My Netroots Nation Panel Talk
Frederick Clarkson printable version print page     Bookmark and Share
Fri Sep 04, 2009 at 01:51:40 PM EST
Where Do We Stand in the Bright Light of History?
Netroots Nation
August 14, 2009

Thank You, Professor Ledewitz, for initiating this discussion of a progressive vision for church and state -- and Netroots Nation for hosting it.

Professor Ledewitz invited this panel to surface objections to his proposal -- and to offer our own ideas as well.  I will do a little of both.   And while I think there are some things about which we undoubtedly agree, I want to focus on our areas of disagreement, which I think will be far more interesting, and I hope, useful for all of you.

Unlike Professor Ledewitz I see history as a living part of the story of who we are and where we are going.   But one of the challenges we have faced as progressives has been the absence of a sufficiently common narrative of that history that takes into account the realities and struggles of the past, identifies common principles that have taken us this far and helps us find ways of articulating them in ways that powerfully reminds us of who we are, were we came from, and where we are going.

Historian Robert Rutland writing about the framers of the constitution and how they approached the matter of church and state, observed that the United States was founded,
"on purpose, in the bright light of history."

The bright light that informed their days included being acutely aware of the long history of religious warfare and persecution in Europe. What's more, theocracies were generally the rule rather than the exception in the 13 colonies for most of the 150 years prior to the drafting of the Constitution. Each had different experiences with their theocratic established churches - one basic element of church establishment was that you had to be a member of the correct sect to vote and hold public office --   the Anglican Church in Virginia, Puritan and Congregationalist churches in New England, but in the cases of Pennsylvania and Rhode Island - there were long experiments in religious liberty.  

This led them to launch one of the greatest experiments in the history of civilization - an experiment whose first principles feature religious equality and pluralism and the right of individual conscience protected and advanced by the clear and unambiguous separation of church and state.

I want to return to this in a moment but first I want to say a few words about Professor Ledewitz' proposal.

In thinking about it this past week, I was reminded of the old joke about a visitor to Boston who gets hopelessly lost driving around. He finally spots a cop to ask directions to his destination:    The officer pauses, and thinks about it for a minute, and says:  "You can't there from here."

I don't think we can get to a progressive vision of church and state from Professor Ledewitz's proposal.    Let's begin with the first sentence of the description of this session in the Netroots Nation program book:

"The old liberal vision of a total separation of religion from politics has been discredited."  

This is a false premise.

Liberalism or progressivism has never had a vision of a total separation of religion from politics. Rather, religious approaches to social justice have always been part of the wider progressive movement. Always.  What's more religious and non-religious people have always worked side by side on the issues of the day, great and small.  Always.  And while some people may have had different experiences, this history is reaffirmed by my own experience of more than 30 years in public life, as well as the experience of everyone I know.  

I think it is worth noting that being non-religious, or secular, is not in itself progressive any more than being religious is necessarily progressive. There are a great many non-religious conservatives -- and anyone who has ever encountered the followers of Ayn Rand knows exactly what I am talking about.  What's more, the political descendents of the Greek philosopher Plato, many of whom are non-religious, view religion as "the noble lie" to be used as a tool of social control by economic and political elites.  Some leaders of today's neoconservative movement are old school Platonists in exactly this way, and this is an important ingredient in their alliance with the Religious Right.

These things said, I want to surface a deeper issue that has wreaked some havoc among us, and I think that we need to address it.

Not only is the notion that liberals advocate a total separation of religion from politics a false premise - this is what the Religious Right has said about liberals and liberalism since the 1950s and 60s when liberals were smeared as godless communists. People like Ann Coulter and Bill O'Reilly blow that dog whistle all the time. O'Reilly frames it by routinely snidely referring to the "secular left" or "secular progressives" as if the Left were Godless and the Right is entirely religious.

As linguist George Lakoff has pointed out when we adopt the frame of our opponents we are likely to lose far more than we gain.  This is especially so, when we consider that this false framing is integral to the theocratic visions of the Religious Right which remains one of the most powerful and successful political and social movements of modern times.

Such acts as posting the Ten Commandments in public buildings and carving In God We Trust over the front door of the new National Visitors Center in Washington, DC - as the House recently voted to do, is part of the advance of the Religious Right in public life.  But let's go to Professor Ledewitz' idea that if only people would redefine God, that our differences about such matters would go away.  

