The Consultantocracy Strikes Back!
Frederick Clarkson printable version print page     Bookmark and Share
Thu Jan 04, 2007 at 11:00:14 PM EST
I recently posted about the latest piece of dubious advice from the consultantocracy that is shaping the Democratic Party's approach to religion in public life. I noted that Antonin Scalia and his friends on the religious right are undoubtedly laughing and rubbing their hands with glee at the latest Democratic Party capitulation to their world view.

The consultantocrat in question has replied.

The occasion for the post was a major article in The New York Times, profiling a two-year old consulting firm, Common Good Strategies, that is apparently playing a growing role at high levels of the Democratic Party on matters of "religious outreach."  While there is nothing inherently wrong with that, there was a key point in the Times article caught my eye:
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. Mara Vanderslice has now asked Pastordan to post her response to me and to "other bloggers" for her at  Street Prophets. He did.  She says

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.

While there is much in her response that I appreciate, I am sticking to and expanding on my original critique. I think we are at a crossroads in American public life, and I am sorry to say that I think Mara Vanderslice, and those who follow her advice, are glibly and I daresay recklessly, headed in the wrong direction. Do I mean ALL of her advice?  No of course not. I have no idea what most of her advice even is. (Unless of course she wrote the Rudy Guiliani strategy book that fell into the hands of the Daily News. But I digress. She is a Democrat, after all.)  

Her specific response is excerpted below. (The rest is mostly a promo for the speeches of two of her clients.)

Like most Americans, I cherish our civil liberties, and recognize the brilliance of our founding fathers in crafting the First Amendment of our Constitution. We have never encouraged the Democratic Party or Democratic candidates to denounce or undermine this founding principle of our nation. Instead, we have merely advised that Democrats refer to this fundamental American principle as the "establishment and free-exercise clause of the Constitution," which more accurately describes the legal principle itself and does not raise the same red flags with people of faith that the term "separation of church and state" does.

Secondly, it is my deep belief that when it comes to a conversation about the role of religion in American politics, or the life of a particular candidate, nothing is more important than conviction and authenticity. This emphasis on authenticity has been our guiding principle from the very beginning, both because it is right, and because it will be immediately obvious to Americans--religious or not--if public figures try to fake this.

 Since Ms. Vanderslice said she is specifically replying to me, let's see if she does so. Well, right off, she knocks down a straw man. There is nothing in anything I wrote that said that she or her company, regarding the First Amendment, "encouraged the Democratic Party or Democratic candidates to denounce or undermine this founding principle of our nation."  I am sure that if she had encouraged anyone to denounce the First Amendment, she would have been fired on the spot.  It is also worth noting that she says that her remarks to the Times were "misread by many and written out of context."  Interesting. Unfortunately, she does not say how that was so. Nevertheless, what I find remarkable, is that she very largely restates the views that I find most problematic -- and then makes matters worse.

we have merely advised that Democrats refer to this fundamental American principle as the "establishment and free-exercise clause of the Constitution," which more accurately describes the legal principle itself
What she told the Times, and does not dispute, is that she explicitly tells candidates not to use the term separation of church and state because it does not appear in the Constitution. There are a host of problems with this, since it reflects the kind of textual literalism espoused by Scalia and the religious right in order to undermine the principles of the First Amendment itself -- at least as nearly a century of mainstream jurisprudence has understood them.

The phrase separation of church and state, as is well known, comes from president Jefferson's letter to the Danbury Baptist Association during his presidency.  Historians have demonstrated that Jefferson's purpose was not only to provide an explanation of the meaning of the first amendment for the Baptists, but for posterity. Jefferson had his Attorney General vet the letter before he sent it, and it was included in a volume of Jefferson's papers published in the early 19th century.  Far from being an obscure notion or phrase, the U.S. Supreme Court in  a series of decisions in the mid-20th century, picking up on Jefferson, used the term to help explain the meaning of the First Amendment as it applies to the collisions of religion and public policy that come before them with some frequency. The phrase has served the court and society well.  Sandra Day O'Connor, wrote in a Ten Commandments case in 2005:  "Those who would renegotiate the boundaries between church and state must therefore answer a difficult question: why would we trade a system that has served us so well for one that has served others so poorly?".  

