When Faith Was In Fashion: The Vanderslice Affair, Cont. [Updated]
Frederick Clarkson printable version print page     Bookmark and Share
Wed Jan 10, 2007 at 02:45:59 AM EST
Since Jim Wallis's book God's Politics hit it big; since Sen. Barack Obama made his famous speech on faith in public life last summer; since Mara Vanderslice and her Common Good Strategies consulting firm scored a big story in the New York Times -- faith is in fashion in the Democratic Party. But not all of the results have been good. There is a divisiveness that happens when particular notions of faith (or anti-faith) are injected into public discourse. The presumption of having a corner on truth (and yes, somtimes truthiness), sometimes makes people a little too sure of themselves, and a little too defensive when challenged. This has been on display for some time as the term "people of faith," has become a Washington buzz word -- and you are either for 'em or agin' 'em according to the crusty attitude borrowed from the religious right whose cultural presumptions seem ascendant, even in elements of the Democratic Party.

This post is but one small chapter in a much larger story.

The ongoing controversy over the Vanderslice Affair has taken some new twists in recent days. Readers may recall that I have been critical of Democratic political consultant Mara Vanderslice's faddish counsel that her clients should not use the phrase "separation of church and state" because it raises "red flags with people of faith" and that the words do not appear in the Constitution. I wrote, among other things, that her line of thinking echos and accommodates the arguments of the religious right, and conflates the views of all religious people with a narrow segment of the electorate she seeks to attract.  ( First post; Rejoinder to Vanderslice's reply)

Meanwhile Rob Boston at The Wall of Separation (the blog of Americans United for Separation of Church and State) weighs-in with some well-informed reasons why the phrase separation of church and state is better than what Vanderslice proposes. And Jesse Lava, of FaithfulDemocrats.org (and a close associate of Vanderslice) surprises by joining me on a key point -- while excoriating me on another. Boston notes that:

Vanderslice said she advises candidates to instead refer to the "establishment and free exercise clauses of the Constitution." Fair enough - but her approach is still problematic.

To begin with, the Vanderslice view gives away too much to the Religious Right. For years, these 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. Instead of abandoning the phrase, perhaps candidates should do a better job explaining what it means and why it is crucial to the American way of life.

The phrase came into being precisely because it is a useful way of summarizing the religion clauses of the First Amendment. To be frank, most people don't know what "Establishment Clause" means, and to many, "free exercise" sounds like a special offer at the local gym. The phrase "separation of church and state" sums up in these concepts in a familiar and user-friendly way.

It would be a mistake to abandon the term. Polls show that most Americans support church-state separation. Only the extreme Religious Right groups want to tear down that wall.

Meanwhile, Lava characterizes my first post in the Vanderslice Affair (along with those of two others) as "borderline-vicious." A few paragraphs later, he drops the softening "borderline" and refers to our "vicious attacks." I have been called many things in my public life, but I have never before been called vicious; not even borderline.

What is most remarkable about Lava's post, however, is that he makes no effort to support this characterization; nor does he bother to actually address any of my points -- grumping instead about "the liberal blogs," while mischaracterizing others' criticisms and knocking down strawmen. Among Lava's strawmen is a series of nasty, hot-headed anti-religious comments made in response to a Daily Kos diary on the Vanderslice Affair. Rather than address the substantive points of the writers he denounces, he holds up a few nasty remarks made by anonymous cowards -- as if these had anything to do with any of our criticisms of Vanderslice.

But I can forgive the ad hominem attacks, the intellectual dishonesty, and the absence of any real argument -- because Jesse Lava and I have found the sweet joy of common ground on another important matter. He says

"True, no elected Democrat at the national level would be politically suicidal enough to say such things."

This is what I and many others have been saying for a long time.

Jim Wallis and Barack Obama have claimed that there are "secularist" Democrats and liberals who are oppressing "people of faith" in public life. But they have yet to name a single person who has ever behaved in the ways that they complain about. I agreed that there are nasty commenters on blogs who are antireligious bigots. (At Talk to Action, people who make comments of that nature are deleted and banned.)  So yes, Jesse Lava and I agree that there are bigots and boors who are rude to religious people on the internet --  people who have no actual influence in public life; and are not to be confused with Democratic or liberal leaders.

Lava's statement is signficant in light of the hoo ha that erupted last summer, when Sen. Barack Obama (D-IL) gave a major speech at a conference hosted by Jim Wallis. It was much discussed in the media and the blogosphere. I wrote at the time:

"There is much in Obama's speech that hits the right notes regarding the role of religion in a democratic pluralist society, but the speech is indelibly marred by propagating one of the central frames of the religious right."

Among other things he said:

"...some liberals dismiss religion in the public square as inherently irrational or intolerant, insisting on a caricature of religious Americans that paints them as fanatical, or thinking that the very word "Christian" describes one's political opponents, not people of faith."

