Professional Pandering

Around the time of the elections last year, I read Crashing the Gate, a book by the creators of the popular liberal political blogs Daily Kos and MyDD. Among other things, this book put the blame for Democratic electoral losses in recent years at the feet of high-paid, ineffective consultants who encourage Democratic politicians to water down their positions and restrain themselves from showing passion in public. With the November midterm victories, I am hopeful that Democrats can rediscover their passion and will no longer be afraid to stand up for the ideals they are supposed to believe in. However, it concerns me that many of them apparently have not learned their lesson about relying on consultants, as was shown by a recent New York Times article titled Consultant helps Democrats embrace faith.

The story concerns liberal evangelical Mara Vanderslice, head of a consulting firm called Common Good Strategies, who encourages Democratic clients to speak more openly about their religious faith. One paragraph in particular concerned me:

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,” Gaddy said, adding that nonbelievers also “have a right to feel they are represented at the highest levels of government.”

To Vanderslice, that attitude is her party’s problem.

Although this may just be a poor choice of phrasing by the reporter, this excerpt makes it seem as if Vanderslice believes that atheists wanting to feel represented by their government is a “problem”. I will be charitable and assume instead that the “problem” she was referring to was the belief that politicians should avoid excessive mention of religion. In the following paragraph, she highlights what she sees as some specific points to avoid:

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,” Vanderslice said. “But 80 percent of the public is religious, and I think most people are eager for that kind of debate.”

This is exactly the kind of statement that annoys me. Separation of church and state does not mean that religion is excluded from public life, only that the government may not use its coercive power to show favoritism toward or discrimination against members of a particular religion. If voters have absorbed conservative falsehoods about what our constitutional rights mean, then the appropriate response is not to shy away from using the words they have slandered. After all, what will stop the religious right from poisoning any new terms we come up with as well?

Instead, the appropriate response is to confront those distortions and defeat them. We should stand up to the religious right’s lies and call them what they are, and in the process, explain what church-state separation really means and why it is a right of vital importance that all rational people should support. The First Amendment is good for atheists, yes. It is also good for theists, in that it protects people’s right to worship as they see fit and prevents the government from preaching or funding religious beliefs which they do not agree with. Church-state separation is and has always been a central part of our national philosophy and the history of our government, and we dishonor our country’s ideals when we act ashamed of it. If Mara Vanderslice had been around in the 1960s, would she have advised President John F. Kennedy not to give the following famous speech?

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 a 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.

That is an ideal any American should be proud to support.

And yet, there is a disquieting fact: if this article is correct, unlike most Democratic consultants, Vanderslice’s tactics help her candidates win. According to the article, exit polls show that her candidates did about 10% better than the average Democrat among white evangelical voters, a traditionally Republican voting bloc. As tinny as it may sound to the atheist ear, does God-talk help progressives get elected?

We should not, of course, forget that nonbelievers are fast becoming a crucial swing vote, a finding that this article does not dispute. However, every vote garnered by a liberal candidate helps, especially if those votes are taken away from traditional Republican strongholds. And though I am an atheist, I see nothing wrong with people discussing their faith if that faith inspires progressive and compassionate moral values, and if it is not used as an excuse to bully or oppress others.

However, I reject the idea that talking about one’s faith is an intrinsic electoral good. I do not think American voters want or prefer sanctimonious, Bible-thumping politicians who proclaim their holiness at every turn and try to force their religious beliefs into government. The conclusive defeat of the Republican party in last November’s midterm elections is strong evidence of that. I think what American voters really want is assurance that the politicians they are electing are decent, honest, good-hearted people – and they take religious piety as an indicator of that, in line with our society’s ubiquitous assumption that religiosity equates to morality.

Although this belief is misguided, I think the intentions behind it are noble. Most citizens really do want to elect moral, upstanding people to office, and in an age of soundbites and mass media, where most voters will never get any closer to their preferred candidate than a television screen, it is not hard to understand why people would wish for some reliable external marker of good character. Religion has taken up that role. And although the fallacy of this assumption has been exposed many times, people continue to make it, probably in large part because there is no proven alternative that they know of. Since atheism has yet to effectively penetrate the media, most believers are unaware of the principles of humanist philosophy or how they can be an effective alternative to divine command morality and the outdated dogmas of scripture.

We can and should criticize consultants like Vanderslice who perpetuate these stereotypes, but the deeper truth is that she and others like her are symptoms of the problem, not causes of it. These methods would not be effective if there was not a voting public already receptive to them. The real problem is the simplistic assumption made by far too many people that religion equates to morality, and worse, that lack of religion equates to lack of morality. Until we nonbelievers can make headway with the public and start convincing significant numbers of people that atheists can be good, moral individuals – which is why I encourage all atheists and freethinkers to evangelize – empty faith-talk will continue to dominate, and politicians will continue to find electoral success by endless repetition of religious cliches. We have the power to change this, but we must work to do so.

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About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Arc of Fire, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.