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.