Freedom From Religion | The Nation


Freedom From Religion

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George W. Bush's creation of a federal office to coordinate public financing of euphemistically labeled "faith-based" social services is a bold assault on the separation of church and state; it is also, ironically, a triumph of bipartisanship. During the presidential campaign, the religious right's long-running crusade against "secular humanism" achieved its Nixon-in-China moment. Rushing headlong from the mythical anti-Clinton backlash, Al Gore and Joe Lieberman did their best to outdo the Republicans at religiosity. Gore made a point of his born-again Christianity, rejected "hollow secularism" and declared his support for "charitable choice," a policy that would loosen the rules for allotting public funds to faith-based programs. Lieberman was even bolder: He responded to what he called the "miracle" of his nomination with repeated public professions of faith in God, along with declarations that religion is the basis of morality and that the Constitution provides "freedom of religion, not freedom from religion." In a speech at Notre Dame, he linked secularism to a "vacuum of values" that had been filled by--what else?--"our omnipresent popular culture."

About the Author

Ellen Willis
Ellen Willis directed the cultural reporting and criticism program at New York University and was a Freda Kirchwey...

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As a Jew and a Democrat, Lieberman was able to say things no Christian Republican could get away with. While the ACLU and a few other usual suspects voiced objections, the overall response from liberals was distinctly muted. Non-Orthodox Jewish organizations are normally staunch defenders of secularism, yet the only major spokesperson to criticize Lieberman's rhetoric was Abe Foxman of the Anti-Defamation League. No doubt the dearth of protest had something to do with reluctance to hurt the Gore campaign, appear hostile to a noble experiment in diversity or, in the case of Jewish groups, rain on the parade of the first Jewish vice-presidential candidate. But it's also true that Lieberman's views are common among centrist Democrats and have gained increasing legitimacy in progressive circles. Eleanor Brown, a fellow of the neoliberal New America Foundation, defended him on the New York Times Op-Ed page. E.J. Dionne, Garry Wills and Christian minister and antipoverty activist Jim Wallis were among the left-of-center commentators who concurred.

For a year we had been hearing that cultural politics were passé. The flameout of the ultraright's crazed jihad against Bill Clinton left chastened conservatives gearing up for a presidential campaign in which abortion would be relegated to a footnote and the Republicans' most loyal supporters would be the Christian who? On sexual issues we seemed to have arrived, for the moment, at a standoff (not to be mistaken for a resolution). But the battle for the culture never really subsided, only shifted its rhetorical ground. The use of "family" as a metaphor and catalyst for cultural conservatism is now being rivaled by a newly popular catchword: "faith." And just as "pro-family" ideology is not confined to the political right but has influenced liberals, leftists, even feminists, what might be called "pro-church" sentiment cuts across the political spectrum.

This is bad news. I believe that a democratic polity requires a secular state: one that does not fund or otherwise sponsor religious institutions and activities; that does not display religious symbols; that outlaws discrimination based on religious belief, whether by government or by private employers, landlords or proprietors--that does, in short, guarantee freedom from as well as freedom of religion. Furthermore, a genuinely democratic society requires a secular ethos: one that does not equate morality with religion, stigmatize atheists, defer to religious interests and aims over others or make religious belief an informal qualification for public office. Of course, secularism in the latter sense is not mandated by the First Amendment. It's a matter of sensibility, not law. Politicians have a right to brandish their faith and attack my secular outlook as hollow. That they have such a right, however, does not mean exercising it is a good idea. Politicians also have a right to argue that Christ's teachings are essential to public morality, but few would dare devalue the citizenship of Jews in such a fashion. Why is it more acceptable to marginalize the irreligious with appeals to God and faith?

The issue for the left is not religious participation in politics per se. As antisecularists are fond of pointing out, churches have played a significant role in left movements for peace, civil rights and abolition of the death penalty. But for the most part, religious liberals and leftists have allied with their secular counterparts on matters of common concern, rather than working to promote the power of religion itself or taking issue with the secular left on specifically religious grounds. In fact, many religious progressives, including some whose community organizations would be eligible to receive public funds, oppose the erosion of secularism in general and measures like "charitable choice" in particular.

There has been one important, if numerically small, exception to this community of interests: the antiabortion movement among liberal and left Catholics and some religious pacifists. There has also been a good deal of tension within the secular left between feminist and gay activists committed to abortion rights, equal protection for gays and sexual liberalism generally, and progressive organizations unwilling to take stands that might jeopardize alliances with Catholics or black evangelicals on labor, poverty or racial issues. Moreover, since the 1970s, when the anti-'60s cultural backlash took hold, a significant portion of the left has argued that criticizing traditional values--whether familial or religious--abets the right by alienating middle America.

But what's happening now is new: Some liberals and leftists, both religious and secular, are defending or actively supporting efforts to dilute the separation of church and state and increase the power and influence of religion in American life; and those efforts increasingly invoke the language of multiculturalism, tolerance and concern for the poor. In a Nation article last year, Dennis Hoover endorsed charitable choice: "Progressives can't afford to ignore realistic opportunities to help poor people," he argued, and so long as government funding does not discriminate in favor of Christianity or directly support religious activity, it "advances social justice and a robustly impartial pluralism in the relationship between religion and public life" [see Hoover, "Yes to Charitable Choice," August 7/14, and Letters, November 6]. Similarly, advocates of vouchers that can be used at parochial schools, such as former Atlanta mayor and UN ambassador Andrew Young, have contended that nit-picking about church and state should not stand in the way of educational opportunity for poor black and Latino kids.

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