Of course, most folks, no matter how well-educated or involved in public life, are not necessarily up on such details; and how politicians navigate these things can be tricky. I appreciate that, and I really don't care whether a pol goes around saying "separation of church and state" or not. That is not my point.

It is, however, not unreasonable to expect that candidates for relevant state and national offices will respect and understand the term and what it means. This is a very significant area of constitutional thought that has evolved over a long period of time.  It is not something about which anyone should be glib, underinformed, or entirely silent.

My main point here is that the reason that Vanderslice feels she has to get Democratic pols to not use the term is because it has been effectively demonized by the religious right, and their gaggle of historical revisionists, in the service of Christian nationalism.  One cannot effectively contend for power with Christian nationalism over the long haul without the clear, unambiguous doctrine of separation church and state as a guidepost.  The attack on the phrase has been going on for a long time as the religious right political movement -- one of the largest and most powerful in American history -- continues to play a major role in American public life. But Vanderslice argues that Democratic politicians should abandon the phrase, and in effect, concede the point. And she does so by utilizing the religious right's main talking point as her rationale. The phrase does not appear in, and does not accurately represent the meaning of the first Amendment. Well, Mara Vanderslice, Nino Scalia's gotta be lovin' it.

To listen to the historical revisionists of the religious right, one would think that the famous phrase had no context in the time of the framing of the constitution, and was the invention of a liberal activist court, desperate to legislate from the bench and marginalize people of faith from the public square. But listen to Isaac Bachus, one of the most prominent Baptists of 1773 who says when

"church and state are separate, the effects are happy, and they do not at all interfere with each other: but where they have been confounded together, no tongue nor pen can fully describe the mischiefs that have ensued."

Such views were far from unusual in those days, and were part of the philosophical alliance between deists and evangelical Christians that crafted an approach to religion and public life that continues forward into the thinking of Sandra Day O'Connor.

Vanderslice epitomizes the all too common approach to politics in which the radical reductionism of message always trumps principle. I am certain that she and others don't really intend it that way, and part of their answer would be that one does what it takes to get elected.  I am enough of a pragmatist to appreciate that. But I also know that principles are too easily thrown out the window in these environments, and Vanderslice's protestations not withstanding, I think that is exactly what is happening here. Sometimes when politics is reduced to message, it is because there is not enough substance in the first place.

It is on occasions like this that the mainstream of our history, all understanding of the actual evolution of mainstream thought, politics and jurisprudence is thrown out in the service of message. I state it this strongly because in this instance, I think Vanderslice has through some kind of osmosis, internalized the textual literalism of the religious right's efforts to revise American history to debunk the core principle of separation of church and state.

I think we need elected officials at all levels with an actual understanding of American history and the meaning of separation of church and state, even as they may not use the phrase every day. You cannot defend a principle you do not understand. We cannot adequately engage Christian nationalism, by being unwilling and unable to be in the fight. Vanderslice urges that we retreat on one of the central battles in the history of American constitutional law and jurisprudence. I do not.
This brings me to the second point in her response; actually the second part of her key sentence. She wants us to use her paraphrase of the First Amendment because it

"does not raise the same red flags with people of faith that the term "separation of church and state" does."

I have already covered the point that the reason the phrase raises "red flags" for some, is because the religious right has waged a long term, multifaceted war of attrition on the phrase and its underlying history, and meanings -- in the service of  Christian nationalism. But that war is far from over, the calls for retreat from elements of the constultantocracy that do not apparently understand what it is about, not withstanding.

It is the second part of the sentence that deepens my concern about Mara Vanderslice's approach to politics.  She says that the phrase raises "red flags" and here is the operative phrase --

"with people of faith."

