Even though the conservative Christian “outrage machine,” as Americans United for Separation of Church dubbed it, went into overdrive, the mayor of New York City seems to have weathered the storm.
Having experienced many of these memorial services I have always been awed by the solemnity of the ceremonies. There are points at these commemorations where you can actually hear silence in downtown Manhattan. The families and friends of the many victims walk about the neighborhood in a lachrymose daze. It is impossible for any sane American to view this event as an appropriate new front in the nation’s ongoing culture wars.
It is against this backdrop that it is exceedingly difficult, if not exasperating, to contemplate the week that was. The complaints to the effect that the mayor had waged “a de facto jihad” on religion or exhibited his “mindless secular prejudice” are preposterous.
Were all speakers at the event prohibited from invoking God or faith then this would have warranted the sound and fury that gushed up from the conservative blogosphere. Indeed, secularists such as myself would have also contested such a prohibition. Why? Because the expressive liberties are central to the history and mission of American secularism.
Of course, Bloomberg set no such prohibition in place. His restriction was on the clergy, not on individual citizens discussing their faith. The many religious references expressed by the participants, including President Obama, belied the assumption that the event planners were akin to the Soviet Union’s infamous League of the Militant Godless.
The mayor stood his ground. The religious right did not get its way. Was his ability to fend off the conservative Christian juggernaut a big win for American secularism? Yes. Maybe. And it’s too early to tell.
This was a victory, but it came amidst an unbelievably long losing streak: Bloomberg stared down the Christian Right and clearly took this round. Still, the truth is that secularism (defined in terms of classic mid-century conceptions of walling off church from state) is mired in an abysmal losing streak.
It’s a rut that encompasses everything from the expansion of George W. Bush’s Office of Faith-Based Initiatives by Barack Obama, to devastating set backs in the United States Supreme Court’s interpretation of the religion clauses, to a spreading, decade-long plague of religious pandering in the rhetoric of politicians.
I have been writing about secular issues for nearly ten years and, save perhaps the Dover “Intelligent Design” case of 2005, I can think of few other positive developments of this magnitude.
This victory was made possible by the non-participation of Catholics: Once Archbishop Dolan of New York noted that he had no difficulty with Bloomberg’s decision the game was over!
The lessons here for American secularism are significant. The Christian right’s energy and passion and formidable strategic vision are born of white conservative evangelicals. They are the vanguard of the movement. When they team up with their “co-belligerents” (to use icon/theologian’s Francis Schaeffer’s memorable term) such as conservative Catholics and Mormons they are nearly unstoppable.
When, however, they proceed alone they tend to look utterly partisan, if not a bit wacky. Secularists of America: The Catholic Church is not always your enemy. As for lay Catholics, they are often your friends.
Not being an angry atheist = results: Mayor Bloomberg’s personal faith convictions are an endless matter of speculation. Yet it is essential to recall that he is not perceived as being hostile to religion, In truth, he has cultivated cordial and often friendly relations with many religious groups in New York.
In the atheist community a heated and often bitter debate rages about etiquette towards believers. Had Mayor Bloomberg been the type of fellow to go all Village Atheist on the faithful, the response on Sunday would have been very different. As a member of the American Humanist Association put it “An atheist goes around with a big sign on his forehead saying ‘Your religion stinks.’ That makes it very hard to accomplish anything.” Amen.
This triumph may have been something of an outlier: But don’t crack out the champagne just yet. If the Christian right was checked in New York then this was because of an unusual confluence of factors.
First of all, this was New York for the love of God!. Richard Land of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission referred to it as the “epicenter of secularism” and, Paris notwithstanding, he is correct. A defeat in Manhattan (as measured by a Bloomberg about face) would have been astonishing.
Let there be no doubt that conservative evangelical advocacy groups have identified Sodom/Manhattan as a high-stakes battlefield (if they can make it theocratic there they can make it theocratic anywhere!). And let there be no doubt that they will be back again next year and far better organized. Paraphrasing the First Amendment scholar Leonard Levy, the Christian right never yields (have they relented on Intelligent Design since their Dover setback?).
Second, most politicians in America cannot be as fearless as Michael Bloomberg. The mayor of New York has the rare luxury of being able to abide by his First Amendment convictions. Unless he decrees otherwise, this is his last term. The somewhat autocratic Bloomberg is also in possession of a massive personal fortune that also renders him bullet proof. He need not pander to any religious constituency.
How many other politicians in the United States share Bloomberg’s views on separation of church and state? And among those who do, how many can afford to cross the powerful Christian right as Michael Bloomberg bravely did on what should have been a quiet day of national mourning?