The leaked draft Supreme Court opinion in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization has led many to recognize the grim ends-justify-the-means relentlessness of the American religious right. It should also be recognized that the movement’s half-century assault on reproductive freedoms has ridden shotgun alongside a broader crusade: the endeavor to dismantle, brick by brick, the purported wall of separation between church and state.
That wall’s ramparts were at their sturdiest in the 1960s. That was a moment in American history when separationist secularism was pushing prayer out of state-funded schools, abolishing religious tests for public employment and showing unprecedented concern for the rights of religious minorities. The judicial and legislative aspiration of that era was well summarized by John F. Kennedy’s ringing affirmation: “I believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute.”
Traditionalist Catholics, as well as evangelical and fundamentalist Protestants, never believed in such an America. In the 1970s, these “co-belligerents” surged back into the public square — a space they decreed to be “secular,” “godless,” “communist,” “nihilistic,” “leftist” and even “demonic.” The story of how the Roe decision galvanized right-wing Catholics, and a few years later, conservative Protestants, is well known. The story of the latter’s newfound alliance with the Republican Party and its contribution to “the Reagan landslide” (white evangelicals, incidentally, had previously favored the Democrats) is also well known.
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Less well known are the Democrats’ missteps in staving off white Christian nationalism’s furious onslaught against political secularism. The leaked Supreme Court decision of last week, with its ominous potential to enable the clawback of even more existing rights, is a consequence of the wall of separation’s reduction to smoldering rubble. How else does a conception of “life” unique to one particular strain of Christian theology come to dominate the laws of a polity with numerous Christianities, numerous non-Christian religions and vast numbers of non-religious citizens? That is an outcome that every credible form of secularism is built to prevent.
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To understand how the party of JFK came to shun secularism, we must return to the autopsy that Democrats performed after John Kerry’s defeat in 2004. How, they wondered, could George W. Bush possibly have been re-elected? How did an incumbent who had presided over an unprecedented attack on US soil, an increasingly unpopular war in Iraq and a sputtering economy, prevail? (Indeed, Bush in that election became the last Republican, to date, to win a plurality in the popular vote.)
John Kerry’s defeat in 2004 led Democrats to conclude they’d never be out-Bible-thumped again, and by 2007 Mike McCurry spoke of the party’s “Great Awakening.”
The solution centered on the aforementioned co-belligerents, now called “values voters.” Outrage over gay marriage and legalized abortion, among other vices, propelled them to the ballot box. In swing states like Ohio, their intervention likely determined the outcome of the election.
The 2004 disappointment led Democrats — and their battalions of consultants with divinity degrees — to conclude that the party needed to become more “faith-friendly.” Never again would a presidential candidate wait until just nine days before the election to deliver a “Faith and Values” speech, as Kerry did in 2004.
By the 2006 midterms, Democrats like Ted Strickland in Ohio, Robert Casey Jr. in Pennsylvania and Heath Shuler in North Carolina Bible-thumped on their way to victory in their respective gubernatorial, senatorial and congressional races. On the stump, they God-talked and reflected on their personal faith journeys. As former Bill Clinton press secretary Mike McCurry mused in 2007: “There is something of a Great Awakening happening among many Democratic political operatives.”
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No one did more to pitch the revival tent than Barack Obama. In his 2006 book “The Audacity of Hope,” the then-senator portrayed secularism as an electoral liability. “The Democratic Party,” the future president opined, “has become the party of reaction.” He continued: “In response to religious overreach we equate tolerance with secularism, and forfeit the moral language that would help infuse our policies with a larger meaning.”
Regardless of what this confounding declaration meant — how precisely is a state supposed to respond to “religious overreach”? — a paradigm shift was afoot. Democratics now rarely uttered the S-word, or the phrase “separation of church and state.” Instead, Obama and his main 2008 primary rivals set out to close “the God gap.”
John Edwards talked about his daily prayer regimen. The North Carolina senator, who would later be mired in an infidelity scandal, remarked, unconscionably, that “freedom of religion doesn’t mean freedom from religion.” Hillary Clinton reminisced about childhood Bible classes at First Methodist Church in Park Ridge, Illinois (although, at the 2008 Compassion Forum, she expressed pangs of conscience about the party’s new steeple fetish). Candidate Obama upped the anti-secular ante by pledging to supersize George W. Bush’s much-maligned and scandal-ridden Office of Faith-based Initiatives.
