Meet Your New "Faith Based" Democratic Party
Bruce Wilson printable version print page     Bookmark and Share
Wed Jan 10, 2007 at 07:40:02 PM EST
"In case anyone doesn't know, "separation of church and state" is not in the Constitution. It shouldn't be in our vocabulary as Democrats either.... Our Constitution guarantees everyone a right to freely exercise their religion and forbids the state from establishing a single religion.  On the other hand, the "separation" language used by many Democrats implies the complete exclusion of faith from the public square, thereby creating restrictions on the free exercise of religion. " - Common Good Strategies co-founder Eric Sapp, October 7, 2006, on the Faithful Democrats website

"That language says to people that you don't want there to be a role for religion in our public life" - Common Good Strategies co-founder Mara Vanderslice, explaining in a NYT interview why she advises political candidates to avoid using the phrase "separation of church and state"

"We get trapped very often saying that there's separation of church and state in America. There is, but there was no separation of faith and politics in the very founders who wrote it in the Constitution." - Former Clinton Adminstration Press Secretary and Faithful Democrats Advisory Council member Mike McCurry, July 23, 2004, Religion and Ethics Weekly interview

"I'm not worried about separation of church and state, I'm worried about the poor. I'll leave it to you to worry about separation of church and state." - Sojourners Founder Jim Wallis, April 1996, to a group of key evangelical leaders gathered in Houston to discuss welfare reform and "Charitable Choice"    

"I believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute" - John F. Kennedy from a September 1960 speech in Houston, TX

more inside.....

"The separation of church and state is not in the Constitution. They've had to contrive the basis of these things, and then talk about them as if they're a fact." - Focus On The Family founder James Dobson, at a August 28, 2003 an Alabama rally in support of Judge Roy Moore. Also speaking at the rally, Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council declared  "the foundations of America are being broken up each time the gavel of an activist judge is pounded in America". As CNN reported, "Moore and his supporters say that the Ten Commandments are the foundation of the U.S. legal system and that forbidding the acknowledgment of the Judeo-Christian God violates the First Amendment's guarantee of free exercise of religion"
Adding to the controversy that erupted when a New York Times story mentioned that Mara Vanderslice, co-founder of a fast rising company consulting to the Democratic Party on religious outreach, was advising her clients not to use the phrase "separation of church and state" (see 1, 2, 3 for Frederick Clarkson's 3 part series on the controversy),  Common Good Strategy co-founder Eric Sapp has expressed a "Strict Constructionist" position almost identical to that of Mara Vanderslice, in an October 7th 2006 post at the Faithful Democrats website:

In case anyone doesn't know, "separation of church and state" is not in the Constitution.  It shouldn't be in our vocabulary as Democrats either....  many moderate-to-conservative Christians recoil at the term because it is often misused by secularists to attack any use of faith in the public sphere.... Rather than "separation of church and state," our Constitution has an "Establishment and Free Exercise Clause...
the "separation" language used by many Democrats implies the complete exclusion of faith from the public square, thereby creating restrictions on the free exercise of religion.

Prohibitions against human slavery were also not written into the Constitution, nor, as Frederick Clarkson observed, were many liberties now taken a basic such as the right to vote, the right to privacy, equality for women, or the right to travel and, as Rob Boston, writing for Americans United For The Separation Of Church and State, explains:

For years, [religious right] groups have argued that separation of church and state is not really in the Constitution, even though the term was used by early political leaders like Thomas Jefferson and James Madison as well as their allies in the religious community. None of those early leaders believed that church-state separation excluded religion from public life.

A bit on Wallis and McCurry

"In this election, both the Religious Right and the secular Left were defeated, and the voice of the moral center was heard. A significant number of candidates elected are social conservatives on issues of life and family, economic populists, and committed to a new direction in Iraq. This is the way forward: a grand new alliance between liberals and conservatives, Democrats and Republicans, one that can end partisan gridlock and involves working together for real solutions to pressing problems." - Jim Wallis, on the results of the 2006 election, in a Beliefnet post entitled A Defeat For The Religious Right and The Secular Left

"As it happens, Wallis has a more interesting explanation for why he doesn't like the term. He has lots of problems with his fellow liberals. He rails against "secular fundamentalists" and New Age gurus, hard-line pro-choicers and lefties who pursue "innocuous spiritualities" while attending "Zen/Christian retreats."

It's Wallis's critique of the secular left as well as the religious right that makes this such an important book....

"From the Anti-Defamation League, to Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, to the ACLU and some of the political Left's most religion-fearing publications, a cry of alarm has gone up in response to anyone who has the audacity to be religious in public." [ Wallis] " - From a Steve Waldman review of God's Politics, by Jim Wallis


" Jim Wallis and I agree on many policy issues. I disagree with him on some, especially his opposition to same-gender marriage and his crabbed view of women's reproductive rights. However, I am most troubled by his long-standing disinterest in, even hostility to, the overlay of constitutional values that must undergird legislating in this country.