Ah. Let's discuss.

The first problem here is the assumption that all people of faith (whatever that means), are alarmed by the phrase "separation of church and state."  While this is certainly not true of all religious people, I suppose it might concern some religious people -- but exactly who?  Vanderslice does not say. But I will assume that she is primarily, if not exclusively, referring to the much-discussed conservative evangelicals and Catholics who the Dems want to win-over from the Republicans.  That is a worthy enough goal, but this narrow demographic of, to use the pollster's term "persuadables" -- in no way represents all people of faith. The Vanderslice method then, is to conflate her particular political goal with the attitudes of all "people of faith," as if she knows and could possibly speak for the breadth and depth and variety of American religious identity and political orientation.  Here, I need to be blunt about how much I object to this glib spokespersonship. I am as certain as certain can be, that not all people of faith, however one defines that, are the least bit disturbed by the phrase separation of church and state. Democrats and Republicans as well as independents, across a wide ideological range support the core principles of church state separation -- and I have no doubt that they appreciate and respect leaders who understand and are able to articulate what it means.

(It certainly does not mean anything like the notion that pols should not tell people about the way their personal religious views inform their ideas about public policy or not to tell any story about their "faith journey"  if they want to.  There is no one in the vast mainstream of those who are advocates for religious liberty and separation of church and state that I have ever heard of, (outside of a few cranky atheists), who take that view.)

This epitomizes the problem of the conflation of "faith" or "people of faith" with "my opinion about politics" or "my opinion about public policy.  This false equation ends up polarizing and distorting discourse in the Democratic Party, just as it has when the religious right has done it in America at large. In this instance, we have a consultant to prominent elected officials and national Democratic campaign committees, claiming that the supposed views of social conservatives are the same as all "people of faith."  

The use of the term "people of faith" in this way, I hasten to add, epitomizes the commodification of religious faith in exactly the way I discussed in my original post. Vanderslice is far from alone in doing this, and so I regret any sense that she is being singled out. She just happens to be the one who is advising prominent Democrats; and because of this, whose views are featured in The New York Times, and who asked Pastordan to post her statement in response to my blog post.

I think Mara Vanderslice believes that she supports the principles inherent in the constitution and the First Amendment. But based on what she wrote, which is all I have to go on, what I see is someone who seeks to lead a hasty retreat from the larger struggle for social justice in the interest of short term electoral gains.  Big Tent Democrat has raised questions about whether all this actually works to any measurable degree, or whether is is more smoke and mirrors.    I'll leave that point to the electoral number crunchers.

All that said, I agree with Vanderslice that if politicians are going to discuss their personal religious views, they should certainly be authentic. I would also hope that authenticity should neither necessarily begin nor end with their religious views. Some of us call that integrity.

I think an excellent place to for a candidate to consider authenticity would be in being able to explain how their views on religious liberty and separation of church and state are informed by their personal faith or philosophy, and how that connects to the history of our country and the religious and non-religious traditions that banded together to craft a constitution and a first amendment that would protect the rights of all. It would also be terrific if our candidates could anticipate the Christian nationalist talking points --- particularly those rooted in bogus history and false representations of the intent of the framers of the constitution, and later, the Supreme Court; and that they would be calmly and thoughtfully be able to address those points, and to then be able to present an authentic take on American history and our necessary role in defending our constitutional rights against those who would erode them to advance their own religious and political interests.  True, not all candidates are up to the task. I think we need seek and develop candidates who are. They will prevail.

Meanwhile, many of us will seek to carry forward the central tenets of constitutional democracy -- and to challenge Christian nationalists and their allies for the definition of American history and its meaning in informing contemporary applications of core principles. We believe it is far more important to become effective in articulating and defending core principles rather than capitulating to the religious right. In light of this, candidates can expect to be asked about their views on these matters, and I am certain that many (although certainly not all) people of faith will be keeping an eagle eye out for signs of public backsliding and changing of the subject when matters of core principles come up.

