to the teachings of my church or evoke God’s will. I have to explain why abortion violates some principle that is accessible to people of all faiths, including those with no faith at all.”
Obama’s universalism offered a potentially profound and sensitive vision of community and unity based on acknowledging rather than suppressing differences. The vision drew its energy from his evident capacity to feel empathy and from his demand that we see the world through other people’s eyes.
As the presidential campaign unfolds, however, something very different is happening. The Democrats have conducted a highly organized and many-sided effort to attract evangelical and Catholic voters, based on the political arithmetic that even a small increase in their share of that vote may be enough to defeat the Republicans [see Sarah Posner, “Preaching to the Choir,” page 49]. This strategy entails much more than marketing or pandering. It has encouraged the coming out of many Democrats who are religious and an embrace of a new kind of diversity among others who are not. It is creating openings for the progressive religious political breed long championed by Jim Wallis, the evangelical activist and editor of Sojourners Magazine who ran faith-and-politics workshops at the Democratic National Convention in Denver.
As Amy Sullivan points out in her book The Party Faithful, Democrats have been learning to respect and appeal to the devout. They are discovering that making religious voters feel welcome means making their faith part of the conversation, bringing their concerns into the formulation of public policy and even accepting their ways of judging candidates. Not only that–progressive evangelicals have worked to show that the environment, poverty and war are values issues, demanding the attention of those guided by religious morality.
None of this should be troubling, except that it is carried out in a way that leaves in the cold America’s largest minority, out-and-out secularists, and the even larger number of secular believers who stand by Jefferson’s “wall of separation” between church and state. Secular humanists, derided by Republicans and the religious right for the past eight years, are confronting a new consensus-in-the-making. This includes:
§ an informal but clear religious test for public office, to which Obama and John McCain submitted when they were cross-examined by mega-church pastor Rick Warren at his Saddleback Church. Each had to answer questions about personal as well as political beliefs: “What does it mean to you to trust in Christ? And what does that mean to you on a daily basis? What does that really look like?”
§ widespread social pressure to believe, based on the pervasive myth that “nearly all Americans” do. This was hammered home repeatedly by Leah Daughtry, Howard Dean’s chief of staff and the CEO of the Denver convention, who explained the religious events there by saying, “Democrats have been, are and will continue to be people of faith.” Of course, this leaves out atheists, agnostics, humanists, skeptics and freethinkers, people of no religion and many deists and spiritualists.
§ ever more frequent references to God, faith and religion in public life. In a Labor Day speech in Detroit shortened to nine minutes because of Hurricane Gustav, Obama mentioned God and prayer no fewer than six times, including leading the audience in silent prayer for those in possible danger.
§ treating secularists as invisible. Obama, who once seemed keenly respectful of them, appears to have forgotten they exist. On Labor Day, he did not say, “For those threatened by Gustav, let’s have a moment of silence, whether in prayer or meditation.” Planning the Denver interfaith events, Daughtry ignored the Secular Coalition for America’s request to participate.
Paradoxically, in certain ways this new dispensation reflects the fact that the country has become more tolerant. Seventy percent of Americans believe that there are many different paths to salvation. Former doctrinal antagonisms have dissolved into a multi-denominational religiosity that declares that the specifics of one’s faith no longer matter–as long as one believes in God. Talking to Larry King after Saddleback, Warren said he could vote for someone of a different faith, but not an atheist. He proclaimed his tolerance while revealing his bigotry.
No less paradoxical, Obama proclaimed his expertise as a constitutional scholar when announcing a “faith-based initiative” that undermines the spirit if not the letter of the Supreme Court’s “Lemon test,” which requires that laws must not advance religion and “must not foster ‘an excessive government entanglement with religion.'” How will Obama’s proposed “Council for Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships” choose among competing religious organizations applying for funding, some of which are very large and powerful and some of which are local storefronts? And how will he guarantee an end to discrimination and eliminate proselytizing when these have long been features of many faith-based social service agencies? In trying to capitalize on the perceived popularity of faith-based programs, Obama has clearly chosen to ignore the fact that two-to-one majorities recently indicated a preference for government agencies and nonreligious organizations, rather than religious ones, to provide services for the needy.