In an op-ed in The New York Times in 2001, Wallis wrote of his support for the Bush "faith-based" initiative, writing, "I don't believe such an office threatens the principle of church-state separation.... We must not be sidetracked by this debate and forget about our poorest children." (Even Wallis has had to concede that the poor got sidetracked off the Bush radar screen except where they intersected with his "faith-based" initiative.)

Church-state separation is not a "side track" - it is the railroad line running right through town. " - Barry Lynn

"Over the past year, Hillary Clinton has held closed-door meetings with her Senate colleagues about the importance of reclaiming concepts like "values" and "morality" from conservatives. The liberal Center for American Progress, led by former Clinton chief of staff John Podesta, held a day-long conference in June on "Faith and Progressive Politics" that attracted hundreds of political types and policy wonks in Washington. The Democratic Leadership Council has devoted several sessions of national conferences to the topic of faith, sponsoring workshops to teach local politicians how to talk about religion in a way that is inclusive, not defensive. Former Clinton White House press secretary Mike McCurry has become the party's unofficial spokesman on the issue." - Amy Sullivan, for Commonweal, September 10, 2004

So... am I claiming that Eric Sapp, Mara Vanderslice, Mike McCurry, and Jim Wallis are on the religious right ?

Of course not. That would be absurd. Sapp, Vanderslice, and Wallis oppose unjust wars, advocate government efforts to address US poverty and global wealth inequalities and diseases, promote environmental repsponsibility and action on Global Warming, and argue for action to rein in corporate profiteering and irresponsibility... The political positions  of Wallis and Common Good Strategies are clearly principled and there is much to admire in them. But, there is also much to find in the statements of Wallis, Vanderslice and Sapp that is troubling - themes of Christian supremacy and Christian nationalism, attacks on secularism and vilification of 'secularists', even statements apparently endorsing Christian right social policies based in discredited, junk science.

Wallis, Vanderslice, and Sapp are political, ideological hybrids combining an odd mix of positions that could be truly confusing and cause considerable cognitive dissonance for those inclined to manichean political characterizations; the three really would be best categorized as "donklephants", mixtures of left and right ideologies. And, that is fine except in terms of the fact that Wallis and Common Good Strategies have the attention of powerful and perhaps even dominant forces in the Democratic Party. Why is that a bad thing ? Well, to begin with, it's not uniformly a bad thing - good deal of Wallis' and Common Good's advice to Democratic politicians, that they should pay actual attention to Americans with religious beliefs, to listen to them and hear out their concerns - is long overdue.

But, there are mammoth assumptions inherent in the judgements of those backing Wallis and Common Good ; much prevailing Democratic Party wisdom holds that John Kerry's 2004 Presidential bid failed largely due to a failure to connect with religious voters, and the Democratic Party triumph in the 2006 elections has been widely touted as vindication for the strategy of aggressively reaching out to socially conservative Catholic and evangelical voters. Now, the strategy very likely was tactically advisable simply for the urgent need for Democrats to regain control of at least one branch of federal government.

Party strategists and nonpartisan pollsters credit the operative, Mara Vanderslice, and her 2-year-old consulting firm, Common Good Strategies, with helping a handful of Democratic candidates make deep inroads among white evangelical and churchgoing Roman Catholic voters in Kansas, Michigan, Ohio and Pennsylvania. - NYT story, previously cited, on Vanderlice and Common Good Strategies

Was the 2006 election really a vindication for religious outreach ? A post election media Matters survey casts some doubt on the claim though :

Media Matters for America survey of the policy positions of 27 Democratic House candidates -- those who, as of the morning of November 8, had defeated Republican incumbents or been elected to open seats previously held by Republicans -- found that they all agree on a core set of issues, including raising the minimum wage and protecting Social Security. Further, this incoming crop of Democrats largely agrees on the most contentious social issues of the day: All but two of the 27 challengers support embryonic stem cell research and only five describe themselves as "pro-life" on the issue of abortion.

To whatever extent the 2006 election actually vindicated religious outreach, should the Democratic Party continue to agressively pursue that strategic direction ? The underlying analysis - that Democratic politicians have ignored religious voters and failed at communicating their beliefs, relgious or otherwise, in a way that seems authentic to voters, neglects other long building party strategic failures :  the absurd degree to which national and state Democratic Party veterans had grown out of touch with the political grassroots, and the substitution of what could be seen at a certain level as "junk politics" - advertising, PR, and messaging -  for the more substantive work of building the party's base.

