Abandoning Core Principles in the Interest of Political Expedience
Frederick Clarkson printable version print page     Bookmark and Share
Tue Dec 26, 2006 at 05:51:32 PM EST
One does not have to be a fly on the wall to know that Antonin Scalia and and the religious right At-Large are gleeful today. The Democratic Party seems to be taking a further step toward embracing the kind of society and legal and judicial philosophy they advocate. Wars in centuries past have been fought in considerable part over these things, but in the glib political fashion of contemporary America,history be damned, there are people who want to sell a product -- and there may be some VIPs who want to buy.

The New York Times has a major story today, outlining how a freshly fashionable consulting firm is advising Democrats to abandon the phrase "separation of church and state."

The firm is Common Good Strategies, a two-year-old company that has advised several successful Democratic candidates on matters of religious outreach. The principals of the company, Mara Vanderslice and Eric Sapp are self described evangelical Christians.

While it may be unfair to assess the entirety of their ideas based on one newspaper story, based on what we can learn from that story, we should all be concerned. If I am right, we are looking at a possible war inside the Democratic Party -- ignited by those who may be seeking to incorporate important chunks of the agenda of the religious right agenda into the Democratic Party in the name of political expediency in religious outreach.  

But Ms. Vanderslice's efforts to integrate faith into Democratic campaigns troubles some liberals, who accuse her of mimicking the Christian right.

Dr. Welton Gaddy, president of the liberal Interfaith Alliance, said her encouragement of such overt religiosity raised "red flags" about the traditional separation of church and state.

"I don't want any politician prostituting the sanctity of religion," Mr. Gaddy said, adding that nonbelievers also "have a right to feel they are represented at the highest levels of government."

To Ms. Vanderslice, that attitude is her party's problem. In an interview, she said she told candidates not to use the phrase "separation of church and state," which does not appear in the Constitution's clauses forbidding the establishment or protecting the exercise of religion.

"That language says to people that you don't want there to be a role for religion in our public life," Ms. Vanderslice said. "But 80 percent of the public is religious, and I think most people are eager for that kind of debate."


What we seem to have here, is yet another Democratic Party political consultant who wants to deemphasize our rights, our history, our laws and the Constitution in the name of political expediency. This emphsis on religious outreach without consideration to many other important values, to my mind, goes to the heart of what has been wrong with the Democratic Party's approach to religion in public life over the past few decades. It has careened between obnoxious forms of labeling and demonization of religious rightists -- to the internalization of the major themes of the religious right itself, withought having identified core values and a smart approach to articulating and advancing them in response to the religious right.

That said, I have no problem with politicians talking about their personal religious views and explaining how they inform their approach to politics and public policy. I might add, no one has, to my knowledge, prevented anyone from doing so in the past, and the last two Democratic presidents were openly and by any reasonably standard, authentically religious men. But I do have a problem with the implication that this should in any way be made a requirement or a litmus test for the validity or viability of political candidates. I have, like Welton Gaddy, a further problem with the overt commodification of religion. This inevitably means taking bits and pieces that will supposedly "appeal" to certain religious groups. This is inherently dishonest, and has nothing to do with faith or the articulattion of a consisetent set of religiously informed values or political positions.

What we are seeing in Common Good Strategies' advice to drop separation of church and state because the phrase does not appear in the constitution is an utter capitulation to the religious right and its Christian nationalist interpretation of history and its approach to contemporary politics. It will not only be shocking, but will ignite a signficant struggle in the Democratic Party if clients of this fashionable consulting boutique abandon principles that are the product of centuries of effort to create a society in which people of differing religious views can get along with one another and enjoy equal rights under the law.  I will not review here the history of the phrase and how it has come to be a pivotal concept in American history and jurisprudence. Suffice to say, for now, that a far better course of action would be for Democrats to get competantly grounded in American history and law -- and know what the phrase means and be able to persuasively articulate its meaning, instead of dropping it.

Lets consider a brief list of what other phrases don't appear on the Constitution.

The right to vote.

Religious freedom

The right to privacy

Equality for women

The right to travel

Health care

Minimum wage

Social security

Conscientious objection to war

Pension security

Mine safety

environmental protection

Which important constitutional, Democratic, progressive, or common sense principles will also be abandoned Democratic Party operatives because the words don't appear in the constitution? What other elements of textual literalism shall we advocate to help make Antonin Scalia a happy man and to pander to the religious right? What central tenets of constitutional democracy and the advancement of human and civil rights shall we abandon in the name of short term political gain?

