“Religion does not have a monopoly on morality.” I've made that statement virtually every night on the tour for my recent book, God's Politics. We've been holding town meetings disguised as book signings; 56 cities over 20 weeks during the spring and summer, and the watchword has been “inclusion.” These large and diverse gatherings have not been narrow discussions of religiosity but, rather, a series of moral conversations about our public life to which all are welcome. A moral discourse on politics is something we all need and are all needed for.
Here's who is coming:
Evangelical Christians who don't feel represented by Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, or James Dobson are turning out with great energy to make their voices heard (and there are millions of such moderate evangelicals who are key to America's political future). Many Catholics, who don't feel spoken for by a handful of right-wing bishops who tell them to vote on one issue -- abortion -- and ignore the rest of Catholic social teaching, are coming. Their presence is a clear “no” to such hierarchal instruction. Mainline Protestants from all the major denominations have been eager to join the discussion, having felt disrespected by fundamentalists who don't even regard them as people of faith. Lots of African-American Christians are in attendance because the media conversation about faith and politics has been so white; when the media describe the conservative politics of “evangelicals,” they really mean “white” evangelicals, and not the black churches. Latino and Asian Christians who are changing the shape of many American churches are on hand to say that they are not in anyone's political pocket. Lots of rabbis are turning up with many from their congregations, eagerly responding to the biblical prophets Micah, Amos, and Isaiah. Young Muslims are also there, working for a more open, tolerant, compassionate, and peaceful Islam. Others have identiﬁed themselves as Unitarians, Buddhists, and members of “unity” churches.
But not everybody is religious. Large numbers of young people come each night, and many of them call themselves “spiritual” but not “religious.” And every night, people raise their hands to say, “I'm an agnostic, but I also care about moral values. Thanks for including us tonight.” At the book table afterward, self-described atheists have expressed their thanks at being acknowledged as playing critical roles in the great morally based social-reform movements in our nation's history. In Boston, a young man came up to get his book signed and said, “I'm gay. Thanks for making me feel so welcomed today. But, you know, it's really easier to come out as gay in Boston than to come out as religious in the Democratic Party.”
That's a problem. It's as if there is something wrong with being religious if you're a Democrat. I've talked to many Democratic elected ofﬁcials who are people of faith but who feel marginalized, not just by the religious right or the Republicans but also within their own party.
The way the media cover religion and politics is likewise problematic for Democrats. They seem to operate with an unspoken assumption: If a Democrat talks about religion, he or she is “pandering,” while Republican talk about faith is natural and expected.
Do we really want Democrats to be regarded as the “secular party” and even “hostile to faith,” as many on the religious right have painted them? Should one party be allowed to deﬁne the relationship between faith and politics and control the whole conversation of religion and public life? If the issues of faith and values are conceded to the religious and political right, should we be surprised when religion is turned into a partisan wedge and ideological weapon to attain political power?
Democrats should be more willing to use moral and religious language. But they shouldn't make the same mistake Republicans have made in trying to co-opt religious leaders and communities for their political agenda. Nor should they suggest that religious people have an exclusive hold on the issue of morality, disrespecting millions of Americans who have deep moral concerns about the direction of their country but no religious afﬁliation. The issue is not religiosity per se but, rather, the moral compass a political leader or party brings to public life. Religion is often a critical factor creating that compass, and therefore is an appropriate campaign discussion, but faith is certainly not the only issue.
I believe history is best changed by social movements, and the best and most powerful reform movements are shaped by spiritual and moral values. Recall that Lyndon Johnson did not become a civil-rights leader until Martin Luther King Jr. and the civil-rights movement made him one.
And that's what too many modern progressives forget -- their history. Almost every major social-reform movement in America (and many around the world) has been driven in part by faith -- including the movements to abolish slavery, for child-labor-law reform, for women's suffrage, and, most famously, for civil rights. Faith-inspired activists have always worked alongside those with no religious faith but motivated by deep moral and ethical commitments. “Religious” and “secular” progressives have a long and deep history of relationship. That must become true again.
What will that take? As far as the religious partners are concerned, they must believe, as their secular counterparts do, in the separation of church and state. But the separation of church and state does not mean the segregation of moral values from public life, or the banishing of religious language from the public debate. Where would we be if King had kept his religion to himself? With his Bible in one hand and his Constitution in the other, King convened a moral conversation on politics, not a sectarian one. Many on the left frequently quote his famous 1967 “A Time to Break Silence” speech at New York City's Riverside Church. Indeed, it was one of his most powerful speeches, with its indictment of the war in Vietnam and its call for a “genuine revolution of values” that could conquer the “giant triplets of racism, materialism, and militarism.” But few remember that King began that speech by reminding his audience that “I am a preacher by trade,” and by speaking passionately of “my conviction that I share with all men the calling to be a son of the living God.” And he reminded us that this conviction means that “we are called to speak for the weak, for the voiceless, for victims of our nation, and for those it calls enemy … .”