It may appear odd that Obama and the Democrats are so unconcerned about the dangers of welcoming religion into the public square after so many years of religious-right influence, capped by eight years of Bush and the current Supreme Court. Perhaps it’s because they take no notice of the broad community of secularists and believers who strongly support our secular Constitution.
These two streams add up to at least half of all Democratic voters, but Jacques Berlinerblau, who blogs at The God Vote, explains that Obama and other Democrats have concluded that secularists can be safely ignored. Democrats “did the math around 2005 and figured out that the vaunted ‘secular base’ was underperforming.” Berlinerblau sees American secularism’s two parts as “organizationally impotent and incapable of forging a meaningful political alliance.”
A striking indication of this disarray is the lack of any grassroots backlash after years of political attacks on secular humanism, public displays of religiosity, bans on gay marriage and stem-cell research, restrictions on abortion, the promoting of creationism and the campaign to appoint judges who favor weakening the separation of church and state. As a result, Berlinerblau writes, “if there was ever a constituency [Obama] could stomp on while moving to The Center, this may be the one.”
Unless religious and irreligious secularists overcome their disarray, find their voices and become a political force, there seems to be little chance that Obama’s once inspiring call to find common ground will be any more than words, a cover for him to create common ground with those he needs in order to become president and maintain power.
But how will secularists become mobilized? As a group they share no easily discernible characteristics: they cannot be recognized by such markers as color, gender, class or ethnicity, and while they may be more demographically concentrated in some places–in coastal and Northern cities, for example–they certainly cannot be found according to workplace or neighborhood. In short, unless they go out of their way to proclaim themselves, the irreligious dispersed across America are unable to see themselves as a “we.” Although the Secular Coalition for America calculates from a Harris Interactive Survey that there are more than 60 million US atheists and agnostics, this brave lobby’s constituent organizations can claim no more than 100,000 members. Why this shocking discrepancy?
Obviously one reason is that nonbelievers have long been one of the most despised groups in America. Another lies in the fact that secularists may be among the last Americans who consider their beliefs private. Unlike churchgoers, their beliefs, usually arrived at individually, require no organizational expression, so they do not easily become part of a structured community.
Secularists are often quite political but not often on behalf of their secularism; other issues seem far more urgent. Why make a big deal about church-state issues when we need to combat war, poverty and global warming? It is hard to feel very motivated about being ignored, given the pressing need to end Republican rule. And can’t the constitutional issues get handled by contributing to lobbies, foundations and legal defense organizations rather than by joining and participating in mass organizations?
A no less stubborn problem is the difficulty nonbelievers have in making common cause with secular believers over issues pertaining to religion. We know from experience that secular and religious people work together on peace, justice and environmental issues but usually without discussing their underlying beliefs. We have all experienced the perils of such conversations, especially because of the profound difference between being guided by faith as opposed to science and reason. Each side has enormous difficulty understanding and respecting the other.
The current religious climate poses new dangers but also new possibilities that may rouse secular America. A Republican victory will keep alive, and possibly even worsen, the in-your-face religiosity of the Bush years. But a Democratic victory will not crush the religious right, and it cannot eliminate Scalia, Thomas, Alito and Roberts from the Supreme Court.
Yet the release of Larry Charles and Bill Maher’s film Religulous, and the recent presence of six books on the bestseller list advocating atheism or attacking religion, suggests that a sizable number of people are sick of public religiosity. The election of either party may generate the urge for nonbelievers to “out” themselves. Imagine that a significant fraction of atheists, agnostics, secular humanists and skeptics overcame their inhibitions and made themselves seen and heard. Imagine that large numbers connected with one another organizationally in ways that multiplied their overall visibility and political heft. Fed-up secularists might become political about their concerns and figure out how to work with the openly religious. Women, blacks and gays were not invited to enter the public conversation–they madethemselves part of it. And secularists? Who is to say that at the next Democratic National Convention a secular caucus might not suddenly appear, demanding its place alongside the thirteen other caucuses that were a part of the 2008 convention? What would happen if secularists were visible, recognized and speaking out in their own voice?