While all of the above listed matters are already subject to varying levels of legal protection, and the underlying concepts are found in the constitution by the Supreme Court or were added to federal law by the Congress, the point here is, I think, clear enough. Certain phrases have come to represent important bodies of thought and law, and ought not be dropped because a narrow segment of the Democratic electorate is uncomfortable with the term. Let's underscore once again that the right to vote does not appear in the Constitution. But the Supreme Court has used the phrase separation of church and state to describe the meaning of the first amendment's establishment clause, just as they did, for example, the phrase one person one vote as a standard for voting rights. I think the radical ahistoricality of the consultantocracy and the Democrats who follow its advice in shaping their politics are doing a disservice to the nation's signature identity as respecting the rights of the individual.

All of this comes at a time when elements of the Democratic Party seem hell bent on triangulating "faith-based" politics in ways that are likely to undermine the best efforts of three hundred years of effort to achieve greater freedom of conscience and greater religious tolerance and greater civic equality.

First we had Jim Wallis, an evangelical opponent of abortion and homosexuality gaining the ear of Democratic Party leaders as he argued for downplaying -- surprise, surprise -- abortion and homosexuality. We also were treated to the spectacle of Sen. Barack Obama joining Wallis's notoriously unsupported claim that secularists are somehow silencing "people of faith" in the Democratic Party and religious people generally from public life. So far, neither Wallis nor Obama have been able to produce a single example of any Democrat anywhere in the United States who has ever acted inappropriately regarding the expression of people's religious views.

Unfortunately, secular baiting, long the province of the religious right and such disingenuous allies as Bill O'Reilly and Ann Coulter (who is not even religious) is starting to become acceptable even among liberal pundits. Liberal columnist Mark Sheilds recently objected to fellow liberal columnist Harold Meyersons' criticism of the Pope -- and urged him to "reflect on the wise words of Sen. Barack Obama, a non-Catholic: 'What I am suggesting is this -- secularists are wrong when they ask believers to leave religion at the door before entering into the public square." Well, Meyerson did no such thing. And no Democrat or liberal leader I am aware of is advocating what Obama claims. Conflating criticism of religious leaders and institutions with Obama's unwise and divisive declaration is precisely the kind of demagogic politics that is being unleashed by people who ought to know better. Criticism of religious leaders and institutions is healthy in a free society. Religious intolerance is not. Religious underpinning of an individuals values in public life is healthy as is their expression. Requirements and litmus tests and cheap pandering is not. Navigating all this is not always easy. Easy sounding solutions such as those proposed by Common Good Strategies are ultimately counter productive and very likely to backfire.

It is worth noting that Mara Vanderslice is a former associate of Jim Wallis at Sojourners. But more importantly, her line of thinking does not remotely represent the mainstream of American historical understanding of the meaning of the constitution and the first amendment, and candidates who follow her advice are placing themselves on the wrong side of what Pat Buchanan called the "religious war" going on in America.

In fairness it must be said that downplaying abortion and homosexuality or not using the phrase separation of church and state, is not necessarily the same thing as abandoning principles. It is also wrong to disingenuously claim that being opposed to abortion and gay rights is the equivalent of bringing "faith" into the public square. There are plenty of people whose faith informs their views on these subjects, and although the sets of issues are different, the same principle goes for matters of separation of church and state. The too glib conflation of opposition to these things as a hallmark of faith is precisely the game the religious right has played for a generation. But it is reasonable to expect to hear from leading Democrats who intend to downplay these things, just how they are championing reproductive rights; the rights of gay and lesbian Americans, and indeed the underlying principles of separation of church and state. This is no time for leading Democrats to be joining the religious right.  

We want leaders who will be effective in defending the rights of individual conscience against a rear guard action by the ideological descendants of those who didn't like the Constitution when it was written, and don't like it now.

It really should go without saying that becoming the religious right is not the best way to counter it.

Update [2007-1-11 0:27:26 by Frederick Clarkson]: Mara Vanderslice replied to this post. Here is my rejoinder: The Consultantocracy Strikes Back!.

your diligence in these matters keeps us all informed. This is certainly something to keep our ears attuned to: when Antonin Scalia is finding allies in the inner circles of Democratic leadership, progressives should take note.
Shalom, Rev. Dr. John C. Dorhauer "Time makes ancient good uncouth; we must onward still and upward who would keep abreast of truth." from Lowell, "The Present Crisis"
by John Dorhauer on Tue Dec 26, 2006 at 06:40:00 PM EST
and indeed. There is a disturbing glibness with which core principles are thrown out the window in the name of "faith," rather than being informed by faith. Progressive Dems need to be wary of the new generation of politial consultants with a hot new product to sell.

by Frederick Clarkson on Tue Dec 26, 2006 at 09:49:36 PM EST

also has an interesting discussion of Vanderslicism.

