Tuesday, December 26, 2006

American Theocracy

John F. Kennedy, September, 1960, Houston, TX

I believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute--where no Catholic prelate would tell the President (should he be Catholic) how to act, and no Protestant minister would tell his parishioners for whom to vote--where no church or church school is granted any public funds or political preference--and where no man is denied public office merely because his religion differs from the President who might appoint him or the people who might elect him.

I believe in an America that is officially neither Catholic, Protestant nor Jewish--where no public official either requests or accepts instructions on public policy from the Pope, the National Council of Churches or any other ecclesiastical source--where no religious body seeks to impose its will directly or indirectly upon the general populace or the public acts of its officials--and where religious liberty is so indivisible that an act against one church is treated as an act against all.

For while this year it may be a Catholic against whom the finger of suspicion is pointed, in other years it has been, and may someday be again, a Jew--or a Quaker--or a Unitarian--or a Baptist. It was Virginia's harassment of Baptist preachers, for example, that helped lead to Jefferson's statute of religious freedom. Today I may be the victim--but tomorrow it may be you--until the whole fabric of our harmonious society is ripped at a time of great national peril.

Mara Vanderslice, Democratic "Consultant", December, 2006

Party strategists and nonpartisan pollsters credit the operative, Mara Vanderslice, and her 2-year-old consulting firm, Common Good Strategies, with helping a handful of Democratic candidates make deep inroads among white evangelical and churchgoing Roman Catholic voters in Kansas, Michigan, Ohio and Pennsylvania.

Exit polls show that Ms. Vanderslice’s candidates did 10 percentage points or so better than Democrats nationally among those voters, who make up about a third of the electorate. As a group, Democrats did little better among those voters than Senator John Kerry’s campaign did in 2004.


Democratic officials in several states said Ms. Vanderslice and her business partner, Eric Sapp, pushed sometimes reluctant Democrats to speak publicly, early and in detail about the religious underpinnings of their policy views. They persuaded candidates to speak at conservative religious schools and to buy early commercials on Christian radio. They organized meetings and conference calls for candidates to speak privately with moderate and conservative members of the clergy.


But Ms. Vanderslice’s efforts to integrate faith into Democratic campaigns troubles some liberals, who accuse her of mimicking the Christian right.

Dr. Welton Gaddy, president of the liberal Interfaith Alliance, said her encouragement of such overt religiosity raised “red flags” about the traditional separation of church and state.
“I don’t want any politician prostituting the sanctity of religion,” Mr. Gaddy said, adding that nonbelievers also “have a right to feel they are represented at the highest levels of government.”

To Ms. Vanderslice, that attitude is her party’s problem. In an interview, she 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.”

Obviously, I think the suggestion to not use the phrase "separation of church and state"--by a Democratic consultant nonetheless--is a bad idea. One can argue about what the phrase means and debate the proper role of religion in the public square. And no one is arguing, so far as I know, that concepts of morality don't or shouldn't figure into policy decisions and voting choices. But to essentially throw the concept of a "separation of church and state" under the bus for purposes of political expediency is the worst form of opportunism and failure to lead there can be. Not to mention the fact that stating that the "separation of church and state" isn't in the Constitution is a blatant parroting of right-wing memes.

But even more broadly, this tendency to pander to religious interests reflects an unwillingness on the part of many Democrats to engage in any kind of conflict whatsoever. While the issue is more economics than religion, Matt Stoller discusses this tendency among Democrats such as John Edwards.

My own view is, Democrats could do far worse than to dust off some of the speeches by the party's historical standard bearers--like JFK--when it comes to discussing religion and public policy more broadly, rather than to take advise from Christianist appeasers like Ms. Vanderslice.

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