Many of us differ in how to best fight for our core principles -- and those debates are crucial, in my view, to the outcome of some of the central struggles of our time.

Update [2007-1-11 0:36:14 by Frederick Clarkson]:Since this was posted, an associate of Vanderslice has blogged on the controversy as has a staffer at Americans United for Separation of Church and State. I discuss these posts and take the discussion further in When Faith Was in Fashion.

Sorry about that. But let's just say I had my reasons.

The main one was that the issue of the misuse of the word "faith" and the phrase "people of faith" has bothered me for a long time, and I had intended to write about it.

Vanderslice just happened along.

by Frederick Clarkson on Thu Jan 04, 2007 at 11:03:11 PM EST

you would be right-on. But, this is not a perfect world. In a perfect world we wouldn't elect a GW not just once, but, twice. But, it isn't a perfect world. Sometimes you give an inch to take a mile. The Fall elections I think well prove that.

Unfortunately, the US public is, on many matters, dumb as a boot. They must of all fallen asleep during history and poli sci class. Not to mention science and math classes (if they took them). And, they ALL vote. So, what do you do? You cut off the rhetoric that keeps your party in the basement. Forever.

I think this is a smart move. Is it perfect? No. But, it does give you life to fight for what you believe. And, that may very well be "separation of church and state" as a phrase/argument. The right has already won the hill over that one. The phrase mind you, not the concept. Time to take another hill and bid time to retake the other.

Either that, or we can talk till hell freezes over. William

by williambrandes on Fri Jan 05, 2007 at 07:46:49 PM EST

If you had read my first piece, you would know that it does not matter to me if pols say the phrase separation of church and state out on the campaign trail. Such choices are made all of the time.  My point is different.

But I also maintain that as a society we have choices. Either we can advance the things we believe in and do the necesary work, or we can enable the further errosion constitutional democracy as we know it, and let the fasionable notions of certain beltway insiders be the foundation of our thought.

I am sorry that you consider my thoughts on these things just talk. But if you are right, I guess I better tell Barry Lynn and Welton Gaddy and the Baptist Joint Committee on Public Affairs, and a whole bunch of other folks that we are all just playing a loser's game.


by Frederick Clarkson on Fri Jan 05, 2007 at 10:35:21 PM EST

will not take the cake.

quote/ If you had read my first piece, you would know that it does not matter to me if pols say the phrase separation of church and state out on the campaign trail. unquote

Then why the long piece that in the end cuts the messenger? Now, I am really confused on why the write.

quote I am sorry that you consider my thoughts on these things just talk. But if you are right, I guess I better tell Barry Lynn and Welton Gaddy and the Baptist Joint Committee on Public Affairs, and a whole bunch of other folks that we are all just playing a loser's game.  /unquote

You can do much better than this. Putting people in boxes through extreme language is just the tactic of those you loath. You're not talking to a garden variety slug. I stayed awake during history, poli sci, math and science classes. I majored in history. But, again, all of these folks out there, either for ya or against ya - Vote. And, alot of them are downright stupid. They really do need your help. You might find a way to leverage your knowledge so you get to where you want to go and where they should also.

I read the article. And, I didn't say it is "just" talk, but, somewhere you shit or get off the can. We can keep screaming at each other OR find a way to create a better world. You are talking to folks that get it. But, many just struggle to survive and yes, to them, this is just talk. Others are too dumb to really know the difference and as I said never paid attention and still don't. But, they all vote. And, if you want more of the same, you just keep driving down the same road.

The reality to me. I would rather end up with half a loaf than none. Any day. Any way. I waited 16 years in Ohio and now that some progressive thought is in the game maybe some real change will happen. And, to get there compromises were made. And, some decisions on what to speak and answer to also. I think it worked. For the good. And, for a better future. William

by williambrandes on Sat Jan 06, 2007 at 01:47:01 AM EST

I have no idea what you want from me.  