Among other things, Digby suggests:

In fact, if the Democrats want to get involved in religion, I would suggest that they start looking at what the right is doing to the mainline and liberal churches in this country. It's as bad as anything that's happened in politics and it's happening under the radar. If people like Ms Vanderslice would really like to help Christians in this country feel like they have a seat at the Democratic table, maybe she should spend a little less time cultivating the right wingers who already hate half the people in the Democratic party and concentrate a little of that energy in helping the liberal Christians who are struggling to survive the onslaught. I'd even help, and I'm not religious at all.

by Frederick Clarkson on Wed Dec 27, 2006 at 02:37:16 AM EST

Thanks for the great post, Fred.  I think what we are seeing in Vanderslice, Wallis, David Kuo, and others, is the development of a Religious Center-Right: a political movement aimed at mobilizing religious conservatives and moderates in service of politically centrist, and sometimes even leftist, goals.  I might include Michael Lerner in this group.

One the one hand the development of the RCR is a good thing, insofar as it disempowers the Religious Right.  On the other it's a bad thing, insofar as it buys into and sometimes condones the frames and fundamental arguments of the Religious Right.  On balance I think the RCR is helpful in the short term (might have helped us win in 2006, might help again in 2008), and very damaging in the long term (we will almost certainly see the demise of religious neutrality in government if the religio-political debate is framed between the poles of the RR and the RCR).

The answer, as far as I can see it, is to develop a Religious Left, separate and distinct from the RCR.  This is no doubt already being undertaken, by groups like Religious Coalition for the Freedom to Marry and so on, but for some reason the RCR appears to be outmaneuvering the Religious Left.

One thing which I think would help establish the RL as a bona fide force is the development of consultants who will advise Democrats to reach out to, and mobilize, religious liberals (in any case a far wiser strategy than trying to squeeze Democratic water out of a religious conservative rock).  As I mentioned the other day in the comments, I also think that doing hard religious organizing, in the style of the Still Speaking initiative, is going to be another pillar of the religious left.

All of this can be done in the context of a principled framework of separation of church and state.  I am not advocating that Democrats or liberals abandon, for one second, that core concept.  Instead I am advocating that religious liberals organize their own house so that they can become an influential group in the public square.

by PlantingLiberally on Wed Dec 27, 2006 at 11:07:16 AM EST

It has ever been a concern of mine that these people and the secular neo-cons have no loyalty to either the Republican or Democratic parties, but to ideology. I knew in my bones that they would be looking for a side door entry into the Democratic party once they felt that Republican control was coming to its natural conclusion.  My hunch was that they would find their way in via blue dog dems and the DLC.  I didn't expect them to brazenly push open the front door. Boy! was I naive.

It looks like keeping them at bay is the next gigantic task for talk2action and other progressive groups. Is anyone else getting tired?

by tikkun on Wed Dec 27, 2006 at 11:17:20 AM EST

tikkun is right but I would go even further. As long as the DLC is running the Democratic party, which it will continue to do as long as we allow campaigns to be run on private (read: corporate) money, Blue Dogs (or DINOs, as we like to call them) will remain a power. As long as the BD's remain powerful, the party is going to continue to move to the right, slowly but inexorably. And the more the party slides right, the cozier they're going to get with the religious right. It's inevitable.

They're all jumping on the Wallis/Vanderslice bandwagon because that's the direction the DLC wants the party to go, and the DLC wants to go there because that's the end of the spectrum most of its corporate donors are on. As Mr Clarkson has said elsewhere, mainline churches MUST begin making their presence felt. US corps are way vulnerable to widespread charges of greed, corruption, and indifference to the communities that harbor them. Get to the corps and you get to the DLC.

- mick -

by mick arran on Fri Dec 29, 2006 at 03:44:00 AM EST

I am all to fearful of those who would 'abandon' the core principles in favor of expediency.Both Jefferson & Adams are given a slap in the face if 'separation of church & state' is rendered taboo treatment, but abandonment of that crucial term also brings to light the RR hatred for Jefferson & Adams. Rehearse a bit, & show that Adams made darn sure that the crucial term APPEAR in the Treaty of Tripoli, namely  "that the Christian religion is not an implicit part of the American government." Kicking that notion (read: dominionism) back then may show that it is necessary to do it again, but showing its legal basis is important to verify its ancient (read: original) importance. Now with the Jones/Dover decision last year, we also have the gift of that updating the concept for the present & reminding that it's NOT going anywhere. Not only don't give an inch, don't give a micromillimeter either!

I do not like that 'bornagain' at a Quaker bible study group history a bit? Where the hell was the group leader?
Arden C. Hander

by achbird65 on Mon Jan 01, 2007 at 02:12:49 PM EST

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