Democrats get religion - just in time

June 12, 2007|By Bruce Ledewitz

The recent performance of the three leading Democratic presidential candidates in a CNN forum on religious faith may have been bad theology, but it was probably good politics. Their approach to the topic of God was reminiscent of the story popularly attributed to George Wallace on race: The Democrats are obviously determined never again to be "out-God-ed" by the Republicans.

The Democrats have thrown in the secular towel, at least on symbolic religious expression in the public square. In 2008, there will be no talk of removing the word "God" from the Pledge of Allegiance, nor will any candidate promise to eject the Ten Commandments from courthouse walls. There will be frequent allusions to God and to the role that faith plays in the life of the candidate. The 2008 campaign is likely to further chip away at what is left of the wall of separation between church and state in America.

This move toward a greater mingling of God and politics could have some surprising results. More religion does not necessarily favor the Republicans.

Last summer, Illinois Sen. Barack Obama suggested that "democracy demands that the religiously motivated translate their concerns" into secular language when debating public issues. This supposed demand never made any sense. Religious people have the same right to free speech as everyone else. If they want to preach biblical values as the basis of their political proposals, that is up to them. The rest of us are free to vote the other way. Judging by the CNN debate, we will probably not be hearing again about this "demand" by the secular speech police.

The forthright embrace of religion by the Democrats this year is part of a trend toward more public religious expression that began in the 2000 election cycle and helped re-elect President Bush in 2004.

That trend has also begun to be reflected in Supreme Court decisions on church-state issues. In recent years, the court has upheld a massive school voucher program, split on two public displays of the Ten Commandments and reversed a lower court decision to remove the words "under God" from the Pledge. The additions of Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. to the court will probably accelerate this movement. With the Democrats' newfound commitment to religion in the public square, even future Democratic judicial nominees are unlikely to favor a strict separation of church and state.

What effect will all this religiosity have on public policy? The surprise answer is: probably not much. The religious right for years has had a political free ride running against the Democrats as the anti-God party. When that strategy is pre-empted, as the candidates on CNN were trying to do, the debate shifts to cultural issues that are not nearly as one-sided as is support for religion itself. The public is split on abortion and gay rights - unlike, say, the desire to retain God in the Pledge, where the public is quite united. So, the shift to more religious expression does not necessarily mean more political support for issues favored by religious conservatives.

The other problem for the religious right is that running against the wall of separation is easier than coming up with a substitute once the wall is down. John Edwards insisted on CNN that while we may be religious, we are not a Christian nation. Most people agree with that.

On other kinds of issues, such as war and peace, poverty or even global warming, a more expressly religious public square might increase support for positions favored by Democrats.

Nor is it even clear that Supreme Court decisions will change that much in our new religious democracy. To take the best known example: The court is unlikely to reverse its 1962 decision striking down prayer in the public schools. It is difficult to have public school prayer without coercion of nonbelievers, which is something even conservative justices strongly oppose. In addition, public school prayer often requires that the government choose one prayer. It is hard to do that without adopting the religious language of some particular religious group as opposed to others. That is also something a majority of justices will probably reject.

The real problem with God in the public square is that our public theology is so juvenile. The candidate testimonies we heard on CNN may have been sincere, but they were excessively individualistic and sentimental.

The God of the Bible is not just a friend to help us through personal difficulties. Though loving and compassionate, the biblical God is also the Lord of history, who punishes injustice. It is unlikely that triumphant America, with its military power and great wealth - attributes no presidential candidate is going to fundamentally challenge - would fare very well in such a God's sight. Before welcoming God into the public square, maybe we should remember the words of the Prophet Amos: "Woe to you who desire the day of the Lord!"

Bruce Ledewitz is a professor of law at Duquesne University School of Law in Pennsylvania and author of "American Religious Democracy: Coming to Terms with the End of Secular Politics." His e-mail is ledewitz@duq.edu.

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