I think that asking religious people whether they are conservative or liberal, to think of God as a just bundle of non-religious values, and non-religious people not to think that God means well, God - is unrealistic at best.  Additionally, the idea of Higher Law is a religious idea that has been invoked by former Operation Rescue leader Randall Terry to argue that not only should certain of the law of the United States not be obeyed, but to justify the idea of a possible revolution against the government of the United States.  Like ""God", the term "higher law" has no one definition and it cannot be definitionally contained by fiat.

What I would rather that we ask of our government, which is to say that we ask ourselves, through all means available and as visibly and clearly -- to speak and to act as the uncompromised guarantor of our rights of individual conscience and never, never toady to powerful religious interests at the expense of the rights of all.

Adopting the framing of the Religious Right can take us into lines of reasoning that further unsurprisingly, reflect the Religious Right.  For example, the Religious Right talks a lot about the Declaration of Independence and hardly ever about the Constitution these days. (Alan Keyes for example, calls himself a Declarationist.)  The reason for this is that those of us who have been fighting this battle over the years have won the point that there is no mention of God or Christianity anywhere in the Constitution.  And this has everything to do with where I think any progressive vision of church and state relations begins, and why I think that invoking the Declaration as a justification for endorsing government religious speech reinforces the frame of the Religious Right.

But let's be clear about what the Declaration was:   It was a revolutionary manifesto intended to be read in town squares and printed in newspapers to rally people rise up against the King of England.  Apparently, it worked pretty well....  

It is an important document in our history, and we look to it as an expression of some of our values -- but it has exactly zero legal or constitutional significance.

About a decade after the Declaration, the leaders of the day reconvened to author the foundational document we call the Constitution. If they had any intention of invoking anything even vaguely religious, they could have done so, but they didn't.

They faced steep challenges, as I mentioned, however. How, with 13 different colonies with very different traditions, and a number of very different established churches, could they stitch together the new nation; how could they take advantage of this historic opportunity to inoculate the new nation against the ravages of religious persecution and warfare that had wracked Europe for too many centuries?

Their answer was as simple as it was revolutionary.   In article six they declared that there would be no religious tests for public office.  This meant that for the first time in the history of the world, people's religious views - or lack thereof -- would be irrelevant to their status as citizens.  You could be Christian or non-Christian, religious or non-religious, or change your mind as many times as you like.  

Article six passed the convention with little debate. But it was perhaps the single most contentious issue when the constitution went to the state legislatures for ratification.

The Religious Right of the 18th century didn't like this. There was no acknowledgement of God. No mention of Christianity.  And the Religious Right of today does not like the unambiguous meanings of the Constitution any more than their ideological ancestors did.  

And that is also why they demagogue the Declaration of Independence, and its invocation of the Creator, as if it reflected the intentions of the framers of the Constitution or any of the ratifying state legislatures with regard to the government's relationship to religion.   It didn't. It doesn't. And we should not make that error in telling our story.  

But there was also opposition to ratification from other quarters.  Thomas Jefferson and his supporters felt that the Constitution did not go far enough. They agreed to support ratification in exchange for a bill of rights.  So the First Amendment, in both its establishment clause and its free exercise clause is not a stand alone statement, but rather a clarification of profound underlying principles. And if we don't get that, we can be easily drawn into such errant notions as the idea that separation of church and state means the separation of religion and politics.  

When then-president Jefferson in 1802 wrote his famous Letter to the Danbury Baptists, he knew he was writing for the ages, and wanted to put on the record his authoritative understanding of the meaning of the First Amendment. His phrase declaring that there is a wall of separation between church and state was a reassurance to the Baptist minority in Connecticut, which had been ill treated by the established Congregational church.  And they needed some reassurance. Connecticut did not get around disestablishing the powerful congregational church until 1818.

The framers, especially Jefferson, wanted to ensure that the basic principles of the right of individual conscience and religious equality would not be subject to coercion or undue influence from either the government or powerful religious institutions.

And I think that this is a matter that is far larger than the occasional spectacle of religious demagogues, lobbying our elected officials to engrave religious graffiti into our public buildings.

So let's not be overly distracted by these unseemly episodes, but let's also not drift into unnecessary accommodationism.    

Among our great strengths and opportunities as progressives are our shared values that are rooted in the core of the constitution itself.   The Religious Right and the neoconservatives do not enjoy this advantage, and they would love it if we would drop this line of argument.

So, let's decide to do even better at fully integrating these values into our politics. The right to believe as you will, to believe differently than the rich and the powerful, is the necessary prerequisite to freedom of speech and assembly and all that that means for vigorous participation in the political process - particularly in the areas of progressive social change.

(In the interests of time, I stopped here. But here I the rest of what I had prepared.)