He also said:

"Secularists are wrong when they ask believers to leave their religion at the door before entering the public square."

I wrote:

I am not aware of anyone being asked leave their faith at the door of public life. Are there a few cranky atheists out there who oppose all religiosity, particularly in politicians and public life? Well sure, so what else is new? But there is no evidence that anyone is making any actual headway in reducing religiosity in America... While we have all encountered some people who are as he describes, can Obama or Wallis name a single Democrat who behaves in the ways he attributes to "some liberals"? I think not. And there's the rub. If anyone of any prominence had behaved in this manner it would be news. It is a false and unfair caricature of the place of religious people and religious expression in the Democratic Party. If Democrats are going to shake off the reputation of being antireligious, they are going to have to stop internalizing and repeating the central frame of the religious right. In my own experience, I must say that for every heartfelt anecdote I have heard from people who have been made to feel excluded, marginalized, or discriminated against for for their religious faith -- I have heard non-religious people say the same thing. Is there prejudice and discrimination against religious people by non-religious people? Of course. Is there prejudice and discrimination by religious people against non-religious people? You betcha. Just ask them.

Is any of this restricted to the political left? Why no. There are lots of non-religious Republicans. And Libertarians are some of the most sneeringly antireligious people I know. All libertarians? Nope. Just some of those in my experience.

In that essay, I also went into considerable detail in the way that Wallis spends a large chunk of the first part of his book, God's Politics, busily knocking down secular strawmen. For a generation, the Christian right has built itself up by whipping conservative Christians into a political frenzy in opposition to alleged secularists and secular humanists.  It is analogous to the calling people with whom you politically or disagree a "communist" back in the days when the Soviet Union and "Red China" were the bogeymen of the far right, and geopolitical adversaries of the United States. Looking back, here is the quote from Wallis that struck me most: He complained about "secular fundamentalists," who  

"attack all political figures who dare to speak from their religious convictions. From the Anti-Defamation League, to Americans United for 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. These secular skeptics often display amazing lapse of historical memory when they suggest that religious language in politics is contrary to the "American Ideal."

That Jim Wallis sounds in this instance, more like Pat Robertson or a Cold War anticommunist demagogue than a contemporary social justice Democrat -- shows just how deeply the consciousness of the religious right is seeping into the center of the Democratic Party.  

Meanwhile, Lava also deserves further credit for apparently getting Senator Obama himself to agree, in a recent interview, that maybe some of us had a point:

[Lava] There were both positive and negative critiques of your speech at Call to Renewal this past summer, and much of the criticism came from the liberal blogosphere. What do you think of the negative criticism, in particular, and what do you think it will take to generate more acceptance -- both from the right and the left -- of a strong faith voice in the Democratic Party?

[Obama] Well, I'm grateful for the words of support I have received regarding the speech, but I also understand and appreciate the criticism I received from those who disagreed with me. This was expected, and I think what's important is that these reactions reflect an honest dialogue on these issues. It's a dialogue that I believe enriches our national conversation about the role of faith in politics, and it's a dialog that keeps me continuously thinking about how these issues affect my public service.

And we are grateful that Obama is listening.

We can only hope that other senior Democrats are listening too -- and taking seriously the current dialog about separation of church and state that is also enriching our national conversation about the role of faith in politics.

of the religious right are in conflict with values of democratic pluralism and religious freedom.

It is important that those who value these things, do not proclaim the views and values of the religious right in the name of the Democratic Party.


by Frederick Clarkson on Wed Jan 10, 2007 at 02:57:24 AM EST

The construction by Wallis, Obama, and Lava of the straw man of the anti-religion secularist is cheap and easy because the Religious Right has--as you note Fred--already constructed it and placed it into the middle of our national discussions about church and state.

And of course since the anti-religion secularist is a straw man in the first place, when someone holds it aloft they are guilty of being unfair. (I have some hope that it is a straw man Obama has since turned his back to.)

Also, I am deeply disappointed by the mischaracterization of your arguments as "vicious," which is a description that defies reason, actually, and is--just like the straw man mentioned--a cheap, easy, and unfair rhetorical tactic, and it is cheap, easy, and unfair for reasons similar to why the straw man is cheap, easy, and unfair: the mischaracterization of reasonable defenders of the separation of church and state as "radicals" and "vicious" is a common conservative tactic, and one that is unethical in my opinion.

Mr. Lava owes his readers a clarification. It could help. It could help his reputation in this discussion and it could strengthen the discussion itself. After all, maybe by "vicious" he really only meant "strong" or "forceful," but somehow I doubt that.

by IseFire on Wed Jan 10, 2007 at 12:14:14 PM EST

One would hope that the consultants, average churchpeople, and politicians would be able to look at Iraq and see what happens when a country enables religious factionalism to take the upper hand. Also, I would hope that people would recognize that religion is often a "respectable" proxy for ethnic or economic factionalism.

by NancyP on Wed Jan 10, 2007 at 03:21:06 PM EST

"Maybe Democrats should start sniping less at one another and more at the (actual) right-wingers who urgently need to be fought."