"Why has the party struggled so? McCurry believes it's that Democratic hyper-sensitivity to offending minority groups, especially, in this case, Jewish voters. "Because we want to be politically correct, in particular being sensitive to Jews, that's taken the party to a direction where faith language is soft and opaque." " - Mike McCurry, from a Steve Waldman post on Beliefnet July 28, 2004 entitled Clinton's Press Secretary Diagnoses the Faith Problem

Now, under the leadership of Howard Dean, the rebuilding of party infrastructure is underway - and that is good. But, in the exaggerated attention recently paid to Common Good strategies and to Jim Wallis we can see indications of a lightly concealed rift in the Democratic Party, between those interested in building up and relying more heavily on grassroots and local effort, on volunteerism and the netroots, and an older strategy favored by the Washington Democratic power structure and the "consultantocracy", of Clintonian triangulation, in which the Democratic Party morphs by slow degree into "the other ( Christian, I might add ) party of faith".

I suspect that those favoring ideological and relgious triangulation imagine the tactic - in which the Democratic Party seeks to heave its bulk over to squat in the religious and ideological center of American discourse - will cannibalize more liberal, outlier elements of the religious right and pin the remnant up against some sort of imaginary ideological wall. But, conservative efforts have fed a rightway political drift in American politics for decades now, and there's no inherent limit to the process. By chasing right, the Democratic Party will risk enervating currently enthusiastic left leaning elements of its base, atheists, agnostics and "secularists" as well as women unhappy with ceaseless attacks on reproductive freedom, LBGT groups, religious and to some extent perhaps some ethnic minorities, and perhaps - above all - a whole new generation of political activists who rose up, post September 11th 2001, under their own initiative and largely without funding, support, or recognition, to bring about changes in the political status quo. That generation of activists should not be neglected or squandered.

There are strategic perils inherent to the triangulation game too - to the extent the Democratic Party begins to mimic the and assume the underlying arguments that give shape and justification for Christian conservative ideology the ability of the Christian right to triangulate left will increase and the GOP may one day repay the favor.

Underneath abstract or machiavellian considerations though, there are actual, core principles of American Democracy at stake. With continued Democratic Party triangulation to the right and mimicry of Christian nationalist rhetoric, agitation, hate speech, and violence directed at societal minorities outside of the Christian comity will almost certainly increase, and at some inderterminate point down the road, as religious and more secular, urban elements of the American body politic drift ever further apart, the strategy even risks catastrophic breakdown of the federal system.

In the end, the United States is a construct, a political work several hundred years now in the making, and it is built to a considerable degree upon judicial interpretation, successive layerings of Constitutional interpretation. "Strict Construction" - literalist that is - interpretations of the Constitution have been created as tools, just as the Christian pseudohistory of David Barton and other revisionists has been created, to overthrow the established political order.

Church-state separation expert Melissa Rogers recently wrote " I... hope to write more about the parallels between religious fundamentalism and constitutional fundamentalism." and cited Cass Sunstein: "Strict construction" of the Constitution finds a parallel in literal interpretation of the Koran or the Bible." ; indeed, the fact that the principle of separation of church and state is not literally in the Constitution is routinely cited by Christian reconstructionists and their allies on the hard Christian right such as James Dobson, who in a recent interview on Larry King Live became briefly confused and stated " separation of church and state does not appear in the Ten Commandments anywhere.", to which a bemused Larry King replied, "I know. But what does it mean? It doesn't belong in the Ten Commandments.... ". Dobson corrected the formula: " I meant to say the separation of church and state does not appear in the Constitution. It's a contrivance by the court to do what they wanted to do, but which the Founding Fathers did not state."

"As fallen creatures living in a fallen world, even those individuals with the best intentions will always fall far short.  That is why our wise founders were so careful to craft a system that avoided the temptation of using the sword of the state to try to enforce or spread the gospel.  Our founders did this not because they had lost their faith in God but rather because their faith allowed them to understand that we are all sinners, and therefore we will never be able to align our priorities and wills perfectly with God's." - Eric Sapp, from Faithful Democrats post previously cited, giving his version of the original motivations behind the Establishment Clause.

"That language says to people that you don't want there to be a role for religion in our public life. But 80 percent of the public is religious, and I think most people are eager for that kind of debate." - Mara Vanderslice, mirroring religious (and Christian) majoritarian arguments routinely advanced by the Christian right, further explaining why she advises politicians to avoid the phrase "separation of church and state" (from previously cited New York Times story)

To the extent that Vanderslices' assertion that the term "Separation Of Church And State" now evokes a negative reaction, that is so largely for a sustained, decades long campaign by the US Christian right to demonize the phrase as part of a propaganda campaign asserting that the US was founded as a Christian nation, and Vanderslices' appeal to the 80 percent of Americans who profess religious belief evokes evokes, though this is almost surely not Ms. Vanderslices' intent, a "tyranny of the majority" logic that leads to tragic events, such as the "Indian River Incident", in which religious majorities harass and persecute individuals, groups, and families for their religious and philosophical beliefs.