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At National Prayer Breakfasts (!), President Obama would refer to Oklahoma Sen. Tom Coburn, a staunch opponent of legal abortion, as “a Brother in Christ,” or prayed for the Rev. Billy Graham’s good health. During the 2011 Easter Prayer Breakfast — another DC ritual that secularists experience as a microaggression — Obama unspooled a veritable Christology, actually speaking of “the resurrection of our savior Jesus Christ.”
“Faith and values” politicking, once an affectation of the religious right, had now become a Democratic “best practice.”
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In the aughts, the Democrats “got” religion. Perhaps that contributed in some hard-to-quantify way to getting the White House for two terms. Yet their renunciation of Kennedy-era separationism came at a cost: secularism, a vital tool of governance in any liberal democracy, fell into disrepair.
The problems began with framing and strategic messaging — a hill upon which Democrats seem perennially determined to die. Obama and the “faith and values” liberals exacerbated popular confusion about what secularism is — and what it isn’t. In “The Audacity of Hope,” Obama implied that being “secular” was irreconcilable with being “spiritually awakened.” He alluded to a secular life as akin to a journey “down a long highway toward nothingness.”
Why Obama echoed the talking points of the religious right so, well, faithfully, is anyone’s guess. For the latter, secularism was a malignant atheistic ideology deeply opposed to God and Country. Never mind that classical secular theory has nothing to do with nonbelief (although there’s nothing wrong with nonbelief). Never mind that secularism emerged from centuries of Christian theological inquiry about proper relations between crown and cross. Never mind that communities of faith, such as religious minorities, can be, and often are, politically secular; they dread establishments of religion.
Why Obama surrendered to religious right talking points is anyone’s guess. But secular theory has nothing to do with nonbelief — it emerged from centuries of Christian theology.
Never mind that, to the best of my knowledge, no major Democratic constituency in 2006 was complaining about there being too much secularism in America. Obama and his party were now speaking the religious right’s anti-secular dialect, and mimicking its drawl. They became so fluent in that tongue that today they have a hard time code switching, and de-drawling, even when addressing their supposed liberal base.
This problematic messaging also had the effect of stifling common-sense inquiries into the “dark side” of religious passions. It’s fine to speak of religion as a social “good,” or “moral glue.” Yet the Democrats’ feel-good, ecumenical God Talk prevented them from confronting the obvious: Civically speaking, there is definitely such a thing as “bad religion.”
Bad religions seek to impose their theological imperatives on all others. Bad religions care little about the common good — and if that means worshiping en masse during a global pandemic, so be it. Bad religions endanger the well-being of other citizens and the state itself. Those Jan. 6 insurrectionists who prayed in the Senate chamber were freely exercising their religion; a bad interpretation of the free exercise clause (which itself is a bad bit of constitutional drafting).
Kerry’s defeat led Obama and the Democrats to develop a moral messaging posture about faith. In the process, they ditched any pretense of developing coherent politics policies for addressing how government is to interact with religion. For nearly two decades, the party has eschewed the S-word and failed to ponder the exceedingly complicated question that all functioning forms of secularism must address: How should government engage with religions, especially the bad manifestations mentioned above.
“Religious overreach,” to use Obama’s phrase, is a question of acute interest to those whom demographers call “Nones,” meaning the massive cohort of religiously unaffiliated people. They comprise about 30 percent of the nation’s adult population and overwhelmingly support liberal policies. The secular-adjacent Nones have yet to be organized into a voting bloc. But that day will come; Democrats would be well-advised to stop antagonizing them at Prayer Breakfasts.
Nones will demand effective policies for getting the Religious right out of their bodies, their libraries, and children’s lives. It won’t be helpful for Democrats to switch messaging codes and suddenly re-invoke “separation of church and state.” That mid-century relic–stomped into sand by conservative religious jurists—is desperately in need of a reboot. Distracted by two decades of faith-based messaging (directed, by the way, to the wrong faith-based communities), Democratic thinking about secular governance has gone stale.
The looming nullification of Roe underscores the collapse of American secularism. My advice to Democrats is to say out loud and without fear, as John F. Kennedy did, that they believe in a secular America. Then they must engage in the complex work of reimagining how that America will assure equal rights for believers and nonbelievers alike.
Read more on Christian nationalism and Roe v. Wade: