The Supreme Court’s leaked draft opinion in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization has led many to recognize that the end justifies the means relentlessness of the American religious right. It must also be recognized that the movement’s half-century-long assault on reproductive freedoms has accompanied a larger crusade: the attempt to dismantle, brick by brick, the so-called separation wall between church and state.
The ramparts of this wall were strongest in the 1960s. It was a time in American history when separatist secularism pushed back the prayer of state-funded schools, abolished religious tests for public employment and showed an unprecedented concern for the rights of religious minorities. The judicial and legislative aspiration of this era was well summed up by John F. Kennedy’s ringtone affirmation“I believe in an America where the separation of Church and State is absolute.”
Traditionalist Catholics, as well as evangelical and fundamentalist Protestants, never believed in such an America. In the 1970s, these “co-belligerents” returned to the public square – a space they declared “secular”, “godless”, “communist”, “nihilistic”, “leftist” and even “demonic”. The story of how the Roe decision galvanized right-wing Catholics, and a few years later, conservative protestants, is well known. The story of the latter’s newfound alliance with the Republican Party and his contribution to the “Reagan landslide” (white evangelicals, by the way, had previously favored the Democrats) is also well known.
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Less well known are the missteps of the Democrats in the fight against white Christian nationalism’s furious assault on political secularism. Last week’s leaked Supreme Court ruling, with its disturbing potential to enable the recovery of even more existing rights, is a consequence of the reduction of the separation wall to smoking rubble. How else does a conception of “life” unique to a particular strain of Christian theology come to dominate the laws of a polity with many Christianityes, many non-Christian religions, and large numbers of non-religious citizens? ? This is an outcome that any credible form of secularism is designed to prevent.
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To understand how JFK’s party came to flee secularism, we have to go back to the autopsy performed by the Democrats after the defeat of John Kerry in 2004. How, they wondered, George W. Bush could have to be re-elected? How could an incumbent who had presided over an unprecedented attack on American soil, an increasingly unpopular war in Iraq and a sluggish economy win? (Indeed, Bush in that election became the last Republican, to date, to win a plurality in the popular vote.)
John Kerry’s defeat in 2004 led Democrats to conclude that they would never again be outmatched by the Bible, and in 2007 Mike McCurry spoke of the party’s “great awakening.”
The solution centered on the aforementioned co-belligerents, now called “value voters”. Outrage over gay marriage and legalized abortion, among other vices, propelled them to the polls. In swing states like Ohio, their intervention likely determined the election outcome.
The disappointment of 2004 led Democrats – and their battalions of certified divinity consultants – to conclude that the party needed to become more “faith-friendly”. Never again would a presidential candidate wait nine days before the election to deliver a “Faith and Values” speech, as Kerry did in 2004.
In the 2006 midterm elections, Democrats like Ted Strickland in Ohio, Robert Casey Jr. in Pennsylvania and Heath Shuler in North Carolina, the Bible struck on their way to victory in their respective races for governor, senate and congress. On the stump, they talked about God and reflected on their personal faith journeys. As former Bill Clinton press secretary Mike McCurry said in 2007: “There is something of a great awakening going on among many Democratic political operatives.
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No one has done more to pitch the tent for renewal than Barack Obama. In his 2006 book “The Audacity of Hope”, the then senator portrays secularism as an electoral handicap. “The Democratic Party”, believes the future president, “has become the party of reaction”. He continued, “In response to religious excess, we equate tolerance with secularism and renounce moral language that would help give our policies a broader meaning.”
Regardless of what that baffling statement meant – how accurately is a state supposed to respond to “religious excess”? – a paradigm shift was underway. Democratic politicians now rarely uttered the S-word or the phrase “separation of church and state.” Instead, Obama and his main 2008 primary rivals set out to close the “God gap.”
John Edwards spoke about his daily prayer regimen. The North Carolina senator, who would later be mired in a infidelity scandal, noticed, unreasonably, that “freedom of religion does not mean freedom of religion.” Hillary Clinton recalled childhood Bible classes at First Methodist Church in Park Ridge, Illinois (although at the 2008 Compassion Forum she expressed pangs of conscience on the party’s new steeple fetish). Candidate Obama raised the anti-secular stakes by pledge to supersize George W. Bush’s much maligned and outraged Office of Faith-Based Initiatives.
