Damn the Red Herrings! Full Speed Ahead!
Frederick Clarkson printable version print page     Bookmark and Share
Sun Jan 14, 2007 at 07:48:40 PM EST
There is something that Mara Vanderslice and Jesse Lava would rather that we did not notice. (Never mind that Vanderslice said it to The New York Times).

Sometimes what we most need to see, and others would prefer that we not, is right out in the open.

Let's see what it is they would rather we did not see.

Jesse Lava, the co-proprietor of FaithfulDemocrats.org, recently characterized several critiques, (including mine) of Democratic political consultant Mara Vanderslice's prominently published views on separation of church and state as "borderline vicious." Before he was done, he dropped the "borderline" modifier. This was part of a wide-ranging, ad hominem attack -- in which he primarily attacked our character and not the substance of our posts. Lava's abandonment of the norms of civil discourse to personalize the matter was surprising. Just as surprising was his taking personalization even further. This would be an uninteresting tempest in a teapot that I would not bother with here, except that Mr. Lava is part of a recently prominent and aggressive wing of the Democratic Party that has adopted religious right talking points -- and reasonable people are rightfully concerned.

It is one thing, for example, to bring progressive Christianity to bear on politics and public policy; it is another thing to parrot the religious right -- claiming that what's wrong with politics is (always unnamed) secularists preventing "people of faith" from participating in "the public square." It is one thing for candidates to do smart forms of religious outreach and avoid saying things that might alarm any given audience; it is another thing to parrot Christian nationalists who claim that the phrase separation of church and state is somehow offensive to "people of faith" (as Vanderslice has done.)

It all began when the "religious outreach" work of Mara Vanderslice and her company Common Good Strategies was profiled in The New York Times.

In an interview, [Vanderslice] 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."

I argued that in this, a core principle was being abandoned in the name of political expedience. Vanderslice then asked Pastordan to post her response to me and to "other bloggers" for her at Street Prophets. He did. She said:
There appears to be some misunderstandings based on that article that I would like to clear up.

In particular, the quote in the New York Times article about our encouraging candidates not to use the phrase "separation of church and state" was misread by many and was written somewhat out of context.

Vanderslice did not, however say how it had been misread or misreported -- and then changed she the subject. I think it is unlikely that she was misread or that her remarks were misreported however, since her business partner Eric Sapp, made the same points -- and then some -- just four weeks before the November election in a blog post at FaithfulDemocrats.org. (This site was cofounded by David Wilhelm, the former chairman of the Democratic National Committee, and his erstwhile aide, Jesse Lava.)

Sapp wrote:

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. There are two main reasons for this. First, the political answer: 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. Second, the legal/policy answer: this phrase is a very imprecise and misleading shorthand for a beautifully crafted section of the First Amendment. Rather than "separation of church and state," our Constitution has an "Establishment and Free Exercise Clause," and that's the language Democrats should use to describe the legal principles that define the interaction of church and state in this country.

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.

We can hear Vanderslice's main points to the Times, in these two paragraphs and more that is also concerning and supports my point.

What we have here now is the blame-it-on-the-secularists frame popularized by Jim Wallis in Democratic circles after he borrowed it from the religious right. The method here is to blame unnamed persons called "secularists" for whatever it is that is on your mind, and then fail to demonstrate that the alleged harms warrant the solution offered.

We see this in the Sapp method here.

First, Sapp parrots the religious right's line that because the phrase is not in the Constitution, it should not be used. Then, he says some unnamed people, secularists of course (who else?) allegedly misuse the phrase to "attack any use of faith in the public sphere." Of course, he offers no evidence to back up his claim; like Wallis, he names no names, cites no circumstances; makes no effort to show how any such alleged episodes justify the action he proposes. And then we get to the money part: because the phrase separation of church and state allegedly concerns some conservative Christians, it should not be used. This is the part that Common Good Strategies is selling to its clients. (I would say that it would be better to properly prep candidates about the matter, but since Sapp and Vanderslice buy into the reasoning of the religious right, that seems unlikely to happen.)

Sapp's claims not withstanding, the phrase separation of church and state is not imprecise or misleading. It has been used by the Supreme Court as a way of explaining the meaning of the first amendment since at least 1878, just as Thomas Jefferson used it in his letter to the Danbury Baptists, and religious and non-religious leaders long before had used the phrase and its variants to describe a foundational concept.

The language of separation of church and state does not imply the "complete exclusion of faith from the public square." I know of no one outside of a few cranky atheists who say or believe such things. I certainly know of no Democratic or liberal leaders who use the term in this way. The only people who hear the term that way, are those who have been conditioned by the religious right to do so. That is one reason why the Vandeslice/Sapp approach is a capitulation on a significant matter; one, I might add, that is of great concern to a broad swath of American religious life, including many moderate Christian Democrats, independents and Republicans.