Meanwhile, I have not used any extreme language in my posts, or in response to you.

I think my views are quite clear and carefully stated.  I also think the debate is valid, as is my partipation in it, and my point of view is well founded. I am sorry that you disagree on all counts.

I recognize that there are many kinds and levels of citizen activism, and I have engaged in quite a range of them -- including having helped elect the first Democratic governor in my state in a long time; a man who was the most progressive of the group and the one the conventional wisdom said had no chance. He won by almost 2-1 in the general election -- and Deval Patrick, only the second African American governor in history was sworn in yesterday, his hand on a bible given to John Quincy Adams by the freed slaves from the Amistad.

I have also written quite a bit about the value and necessity of direct citizen involvement. You can even find some of my posts on these things in the archive.

I see my work here on Talk to Action, including my posts on Vanderslice, as part of a whole that makes sense to me, and are not mutually exclusive of my sense of what it will take to make a better world.  

But I think too, that the Vanderslice discussion is an important part of democracy too, and it is not just "screaming" at each other as you so glibly charge. Debates such as these are an essential and integral part of the democratic process; and they are not now, nor have they ever for me, been a substitute for other kinds of citizen participation.

by Frederick Clarkson on Sat Jan 06, 2007 at 04:17:40 AM EST

Frederick, this is what I consider "extreme" language. It is a nuance. I don't consider myself either "glib" or ever speaking contra to "all" of your writing. That is also a convenient box to put folks in. Then again YMMV. William

quote/ I am sorry that you disagree on all counts. unquote

quote it is not just "screaming" at each other as you so glibly charge. /unquote

by williambrandes on Sun Jan 07, 2007 at 04:34:10 PM EST

It seems to me that either I have used "extreme" language or I haven't. It is pretty hard to make a case for nuance when you used the word extreme to describe any of what I have written or how I have written it.  

And, yes. You do disagree with all of the points I listed. I did not say you disagree with all of my writing.

And yes, when you characterize the more or less constructive debate going on between those who advocate Vanderslicism and those who are critical as "screaming" at each other, I think it is charitable to characterize that as being glib.

Its OK, to disagree, with me or anyone else around here, William. I wish more people who have thoughtul disagreements, but who support the purpose of the site would speak up more often in response to the writers. Discussion and debate is good. But doing it well is important if we are all going to learn anything from each other going forward.

by Frederick Clarkson on Sun Jan 07, 2007 at 07:57:00 PM EST

"..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.

I believe in the separation of church and state to the extent that the church should not establish a religion. That's what the Establishment Clause says. It says Congress shall make no law establishing a religion or interfering with the free exercise thereof. That's the clause that all of this has come from. There is nothing in there about separation of church and state. So the Congress should not and must not establish a denomination." - From a Larry King Live interview with James Dobson, September 5, 2003

by Bruce Wilson on Fri Jan 05, 2007 at 10:37:59 AM EST

"If separation of church and state is so bad, why are Americans more likely to be believers than the Europeans who live with state-funded religion?"

"Separation of church and state has made America the most religiously vital and peaceful democracy in the world".

"Separation of church and state benefits both institutions."

OK, phrasemeisters, buff these clunky sentences up a bit.

Organization name: Christians for separation of church and state

by NancyP on Fri Jan 05, 2007 at 11:47:07 AM EST

Thanks for this debunking post.  I believe religious liberals need to establish their own religious consultants, to counter the Vanderslices of the world.  Those consultants would advise Democrats to reach out to, register, and mobilize religious liberals; this strategy is not just more likely to support our core principles, but is more likely to win elections, which is the name of the game, after all.

by PlantingLiberally on Fri Jan 05, 2007 at 11:47:29 AM EST
I think what would be most effective though, would be for religious liberals to do it for themselves, rather than waiting for someone to do it for them.  

They could have a long wait.

by Frederick Clarkson on Wed Jan 10, 2007 at 03:10:52 PM EST

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