Unsecular Democrats

The Democratic Party is having an Interfaith Gathering tomorrow, and the Coalition of Secular Voters are expressing their disgruntlement at their exclusion.

I can see the need to put up a fuss. But I hope no one is naive enough to think secularist complaints can have more than a superficial effect on the Democrats.

I’m a college professor. Most people I hang around with are upper-middle-class liberal secularists. Many look forward to the possibility of an Obama presidency and a Democratic Congress. After so many years of Republican-dominated insanity, that’s understandable enough. But I have my doubts that even if the Democrats win, this will translate into much of a victory for American secularism.

Polls indicate that among religious orientations, secularists are the most dependably Democratic constituency. But apparently the Democrats have decided that their image of being the secular party is hurting them. So they are trying to convince the American electorate that they are just as religious as the competition. I suspect that their political calculation is correct. After all,

  • Given the Religious Right, even a more religiously-colored Democratic party will remain the choice for secularists. We have nowhere else to go.
  • Secularists are a disorganized, ineffectual constituency. We cannot punish the Democratic party for favoring more faith-based politics. So we hold no threat politicians need to pay attention to.
  • Even though the Democrats are conservatives (as opposed to reactionaries), they have a larger potential appeal to working class economic interests. The American working class is generally religious and at least suspicious of “elite” secularism. Many vote Republican for cultural reasons. Democrats may need to throw secularists under the bus to woo back some more numerous constituencies.
  • Many Americans are not just religious but actively opposed to any social influence of the godless. They define their moral ideals against an often-caricaturized secular dark side. This is not mere bigotry. Religion and irreligion has moral consequences, and it is legitimate to vote in support of moral and cultural interests. To court devout voters—not die-hard religious rightists but others who might otherwise vote Democratic—it may make good sense to signal that the Democratic party favors the religious over the secular.

In balance, there may still be reasons to count Democrats as better for secularism, even if they position themselves as the other faith-based party. Eddie Tabash, for example, argues that with the Supreme Court hanging on a 5-4 thread, a Democratic president is a much better outcome. A Republican will almost certainly appoint a judge who would allow government to favor faith over non-faith, while Democrats have been reliable on church-state separation.

Probably so. But even there, I don’t think the argument is as strong as Tabash makes it out to be. All this assumes that the Democrats will continue to be committed to the mid-twentieth century judicial tendency toward strict separation, acting against the nineteenth century informal establishment of Protestant Christianity. The time of that tendency is long past. Especially with the Catholic-Protestant political divide being largely a thing of the past, we can expect the move toward a new form of informal establishment to continue. Democrats may well decide that the way to stop a Republican drift is not to hold onto an outmoded and discredited strict separation, but to channel informal establishment in a direction friendlier to Democratic religious constituencies. Opposing Republicans, Democrats might uphold a vision where America is not so much a Christian nation as a nation of faith.

Secularism is the not the only concern in an election, and neither is the US Presidency the only important race. In November, I will vote Democratic, including Obama. I will not, however, volunteer any effort or donate any money. I have many political interests, including secularism, stopping environmental degradation, and moving away from free-market fundamentalism. I don’t trust the Democrats in general to do better than too-little-too-late or Republican-lite on any of these fronts.