Do Eric Sapp and Mara Vanderslice understand the ideological function their strict constructionist argument play in the greater scheme of things ? It's impossible to say, but I'm inclined to think not. Does Jim Wallis ? Well, if he does not he certainly should, as should Mike McCurry - and both should be aware of the dangers inherent to stoking Christian nationalist sentiments ; religious nationalism and religious factionalism has and ugly history, one the Establishment Clause of the Constitution was designed to help keep in check.

Politicians who heed Vanderslice's linguistic advice on avoiding the phrase "separation of church and state" will, in practice, tend to simply drop the subject altogether because the recommended language sounds too wonkishly legalistic to resonate with a broad swath of the American electorate. Per Vanderslices' advice, the very concept of "The separation of church and state" will tend to fade from American political discourse.

The expedient elimination of words and entire controversial subjects from political discourse has been ongoing for decades now, and one can see the slippage very dramatically by reading John F. Kennedy's 1960 "Separation Of Church and State" speech ( excerpt below )

"I believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute--where no Catholic prelate would tell the President (should he be Catholic) how to act, and no Protestant minister would tell his parishioners for whom to vote--where no church or church school is granted any public funds or political preference--and where no man is denied public office merely because his religion differs from the President who might appoint him or the people who might elect him.

I believe in an America that is officially neither Catholic, Protestant nor Jewish--where no public official either requests or accepts instructions on public policy from the Pope, the National Council of Churches or any other ecclesiastical source--where no religious body seeks to impose its will directly or indirectly upon the general populace or the public acts of its officials--and where religious liberty is so indivisible that an act against one church is treated as an act against all.

For while this year it may be a Catholic against whom the finger of suspicion is pointed, in other years it has been, and may someday be again, a Jew--or a Quaker--or a Unitarian--or a Baptist. It was Virginia's harassment of Baptist preachers, for example, that helped lead to Jefferson's statute of religious freedom. Today I may be the victim--but tomorrow it may be you--until the whole fabric of our harmonious society is ripped at a time of great national peril."

John F. Kennedy, September, 1960, Houston, TX


A lot of progressive folks seem to be blissfully ignorant of this alarming trend. Some respond defensively to what they see as an attack on religion when the issue is raised (as in Obama's speech). You've pulled together a lot of material to demonstrate in a convincing way that this approach is a threat not only to the Democratic Party but to constitutional principles. And it seems (at least to me) that you've done it in such a way that it would be difficult to label you as being anti-religious. While most people here are likely to have thought about this issue, many others haven't. Would hope this diary gets wider distribution (like on the big orange?).

by Psyche on Thu Jan 11, 2007 at 01:26:43 AM EST
On the road now..... I'll try again later.

by Bruce Wilson on Thu Jan 11, 2007 at 12:39:35 PM EST

I'd be interested to hear you address this bit in more depth:

Wallis, Vanderslice, and Sapp are political, ideological hybrids combining an odd mix of positions that could be truly confusing and cause considerable cognitive dissonance for those inclined to manichean political characterizations; the three really would be best categorized as "donklephants", mixtures of left and right ideologies.

The phrase I use for these folks is "religious center-right", and the leading instution of the RCR appears to be Sojourners/Beliefnet.  The major goal of the RCR is to mobilize religious conservatives in service of social justice goals like peace, fighting poverty, etc.  On the whole, as you say, not a bad way to go, and certainly I hope they succeed.

But, also as you say, the Democratic party should, by and large, not really depend on the RCR for a base of support.  The reason is obvious: the RCR depends on a base of religious conservatives who are social justice minded.  This is a dubious notion at best, and as the demographic trends do not favor religious conservatives, it's hard to see it being a smart long term strategy.

Much more to the point, if the Democratic party depends on the RCR, then it has a vested interest against liberal theological organizing, which creates more religious liberals and decreases the number of religious conservatives.  The long term health of the liberal movement will be much stronger if there is a concerted push towards liberal theological organizing, and the Democratic party should realize that its job will be much easier once such a movement really gets going.  To have a vested interest that opposes such a movement is unwise.

To return to the question of Common Good Strategies, I think the best response to such a strategy is to start a competing consulting firm which advocates outreach, education, registration, and mobilization of religious liberals.  My guess is that such a consulting firm would be emphatically more successful then Common Good Strategies, and would be a great place for religious left apparatchiks to go to build their careers.

by PlantingLiberally on Thu Jan 11, 2007 at 01:29:07 AM EST

Why don't you do it ?

Somebody should. I could help...

Your idea, I think, is long overdue.

by Bruce Wilson on Thu Jan 11, 2007 at 12:38:46 PM EST

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