The recent Democratic National Convention offered a revealing glimpse into the party’s ongoing efforts to rethink its commitment to secularism. Think of the event as a laboratory in which experimental church/state hybrids were engineered, existing technologies of God Talk were perfected, and the occasional Bunsen burner exploded spewing flames everywhere. When the blessings were all rendered, the Scriptures all cited, and the fires of godlessness extinguished the party proved, yet again, that President Obama’s Democrats are not those of former president John F. Kennedy. The latter’s vision of an America “where the separation of church and state is absolute” is no longer a core Democratic conviction.
In Charlotte, an image of a pious and God-loving party was conveyed. Greek Orthodox, evangelical, African Methodist Episcopal, and Jewish clerics offered invocations. Cardinal Timothy Dolan intoned a closing prayer (which analysts promptly scoured for cryptic allusions to the Roman Catholic Church’s dissatisfaction with the administration’s views on abortion, gay marriage, and religious liberty).
Prime-timers such as San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro reminisced about the prayers of his grandmother. In what may be a first, former Ohio Gov. Ted Strickland unleashed an “attack scripture,” citing Matthew 6:21 in an effort to anathematize Mitt Romney’s offshore banking.
Senate candidate from Massachusetts Elizabeth Warren interpreted Matthew 25:45 in accord with the theme of “togetherness” that emerged as the convention’s theological thread. “The passage teaches,” Warren explained, “that we are bound to each other and called to act. Not to sit, not to wait, but to act—all of us together.” Seconding the notion was show-stealer Sister Simone Campbell who declared: “I am my sister’s keeper. I am my brother’s keeper.” Not everything, as we shall see, went quite according to plan. But first we need to understand why the Democrats staged this pageant of faith.
Perhaps no recent experience drove the party down to its prayerful knees like John Kerry’s defeat in 2004. Crestfallen supporters wondered how George W. Bush, presiding over a sluggish economy and an unpopular war, managed to eke out a victory. One answer pointed to the so-called “values voters.” Energized by pro-life and anti-gay activism, these conservative Christians helped re-elect an incumbent who spoke their scripturally inflected language. Another answer focused on the perception that the Democrats were anti-religion. Say what you will about candidate Kerry but--as with Michael Dukakis and Walter Mondale before him--he just didn’t exude a warm, faith-positive sort of a vibe.
Of course, the Christian Right did their utmost to bring these shortcomings to the nation’s attention. Since the late 1970s it has effectively cast the Democrats as champions of irreligion and godlessness. The charge is unfair (Mondale, Dukakis, and Kerry were all, in their private lives, religious men). Yet party strategists have had the damnedest time neutralizing it. Nor have they been able to make the case that a liberal religious sensibility is no less God-loving, no less authentic, and no less American than a conservative one.
Democrats such as Kerry were not secular in the colloquial (and inaccurate) sense of being hostile to religion. Rather, they were staunch separationists, bearers of a mid-century worldview espoused by the Warren Court that reanimated Thomas Jefferson’s 1802 plea for “a wall of separation between church and state.” Separationism did not endeavor to make America atheistic. Rather, it sought to protect freedom of (and from) religion by partitioning government from religion.
Post-Kerry Democrats realized it was time to say goodbye to all that: separationism was an electoral liability. Nobody understand that better than one President Obama, he of the Awesome Blue State God. This was a politician, after all, who chided his party for its secularism addiction in The Audacity of Hope. On the stump in 2008 he turned heads by announcing his intention to retain and renovate Bush’s much maligned Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives. He kept his promise. The state now seeks to fund the church—and on a Democrat’s watch no less!
Some scholars refer to this approach as “accommodationism” and it may even be construed as a form of secularism. If separationist secularism holds that partitioning church from state is beneficial for the country, accommodationism reverses that logic: religion is viewed as enriching the common good. A government that makes accommodations for, and with, faith-based groups benefits society writ large. This approach can plausibly claim to be secular because it respects the constitutional prohibition on religious establishment. After all, accommodationism welcomes all faiths into the governmental fold. In theory, it favors, or establishes, no particular one. Accomodationism, however, has difficulty honoring the ideal of freedom from religion. For if government recognizes religion as an unequivocal good where does that leave nonbelievers and the unchurched?
Ironically, it was the question of nonbelief that almost inadvertently collapsed the Democrat’s revival tent. The party platform, as conservative bloggers gleefully pointed out, contained no references to God (and, in a separate matter, Jerusalem). In response, a televised floor vote was held to reinstate the terms. The GOP couldn’t have scripted better optics itself: incensed Dems loudly booing the Holy One and Jerusalem (whether they were jeering one or both is unknown, the party fecklessly staged votes on both matters simultaneously). It is not entirely clear how and why the omission occurred. Given the party’s new experiment in narrowing the “God gap” it would seem to have been a colossal oversight.
Only time will tell if accommodationism fulfills its mission and lands more Democrats in the White House. And only time will tell if it achieves secularism’s noblest aspiration: guaranteeing citizens as much freedom of, and from, religion as possible while maintaining peace.
Jacques Berlinerblau is an associate professor and director of the Program for Jewish Civilization at Georgetown University and author of “How to Be Secular: A Call to Arms for Religious Freedom .”