The Consultantocracy Strikes Back!
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.
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.
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.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 itselfWhat 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.
"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.
The Consultantocracy Strikes Back! | 11 comments (11 topical, 0 hidden)
The Consultantocracy Strikes Back! | 11 comments (11 topical, 0 hidden)