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At National Prayer Breakfasts (!), President Obama referred to Oklahoma Senator Tom Coburn, a staunch opponent of legal abortion, as “a brother in Christ,” or pray for the health of Reverend Billy Graham. During the year 2011 Easter prayer breakfast – another DC ritual that secularists experience as a micro-aggression – Obama unrolled a true christologyactually talking about “the resurrection of our Savior Jesus Christ”.
The “faith and values” policy, once an affectation of the religious right, had now become a Democratic “best practice”.
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In the 2000s, Democrats “got” religion. This may have contributed in a hard to quantify way to securing the White House for two terms. Yet their renunciation of Kennedy-era separationism came at a price: secularism, a vital tool of governance in any liberal democracy, fell into disrepair.
The problems started with framing and strategic messaging — a hill on which Democrats seem eternally determined to die. Obama and the “faith and values” liberals have exacerbated popular confusion about what secularism is – and what it isn’t. In “The Audacity of Hope”, Obama implied that being “secular” was irreconcilable with being “spiritually awakened”. He referred to a secular life as akin to traveling “a long road to nothingness”.
Why Obama echoed religious right talking points so, well, faithfully, is anyone guessing. For the latter, secularism was a perverse atheistic ideology deeply opposed to God and the homeland. It does not matter that classical secular theory has nothing to do with not believing (although there is nothing wrong with not believing). It does not matter that secularism emerged from centuries of Christian theological inquiry into the proper relationship between the crown and the cross. Never mind that faith communities, such as religious minorities, can be, and often are, politically secular; they dread religious establishments.
Why Obama went to religious right talking points is anyone’s guess. But secular theory has nothing to do with unbelief – it stems from centuries of Christian theology.
Never mind that, to my knowledge, no major Democratic constituency in 2006 complained about the existence too much secularism in America. Obama and his party were now speaking the religious right’s anti-secular dialect and emulating its drawl. They have become so comfortable in this language that today they find it difficult to change the code and play down, even when addressing their supposed liberal base.
This problematic message has also had the effect of stifling common sense inquiries into the “dark side” of religious passions. It is fine to speak of religion as a social “good” or a “moral cement”. Yet the Democrats’ ecumenical and benevolent God Talk has kept them from facing the obvious: civically, there definitely is “bad religion.”
Bad religions seek to impose their theological imperatives on all others. Evil religions care little for the common good – and if that means worshiping en masse during a global pandemic, so be it. Bad religions endanger the well-being of other citizens and of the state itself. The January 6 insurgents who prayed in the Senate chamber were freely exercising their religion; a misinterpretation of the free exercise clause (which itself is bad constitutional drafting).
Kerry’s defeat led Obama and the Democrats to develop a moral message stance on faith. In the process, they abandoned any pretense of developing Politics policies to determine how government should interact with religion. For nearly two decades, the party has shunned the S-word and given no thought to the hugely complicated question that all forms of functional secularism must answer: how should government engage with religions, especially evil manifestations mentioned above.
“Religious hype,” to use Obama’s phrase, is a matter of keen interest to those whom demographers call the “Nones,” that is, the massive cohort of people unaffiliated with religion. They include approximately 30 percent of the country’s adult population and overwhelmingly support liberal policies. The adjacent lay Noes have not yet been organized in an electoral bloc. But that day will come; Democrats would be well advised to stop antagonizing them at prayer lunches.
None will require effective policies to get religious people out of their bodies, out of their libraries and out of children’s lives. It won’t be helpful for Democrats to change messaging codes and suddenly re-invoke “separation of church and state.” This mid-century relic – trampled in the sand by conservative religious jurists – is in desperate need of a to restart. Distracted by two decades of denominational messages (directed, incidentally, at Wrong denominational), democratic thinking about secular governance has become obsolete.
Roe’s impending cancellation underscores the collapse of American secularism. My advice to Democrats is to say loud and clear, as John F. Kennedy did, that they believe in a secular America. Then they must engage in the complex work of reimagining how this America will ensure equal rights for believers and non-believers.
Learn about Christian nationalism and Roe v. Wade: