June 29, 2005

A Progressive Framing of the Separation of Church and State

Filed under: Random Stuff — Bob Gifford @ 4:34 pm

An article in The New Republic lays out a strategy for Democrats to win on the religion issue. In it, Kenneth Baer criticizes the knee jerk reaction of Democrats to political excesses of the Christian right: hit them over the head with the Establishment Clause.

Now don’t get me wrong. I’m a big fan of the separation of Church and State, and I suspect Baer is too. But Baer’s point is that it puts us progressives on the wrong side of the religion debate, making us appear to be anti-religion, which plays right into the hands of the conservative Christians. He has a better alternative: reach out to Christian moderates by talking about religious pluralism.

Less than a year since Bush’s reelection, evangelicals–in fights over judges, abortion, end-of-life care, stem-cell research, and the legal status of gays–have made clear they want their views written into law. But as seen in the dwindling popularity of the House Republicans after the opening rounds of these battles, there is a religious middle–faithful and tolerant, God-fearing and fully aware of their own human fallibility–that is searching for a political home. Adopting the mantle of religious pluralism, as opposed to accepting the mantle of secularism with which they are so often tagged, will allow Democrats to reach these voters–if, that is, the brand of pluralism they push is an affirmative one that acknowledges the contributions different faiths bring to the public square.

I think Baer is on to something here. Anyone speaking of religion in the first person (“my faith tells me that…”) is placing themselves on God’s side. When progressives object by saying that such religious speech is inappropriate, they are appearing to stand in opposition to God and those on his side.

In reaction to this dynamic, some have counseled Democrats to also speak about their faith. The problem with this tactic is that it seems forced or insincere, or else it turns into dueling religiosity, a game which conservatives are often going to win.

Instead, Democrats should speak about faith in the second person. “Your faith is very personal, and very important to you. You should be allowed to worship God as you choose. No one in government should infringe on your freedom to pray and to worship as you wish and when you wish. Government must be restrained because your religious beliefs and practices are too important to you. Your relationship with God is too important to you.”

Or, Democrats should speak about faith in the third person. “I understand that you are comfortable with Christian proselytizing in the Air Force Academy. But what about your Jewish neighbor, your Muslim co-worker? They cherish their religious tradition, and are sincere in their religious beliefs. Should they have no place in America’s Air Force?”

This frames the issue in a way that is hard for conservative Christians to argue with. After all, “conservative” used to mean anti-government, back before conservatives gained control over much of it. This is putting voters on God’s side, and any government endorsement of a particular religion is putting the government in opposition to God.

Most importantly, this argument isn’t just cynical spin, but the reason the Establishment Clause was written into the Bill of Rights to start with. Allowing government to intrude into the practice of religion is tyranny in the one area of our lives that deserves the most protection from it.


  1. Hello – token conservative reader here (and BTW, I do appreciate your blog.)

    I believe Baer overlooks something quite significant here:
    “Less than a year since Bush’s reelection, evangelicals–in fights over judges, abortion, end-of-life care, stem-cell research, and the legal status of gays–have made clear they want their views written into law.”

    We conservatives flip this around quite easily to “since they can’t win elections, liberals seek to have their views forced into law by courts.”

    When we can get past this silly “they’re trying to force their views on me” stuff – cuz in reality everyone is trying to do that – we can get to the important stuff: discussing what should be “forced on everyone” and why.

    God bless –

    Comment by Ron — June 30, 2005 @ 9:43 am

  2. I’ll have to disagree here. There’s no shortage of liberals –
    any more than of conservatives – who can speak of their beliefs without
    coming across as forced or phony. They should do so. This conservative
    feels that too many liberals have spent too many years telling other
    people what they believe; and the “Your faith is important/personal/sacred
    ” line has too often been followed up with “…but it has no place in the
    political process.” However you start the sentence, that first half gets our
    guard up straightaway. If you hold this or that position because of your
    Christian beliefs, please say so. I respect that you and I can read the
    same Bible, perhaps even be of the same denomination or attend the same church,
    and reach different conclusions applying the same doctrines to the same set
    of facts; and I’ll hold out to you that had the Democratic Party of 2004
    realized this, many a vote tally would have ended up much differently than
    it did.
    Yes, there are plenty of us on both sides of the political divide who are
    so shy of expressing our Christianity that we hurt our political causes when we do so.
    They’d do well to stick to the advice you give or, better still, to work
    towards speaking aloud some things that they’d normally keep to themselves.
    (And don’t all effective communicators have to learn to do that?) But, if
    you’re comfortable or become less uncomfortable at putting your faith out
    on the table, you’re better off doing so.
    Best wishes to you and yours. We’ll never agree on everything, in politics
    or in faith, but the more I see liberal Christians bringing their faith into
    the political arena, the more I think maybe neither side lost in 2004.

    Comment by BobW — June 30, 2005 @ 3:23 pm

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