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.”
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?