Looking back, like any other great principles, it has taken time to integrate them into our culture, politics and laws. I think it can be fairly said that we are still working on it.  But these principles are as vital and alive and arguably controversial today as they were during the fierce debates over the ratification of the constitution.  Nevertheless, they hold the hope and the promise to take us forward in dynamic and clear eyed ways if we embrace them and don't let anyone tell us we have to give them up in the name of finding common ground with those who frankly do not share them.

And to really place this at the center of the history of progressive struggle for social justice -- let's acknowledge that constitution did not recognize the rights of women, or people who were not landowners, let alone slaves or Native Americans - but it was this right of conscience, the right to believe differently than official religions designed to prop up established orders -- that paved the way for every advance in human and civil rights we have seen since, and are likely to see in the future.  

That said, let's note one element of the continuing struggle. As religious and non-religious progressives we share a dynamic and visionary set of core values with the framers of the constitution and we have been effective in pushing back on the religious right's argument that America was founded as Christian nation, a heritage that they say has been stolen from them by a conspiracy of liberals, judicial tyrants, and the ACLU. Not to mention of course the author of it all Satan himself.  But, we must not turn a blind eye to the profound contest underway for the narrative of American history.  Even Newt Gingrich has gotten in on the act, with recent book and a film in which he gives a tour of Washington DC in which he seeks to Demonstrate America's Christian heritage and to put it in the service of his contemporary political goals.  

That is one reason why we do not need a government that is empowered to employ religious language as the rule rather than the eccentric and mostly symbolic exception. It is a slippery slope on which we need not, and must not set foot.  

See related post, Torch the Strawman


WWW Talk To Action

The President's Faith: A Matter Of Choice, Not Compulsion
Today President Barack Obama, who is the world's worst Muslim - he drinks alcohol and eats bacon - will do something many Muslims do......
By Rob Boston (0 comments)
Voting For Jesus?: Candidates Seek To Outdo One Another With Religiosity
The Iowa caucuses are today, and, despite what you may have heard, Jesus Christ is not appearing on the ballot.Several of his close friends......
By Rob Boston (0 comments)
Conventional Wisdom Watch: Getting it Wrong about the Religious Right
It is a case of the more things change the more things stay the same. I wrote a short post in 2008 about how......
By Frederick Clarkson (4 comments)
Club Fight: Tenn. Residents Complain About High School's Gay-Straight Alliance
At public schools around the country, students, mostly high schoolers, are forming Gay-Straight Alliance clubs. Fundamentalist Christians often freak out over the existence of......
By Rob Boston (0 comments)
Zionism and Eschatology
The church I attend just had a member place a display at the back of a Sunday morning Bible class.  The display called for......
By wilkyjr (2 comments)
Save The Day: Celebrating Real Religious Freedom
Saturday is Religious Freedom Day. While it's not one of our most well-known or popular holidays, Religious Freedom Day shouldn't be overlooked. Our country......
By Rob Boston (0 comments)
Warning of Theocratic Zones of Control
This week, I published a report -- months in the making --  titled, When Exemption is the Rule: The Religious Freedom Strategy of the......
By Frederick Clarkson (5 comments)
Moore Grandstanding: Ala. Chief Justice Tries Again To Block Marriage Equality
Alabama Supreme Court Chief Justice Roy Moore last week tried, once again, to block marriage equality in that state.There is no case pending before......
By Rob Boston (0 comments)
Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone and Maureen Mullarkey Share the 2015 Coughlin Award!
Yes, folks it's that time of the year again. It's time for the presentation of the annual Coughlin Award. As it is every......
By Frank Cocozzelli (3 comments)
All Quiet on the War on Christmas Front
It is time for my annual response to the preposterous-but-malevolent claims broadcast on Fox News and elsewhere that there is a War on Christmas.......
By Frederick Clarkson (3 comments)
Christian Right: Inviting Cruz or Trump to Tea?
With Republican candidate Ben Carson dropping like a stone in a pool of confusion, who gets invited to the tea party? Tea Party activists......
By Chip Berlet (2 comments)
A Plethora Of Pulpit Politicking Problems?: Far-Right Pastors Prepare For Electoral Bids
The state of Tennessee used to have a law that banned members of the clergy from running for public office. The U.S. Supreme Court......
By Rob Boston (3 comments)
Trump: An Apocalyptic Messenger for the Christian Right
We stand in the overflow crowd of some 300 in the small town of Tyngsborough near the New Hampshire border. Several thousand people are......
By Chip Berlet (3 comments)
Trump's Demagoguery Threatens Democracy Itself
Now is the time for blunt talk. Donald Trump is a dangerous demagogue generating "scripted violence." Trumpism threatens not just the First Amendment but......
By Chip Berlet (3 comments)
Irony Implosion: Pat Robertson Opposes Politics Masquerading As Religion
TV preacher Pat Robertson and I go way back. In 1996, I wrote a book about him, and I've followed his career since.I long......
By Rob Boston (1 comment)

