It’s not a habit of mine to respond to every criticism about me or this site that appears in the blogosphere. I will make an exception in the case of Frederick Clarkson’s selective treatment of my defense of Mara Vanderslice and faith-based outreach, though it will probably be my last word on the subject. I presume that Mr. Clarkson and I both have bigger fish to fry than other Democrats who agree on the vast majority of issues and principles.
You can read Mr. Clarkson’s original post here.
First, Mr. Clarkson takes offense that I characterized his and others’ attacks on Mara as “borderline vicious” and then simply as “vicious.” He is mistaken to call that an “ad hominem” attack — I was describing the comments, not the persons who made them — but he is right that I didn’t explain how any particular post was vicious. I felt no need to call out the offending bloggers by name, leaving it to readers to check the links if they were so inclined. Instead, I summarized and responded to the arguments that tended to appear in the attacks.
But Mr. Clarkson is interested in what, exactly, led me to say what I did, so I’ll be more explicit, at least about his particular post. Part of the problem was that Mr. Clarkson took a mere wording suggestion that Mara made — specifically, that Democrats should prefer the term “free exercise clause” to “separation of church and state” — and used it as a pretext for lumping her in with the religious right on fundamental matters of principle. To those of us who deplore what the religious right stands for yet agree with Mara on this point, yes, that kind of attack — repeated throughout the piece in varying degrees of absurdity — feels borderline vicious.
“The Democratic Party,” he said, referring to the work that Mara and others are doing, “seems to be taking a further step toward embracing the kind of society and legal and judicial philosophy that [Antonin Scalia and the religious right] advocate.” He also suggested that those of us who consider ourselves to be co-thinkers of sorts with folks like Mara — which I view as people who believe the Democratic Party should be more sensitive, intentional, and unafraid in its outreach to moderate-to-conservative Christians — are “seeking to incorporate important chunks of the agenda of the religious right into the Democratic Party in the name of political expediency.”
Mr. Clarkson goes on to call our effort “the overt commodification of religion,” which he claims is “inherently dishonest and has nothing to do with faith or the articulation of a consistent set of religiously informed values or political positions.” He also contends we are “ideological descendants of those who didn’t like the Constitution when it was written, and don’t like it now.”
In short, he’s attacking our honesty, motives, and even patriotism (yes, that’s what it is) while misrepresenting a quibble over wording as a decision to “abandon principle” and “become the religious right,” as he says later. Might these criticisms fall under Mr. Clarkson’s category of ad hominem attacks? I report; you decide. Either way, I don’t think it’s beyond the pale to call these attacks “borderline vicious.”
Funny enough, Mr. Clarkson recognizes at one point that “downplaying abortion and homosexuality or not using the phrase separation of church and state, is not necessarily the same thing as abandoning principles.” That’s true, of course, and precisely my point. But that doesn’t stop him from using the two ideas interchangeably throughout his post. I’m really not sure which is his real view, but I suspect it’s the one he states in every part of his post besides the obligatory “to-be-sure” paragraph near the end.
Another area of disagreement between Mr. Clarkson and me is over the extent to which people of faith are subject to disrespect and attacks. He insisted in his original post that it’s impossible — or at least, thus far undone — to “produce a single example of any Democrat anywhere in the United States who has ever acted inappropriately regarding the expression of people’s religious views.”
When I took issue with this idea and excerpted some anti-religious comments that I found in the blog threads on the Vanderslice story, Mr. Clarkson tut-tutted that I was “knocking down straw men.” What I was doing was producing examples that he claimed didn’t exist.
To be fair, he did have an actual argument here: since I was merely posting the venom of “anonymous cowards,” in his words, there was little significance to the examples I was citing. Indeed, Mr. Clarkson actually claimed — more than half tongue-in-cheek, I’m sure — that I agreed with him on one point: that these anti-religious rants come solely from “people who have no actual influence in public life.” His basis for this characterization of my views was my assertion that “no elected Democrat at the national level would be politically suicidal enough to say such things.”
Sorry, Mr. Clarkson, we still disagree. At least some folks who disrespect religion have at least some authority within progressive and Democratic politics. Have you ever read The Nation? Or hung out on a New England college campus? Or watched comedians like Lewis Black, David Cross, or (the self-proclaimed libertarian who sides with Democrats on nearly everything) Bill Maher? Or, for that matter, have you ever worked on a Democratic political campaign, gone to Democratic fundraisers, or hung out in the offices of a liberal advocacy group?
I know from Mr. Clarkson’s background that he can answer in the affirmative to that last question. I guess all I can say is his experiences have been pretty different than mine. And indeed, I will go no further on this point, because my goal is not — repeat, not — to focus attention on what some like to denounce as the “secular left.” Politically speaking, I want to advance a progressive agenda, and I don’t believe that’s best achieved by bashing other progressives. I wish I didn’t have to do that now. But I will defend myself and like-minded folks when attacked. And Mr. Clarkson’s rejection of the very idea of an anti-religious contingent in our party was couched in an attack on a great strategist who is doing wonderful things for our country. I rightly responded.
In any event, even if we were to look only at elected Democrats, there’s a big difference between the fear of speaking ill of religion and celebrating religion as a positive source of the moral vision of the progressive movement. The latter is really the key thing that Mara and I and numerous others are seeking to foster.
Ultimately, all I can really tell Mr. Clarkson is that if the sky is falling, it’s not because of Mara Vanderslice. Our country has great battles to fight — climate change, poverty, war, concentrated corporate power, and yes, religious intolerance among them. I offer a plea to end this intramural squabbling. Sowing internal division among those who should be progressive allies must be a true source of joy to right-wing leaders. Please, let’s start focusing on defeating the forces that are devastating our environment, keeping billions of human beings mired in poverty, encouraging a state of perpetual war, putting more and more power into fewer and fewer hands, and hindering the freedom of people of numerous religions.
Compared to these urgent moral imperatives, how much does it really matter whether we call it the “separation of church and state” or the “free exercise clause”?