As I wrote, I am pragmatic and I do not expect politicians to necessarily go around saying "separation of church and state" everywhere they go. But what I hear in Vanderslice and Sapp, and the advice they are giving to candidates is not merely a matter of phrasing or of "message," but a fundamental matter of philosophy. I hear pandering to the religious right and those influenced by it, rather than speaking from core principles. I think I hear core principles being abandoned.

Meanwhile, I want to briefly respond to Jesse Lava's reply to my post in which I noted that he had engaged in an ad hominem attack in response to my original post on Vanderslice. He also did not respond to any of the substance. Lava's post is a virtual army of red herrings and strawmen, so I will address only few.

He denied that he had engaged in an ad hominem attack -- and he then proceeded to engage in further attacks on my character and once again dodged the substance of my post.

He said

I was describing the comments, not the persons who made them -- but he is right that I didn't explain how any particular post was vicious.
Ah, but there is the rub. By characterizing me as having engaged in a "vicious attack" this was not a description of the comments so much as an abusive remark about my character. What does the word vicious mean? Let's consult a dictionary. The online dictionary I use is Mirriam Webster: Here is the main part:

Main Entry: vi·cious

Pronunciation: 'vi-sh&s
Function: adjective
Etymology: Middle English, from Anglo-French vicios, from Latin vitiosus full of faults, corrupt, from vitium vice
1 : having the nature or quality of vice or immorality : DEPRAVED
4 a : dangerously aggressive : SAVAGE a vicious dog b : marked by violence or ferocity : FIERCE a vicious fight
5 : MALICIOUS, SPITEFUL <vicious gossip>
6 : worsened by internal causes that reciprocally augment each other a vicious wage-price spiral

  • vi·cious·ly adverb
  • vi·cious·ness noun
synonyms VICIOUS , VILLAINOUS , INIQUITOUS , NEFARIOUS , CORRUPT , DEGENERATE mean highly reprehensible or offensive in character, nature, or conduct. VICIOUS may directly oppose virtuous in implying moral depravity, or may connote malignancy, cruelty, or destructive violence a vicious gangster.

Mr. Lava fails to explain how my strong critique of Mara Vanderslice's views constituted a vicious attack. Rather, he picked phrases out of context and characterized them. Based on his characterizations, he then retreated, (without explanation) and claimed my post was "borderline vicious." Why? Because it "feels" that way.
"... Mr. Clarkson took a mere wording suggestion that Mara made -- specifically, that Democrats should prefer the term "free exercise clause" to "separation of church and state" -- and used it as a pretext for lumping her in with the religious right on fundamental matters of principle. To those of us who deplore what the religious right stands for yet agree with Mara on this point, yes, that kind of attack -- repeated throughout the piece in varying degrees of absurdity -- feels borderline vicious.

We see in this sentence the Lava Method. He characterizes what he claims my argument is and then rebuts it. This is a classic "strawman" argument. I made quite clear in my original and subsequent posts, I do not view all this as "a mere wording suggestion." Rather, as Vanderslice's comments to the Times indicated, and Sapp's blog on Lava's own website confirms, it is about much, much more than that. And it is that material that Vanderslice and Lava wish to distract us from by changing the subject; parading strawmen around, and tossing red herrings. It is all very entertaining -- if you don't mind being called "vicious" that is -- and more importantly, if you care about the agenda of the religious right and the way that it is visibly seeping into the Democratic Party.

In a further straw man argument, Lava would have readers believe that I denied that there are antireligious people in public life. Not so. What I said and what I meant, (and have written about a number of times), was that there are no "secularist" leaders in the Democratic Party or in liberaldom in general who prevent religious people from participating in public life. This is the myth spun by the religious right, and adopted by Jim Wallis and Barack Obama; and now we see Eric Sapp and Jesse Lava have joined in as well. No doubt, there are many others. To this day, to my knowledge, their accusation remains utterly unsupported. No wonder they want to change the subject. Are there people out there who are antireligious and sometimes rude about it? Of course! There is nothing new about that in the history of the republic. When I encounter antireligious bigotry online, I confront it. But that is the only place I ever encounter actual antireligious bigotry. I have not once encountered, in many years in public life, anything remotely like what these people are complaining about, and I do not believe it is a signficant factor in public life: but if it is, no evidence has yet been presented to support the allegation. Mr. Lava rhetorically asks if I have read The Nation magazine; spent any time on a college campus, in liberal interest groups or in political campaigns. Well, of course -- and nothing in my experience bears out the overwrought and unsubstantiated claims of this group. This would all be a side show of specious reasoning as factional doctrine about which a Safire of The Left can marvel one day -- except that their empty arguments are informing the Democratic Party's approach to religion in public life.

