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


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