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.

About Taner Edis

Professor of physics at Truman State University

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/17175925867076363646 Jason

    Hello, Professor Edis.
    I just would like to inform you that http://infidelityblog.org/ no longer exists and your link on your right side leads to a sketchy website that gives you virus. I suggest removing that link.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/17446569811858082125 Ted Diesel

    Hello Dr. Edis,

    Thank you for making me aware of the Coalition of Secular Voters. You might like to know about a new organization, the Coalition for Secular Government. In relation to your post, see their recent media release arguing that “the wholehearted embrace of faith-based politics by Democrats” is “a losing strategy, particularly in more freedom-minded states like Colorado.”

    It seems that the two organizations are taking different approaches: take for example the “definition of a person” amendment under consideration in Colorado. While the Coalition of Secular Voters appears to take no position on the amendment, the Coalition for Secular Government argues against the amendment in its issue paper Amendment 48 is anti-life: Why it matters that a fertilized egg is not a person.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/10778996187937943820 Taner Edis

    Ted Diesel — thanks for the information. I wish you luck in Colorado; I don’t know enough about the local situation there to say anything useful…

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/05501109533475045969 Explicit Atheist

    Like the larger and more important organization that Tanis Edis oddly doesn’t mention and that took the lead on this issue, the Secular Coalition for America, we are only asking that people without faith be included in DNC sponsored events. I don’t agree with the premise in Professor Edis’ argument that including people without faith in such events would undermine the Democratic Party’s outreach efforts for people with faith. This isn’t a zero sum game. Sure, there are no doubt some bigots among the religious who are less likely to vote for the candidates of any political party that recognizes and acknowledges people without faith, but surely we don’t think that the DNC surrendering to such bigotry is in the best interests of our country. All we are requesting here is recognition by the DNC that for the Democratic party to fulfill its stated promise of being an inclusive organization it must acknowledge people without religious faith together with people of religious faith, it should not be just one or other. This is a practical, realistic, and achievable goal.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/10778996187937943820 Taner Edis

    Explicit Atheist: “I don’t agree with the premise in Professor Edis’ argument that including people without faith in such events would undermine the Democratic Party’s outreach efforts for people with faith.”

    It could very well do just that. It depends on how believers perceive nonbelievers. If they think nonbelief is morally tainted, talk of inclusion will not be enough to carry the day.

    Excluding nonbelievers is not mere bigotry, since nonbelievers are defined by morally and politically relevant convictions, not accidents of birth.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/05479935991883138999 Mike Rodriguez

    Taner,

    Good post, and good insight. Everything that I’ve seen from the Democratic Party since the 2004 election supports what you say. Democrats who originally seemed to me to be very skeptic-friendly did not seem to be anymore. I’d say that they began to discover back then exactly what you’ve point out about them in your post: strict separation isn’t the popular ticket. While they may not shift to the Republican extreme of orientation toward Christianity specifically, they may move toward being a “nation of faith”, like you said, to encompass the religious voters and make them a lot more comfortable with the Democratic Party.

    The proper response to this, at least for me, is to do exactly what you seem to be doing: you’re voting for Obama because it will at least provide a more suitable political environment for working towards separationism than voting Republican would, but at the same time, pursue the goal of separationism directly (through your own contributions and by looking toward separationist organizations), instead of relying on progress in that area from the Democratic government.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/14836159330093349474 icelander

    If Obama is elected, I’ll be donating $5 a month to the Secular Coalition.

    If McCain is elected, it’ll be $10 a month.