Whatever the merits of the religious outreach efforts of Common Good Strategies (which I am in no position to evaluate) I have yet to hear anything from any source, that would justify the religious right-framed assault on the phrase separation of church and state being carried out by Vanderslice and Sapp.

If you are just joining us, here are my posts in this discussion so far, in order; all crossposted here, from Talk to Action.
Abandoning Core Principles in the Interest of Political Expedience

The Consultantocracy Strikes Back!

When Faith Was In Fashion

A Tip of the Hat to Bruce Wilson for surfacing the quote from Sapp.

Doing outreach to religious communities, good.

Adopting the main frames and talking points of the religious right, bad.

by Frederick Clarkson on Sun Jan 14, 2007 at 07:52:51 PM EST

just a few thoughts:

  1.  Haven't these people heard of Lakoff?  It's like we're back to square one, using Clintonesque triangulation and ceding our moral authority.
  2.  There is no substitute for "the Separation of Church and State."  Their suggested frame, "Establishment and Free Exercise Clause" can be used as a supplement in explaining the history of The Separation of Church and State, but should never be allowed to substitute for it.
  3.  The difference between "The Democratic Party" and the American Left in general.  The Democratic Party is not responsible for the diverse opinions expressed by individuals and groups among the American intelligensia.  It doesn't matter what opinions the authors have heard on college campuses or ANSWER rallies; no Democratic Party leaders have dissed religion.  The Democratic Party welcomes a wide variety of people to participate and works to form bridges between many constituencies, including religious and secular.  Its individual members are free to hold a variety of opinions; but its leaders (many of whom are themselves religious) reflect the party platform of absolutely respecting the right of Americans to practice their own religion.
  4.  "Borderline vicious?"  If they have to resort to red herrings and straw men, one would hope the Democratic leadership would look more closely for substance in their work.

by Rusty Pipes on Thu Jan 18, 2007 at 07:02:30 PM EST
You are right that some of these folks could use a lesson in Lakoff, but to apply Lakoff in this instance requires knowing something more about the history of American jurisprudence and applications of the first amendment in church state cases, and knowing something about the religious right and how they have framed the matter for a half century.

It is difficult to reframe when ignorance runs deep, and when one is relying on a religious right framed analysis in the first place. Then again, maybe it is a more deeply cynical form of triangulation. I really don't know.

You are spot on in pointing out that some people are conflating the Democratic party with the broader Left, or some of its parts or individuals. Their analysis is a house of cards and they really don't like it when someone pulls a few cards out.

I hope that this debate has surfaced this problem in such a way that we can all begin to deal with it in a more coherent fashion.

by Frederick Clarkson on Thu Jan 18, 2007 at 07:46:31 PM EST

because the phrase separation of church and state allegedly concerns some conservative Christians, it should not be used. This is the part that Common Good Strategies is selling to its clients. (I would say that it would be better to properly prep candidates about the matter, but since Sapp and Vanderslice buy into the reasoning of the religious right, that seems unlikely to happen.)

by liaozhi123 on Fri Sep 28, 2007 at 01:58:49 AM EST

If one Democrat (or for that matter, one Republican) would just articulate what you put forth here, that politico wil be taking the discourse where it should have been heading a long time ago. And while it might offend certain folks at the margins, it would resonate with the mainstream.

All it takes is a leader with a bit of courage.

by Frank Cocozzelli on Mon Jan 15, 2007 at 01:51:42 PM EST

After that horrid shooting in PA, it was pointed out to me that the Mennonites had shown the alternative to sticking religion in the public face. They are indeed about as fundamentalist as anyone, they live their lives by totalitarian rules, they walk their talk. But they do NOT push their religion onto anyone, not their neighbors, not even their own children. But make their point by example.

To those who would plaster their religion about like some kind of graffiti, I would say first put some graffiti across your own church in the form of Jesus's own most famous quote "do on to others as you would have them do unto you". Walk that talk and there would be little to argue about.

by FreeDem on Mon Jan 15, 2007 at 10:21:04 PM EST

That your commentary doesn't suffice. It should.

Thanks for your point. I feel it's very important.

by Bruce Wilson on Mon Jan 15, 2007 at 11:25:03 PM EST

Mirror on the Left's frail wall, 
Who's the purest of us all?

by doubtisdivine on Tue Jan 16, 2007 at 12:06:05 AM EST
Debates on important matters are legitimate; democracy is messy.

Come on in, the water's fine.

by Frederick Clarkson on Wed Jan 17, 2007 at 01:07:26 PM EST

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