Vicious?  Hardly.  It seems some can not take criticism from like-minded people.

Baptists (not of the Fundamentalist variety) have fought long and hard to ensure religious liberty and her essential corollary the separation of church and state.  Baptist James M. Dawson helped found Americans United many years ago.  Today, Baptists are still fighting to keep church and state separated through organizations like the Baptist Joint Committee and AU.  Vanderslice's suggestion that we drop such a phrase is frankly, offensive to me as a Baptist.

Good work Mr. Clarkson.

by Big Daddy Weave on Wed Jan 10, 2007 at 10:41:15 PM EST

Traditional Baptists are truly among the heros of American constitutional democracy. It's a story that most Americans don't know, and that is a shame.

It could be that the current situation will provide traditional Baptists to be better heard on the role of Baptists and church state separation in American history.

The buzz phrase "people of faith" fuzzes over what many religious people really stand for, and allows politial opportunists to interpret it anyway they want to.  

by Frederick Clarkson on Thu Jan 11, 2007 at 02:27:43 AM EST

What a horribly debased word. I agree with your idea for a holiday from "faith". Religious belief is a bit longer to say but so much cleaner.

by Bruce Wilson on Thu Jan 11, 2007 at 07:31:45 AM EST

is here: http://faithfuldemocrats.com/content/view/496/92/

by miggsathon on Fri Jan 12, 2007 at 11:28:41 AM EST
And not likely to. Sorry, but they share the hypersensitivity, self-righteousness, and lack of insight that marks the right. Not that they can't be included in a "big tent" but there is no reason they should be running the show.

by Psyche on Fri Jan 12, 2007 at 01:09:20 PM EST

This is an interesting feud, consider that talk2action staff helped build the faithful democrats website.  

Progressive people of faith should not shy away from social issues.  When people like Jim Wallis say that the mid-term elections were a loss for secular people, he's just plain wrong.  How does stem-cell research passing in Missouri, gay marriage ban going down in Arizona and strict abortion laws going down in South Dakota equal a loss for secular people.   We don't need that kind of division within the progressive movement.  

That being said, I think its worthwhile to get a bit deeper about what both sides mean about the separation of church and state.  How do we feel about mentioning God and our faith in the public square?  Is there some form of a civil religion that is acceptable?   In short, let's dive deeper rather than tossing flames.  

by Stephen Rockwell on Sun Jan 14, 2007 at 04:43:22 PM EST

I had nothing to do with the creation of Faithful Democrats web site, although Bruce Wilson did. Jesse Lava called me once along the way, as he did many others, and I offered my thoughts. That was the beginning and end of it.

I have engaged in no flames. More importantly, I am not a consultant to prominent Democratic Party committees and candidates, but the people who I am writing about are.

Of course there are constructive approaches to religion in public life. We talk about them here all the time.

I am challenging this faction in the party on their ongoing secular baiting, and on their clear adoption of religious right talking points on the matter of separation of church and state and religion in public life. I will continue to do so. It is the stuff of which real debates are made. So far, this faction has produced nothing to support their secular baiting, and nothing to justify their adoption of a religious right take on separation of church and state.  In my posts I have already gone to some length to talk about the meaning of separation of church and state. But one thing I can say with certainty: It has nothing to do with whether or not individuals mention God or their own take on religion in public life, or whether their religous views inform their approach to politics and public policy. It never has, that is, by any responsilbe person in public life or by the courts.  It is but one key phrase that historically, and for good reason, has been used by the courts to describe a key concept in the first amendment.

by Frederick Clarkson on Sun Jan 14, 2007 at 05:03:40 PM EST

If you're interested I'll be glad to fill you in on the details - which may not be aware of - concerning my involvment with the Faithful Democrats website. But, in the first place, do you think it's helpful to cast as personal what is rightly  a political discussion ?  

Frederick Clarkson has been writing on church-state separation issues for many years, and I wrote a Talk To Action post on secular-bashing by Michael Lerner and Jim Wallis, in March 2006 - long before the Faithful Democrats website was founded.

I agree with you that there needs to be close examination of these issues and that people with with religious beliefs shouldn't shy away from political engagement on social issues. I don't think they have refrained from doing so although some Democratic politicians have been at times tongue tied about publicly expressing  their religious beliefs. Nonetheless, Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton both were very upfront about their religious affiliations and American politicians, both Democratic and Republican, routinely publicly cite their personal religious beliefs.

by Bruce Wilson on Mon Jan 15, 2007 at 11:14:53 PM EST

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