Evidence violence is more common than believed
Think I've been making things up about experiencing Christian Terrorism or exaggerating, or that it was an isolated incident?  I suggest you read this article (linked below in body), which is about our great......
ArchaeoBob (2 comments)
Central Florida Sheriff Preached Sermon in Uniform
If anyone has been following the craziness in Polk County Florida, they know that some really strange and troubling things have happened here.  We've had multiple separation of church and state lawsuits going at......
ArchaeoBob (1 comment)
Demon Mammon?
An anthropologist from outer space might be forgiven for concluding that the god of this world is Mammon. (Or, rather, The Market, as depicted by John McMurtry in his book The Cancer Stage of......
daerie (0 comments)
Anti-Sharia Fever in Texas: This is How It Starts
The mayor of a mid-size Texan city has emerged in recent months as the newest face of Islamophobia. Aligning herself with extremists hostile to Islam, Mayor Beth Van Duyne of Irving, Texas has helped......
JSanford (2 comments)
Evangelicals Seduced By Ayn Rand Worship Crypto-Satanism, Suggest Scholars
[update: also see my closely related stories, "Crypto-Cultists" and "Cranks": The Video Paul Ryan Hoped Would Go Away, and The Paul Ryan/Ayn Rand/Satanism Connection Made Simple] "I give people Ayn Rand with trappings" -......
Bruce Wilson (10 comments)
Ted Cruz Anointed By Pastor Who Says Jesus Opposed Minimum Wage, and Constitution Based on the Bible
In the video below, from a July 19-20th, 2013 pastor's rally at a Marriott Hotel in Des Moines, Iowa, Tea Party potentate Ted Cruz is blessed by religious right leader David Barton, who claims......
Bruce Wilson (1 comment)
Galt and God: Ayn Randians and Christian Rightists Expand Ties
Ayn Rand's followers find themselves sharing a lot of common ground with the Christian Right these days. The Tea Party, with its stress on righteous liberty and a robust form of capitalism, has been......
JSanford (4 comments)
Witchhunts in Africa and the U.S.A.
Nigerian human rights activist Leo Igwe has recently written at least two blog posts about how some African Pentecostal churches are sending missionaries to Europe and the U.S.A. in an attempt to "re-evangelize the......
Diane Vera (2 comments)
Charles Taze Russell and John Hagee
No doubt exists that Texas mega-church Pastor John Hagee would be loathe to be associated with the theology of Pastor C.T. Russell (wrongly credited with founding the Jehovah's Witnesses) but their theological orbits, while......
COinMS (0 comments)
A death among the common people ... imagination.
Or maybe my title would better fit as “Laws, Books, where to find, and the people who trust them.”What a society we've become!The wise ones tell us over and over how the more things......
Arthur Ruger (1 comment)
Deconstructing the Dominionists, Part VI
This is part 6 of a series by guest front pager Mahanoy, originally dated November 15, 2007 which I had to delete and repost for technical reasons. It is referred to in this post,......
Frederick Clarkson (2 comments)
Republican infighting in Mississippi
After a bruising GOP runoff election for U.S. Senator, current MS Senator Thad Cochran has retained his position and will face Travis Childers (Democrat) in the next senate election. The MS GOP is fractured......
COinMS (3 comments)
America's Most Convenient Bank® refuses to serve Christians
Representatives of a well known faith-based charitable organization were refused a New Jersey bank’s notarization service by an atheist employee. After inquiring about the nature of the non-profit organization and the documents requiring......
Jody Lane (4 comments)
John Benefiel takes credit for GOP takeover of Oklahoma
Many of you know that Oklahoma has turned an unrecognizable shade of red in recent years.  Yesterday, one of the leading members of the New Apostolic Reformation all but declared that he was responsible......
Christian Dem in NC (2 comments)
John Benefiel thinks America is under curse because Egyptians dedicated North America to Baal
You may remember that Rick Perry put together his "Response" prayer rallies with the help of a slew of NAR figures.  One of them was John Benefiel, an Oklahoma City-based "apostle."  He heads up......
Christian Dem in NC (6 comments)

More Diaries...

All trademarks and copyrights on this page are owned by their respective companies. Comments, posts, stories, and all other content are owned by the authors. Everything else 2005 Talk to Action, LLC.