He concluded with a call for “a worldwide fellowship that lifts neighborly concern beyond one's tribe, race, class, and nation … a call for an all-embracing and unconditional love for all [humanity].” This love “is somehow the key that unlocks the door which leads to ultimate reality … beautifully summed up in the ﬁrst epistle of Saint John: ‘Dearly beloved, let us love one another: for love is of God: and every one that loveth is born of God and knoweth God. He that loveth not knoweth not God: for God is love ... If we love one another, God dwelleth in us, and his love is perfected in us.'”
King's radical call for a political, economic, and moral “revolution of values” was grounded in his faith. He wasn't attacked, at the time or since, for that. Rather, people of faith and people of no faith were attracted to his message and to the movement he led.
Religion must be disciplined by democracy. Religious citizens must not enter the public square by saying this is a “Judeo-Christian nation” and suggesting that they should therefore win the public debate. Citizens who are religious are free to bring their religious convictions -- which motivate and mobilize their political concerns -- to the public square, just as secular citizens are free to bring their moral and political convictions to public life. But when religiously motivated citizens get to the public square, they must enter into a moral and political discussion, not a religious one. They must learn that bringing faith into public life isn't best facilitated by the takeover of the mechanisms of the state -- the school boards in Orange County, for example. We bring faith into the public square when our moral convictions demand it. But to inﬂuence a democratic society, you must win the public debate about why the policies you advocate are better for the common good. That's the democratic discipline that religion has to be under when it brings its faith to the public square.
We don't want to see competing religiosities in politics or competitive scriptural proof-texting to decide public policy. We don't want people voting for candidates who share their denominational afﬁliation, have memorized more Bible verses, or pray and go to church most often. As the great leader of the Protestant Reformation, Martin Luther, is reported to have once remarked, “I would rather be ruled by a competent Turk than by an incompetent Christian.”
Secular citizens must not require their religious neighbors to keep their faith silent in public life or conﬁne it to merely private matters. While there is, of course, nothing wrong with being secular, there is something wrong with a kind of secular fundamentalism that shows a disdain for religious faith and believers and would restrict their political conscience. And if religious fundamentalists have too much inﬂuence in the Republican Party by seeking to impose their orthodoxies on their party and the nation, a militant group of secular fundamentalists wrongly inﬂuences Democrats against being “faith friendly.”
Secular fundamentalists make a fundamental mistake: They believe that the separation of church and state means the separation of faith from public life. While it is true that some conservative religionists do want to blur the boundaries between church and state, most advocates of religious and moral values in the public square do not. Most of us do not support state-sanctioned prayer in public schools or school-backed prayers at high-school football games or huge granite blocks inscribed with the Ten Commandments in every courthouse.
Of course, some Republicans are people of faith and some are not, just as some Democrats are and some are not. Those Democrats who are should let their faith shine through on matters of social and political conscience, just as those of either party who are motivated by moral values should let their values shine through on matters of public policy. The Founders chose not to establish any religion in American public life, not to diminish the inﬂuence of faith and its moral values but, rather, to increase their inﬂuence on the social fabric and political morality. By setting religion free from the shackles of the state, they protected the independence needed to keep faith healthy and strong. An attempt to strip the public square of religious values undermines the moral health of the nation, just as any attempt to impose theocratic visions of morality is a threat to democratic politics.
A good and fair discussion of how a candidate's faith and/or moral convictions shape his or her political values should be viewed as a positive thing -- it's as relevant and appropriate as many other facts about a politician's background, convictions, and experience for public ofﬁce. The more talk about values the better in political campaigns, and religion is a primary source of values for many Americans. Clearly, minority religions and nonreligious people must always be respected and protected in our nation. But the core commitments of religious liberty need not be compromised by an open discussion of faith and public life. Indeed, the right kind of talk about religion and politics represents, according to political observer and columnist E. J. Dionne Jr., “not a threat to religious liberty but its triumph.”
The American people are divided on how their faith affects their vote. The Bliss Institute/Pew Forum poll following the 2004 election showed that 47 percent said their faith was “more important” or “about as important” as other factors in determining their vote, while 53 percent said it was “less important” or “not at all important.”
Yet most Americans have no problem with political leaders expressing religious beliefs. John Green of the Bliss Institute produced “The American Religious Landscape and Political Attitudes: A Baseline for 2004” last spring. By a 63 percent to 37 percent margin, respondents disagreed with the statement, “It makes me uncomfortable when politicians talk about their personal religious beliefs.”
The subtitle of God's Politics is Why the Right Gets It Wrong and the Left Doesn't Get It. Where the right goes wrong is the narrowing of all “moral values” and religious issues to a few hot-button social issues like abortion and gay marriage. Those matters need a much deeper moral conversation on all sides to help ﬁnd the common ground that my experience these last few months showed me is more possible than many think. But no one can say that there are only two moral issues in politics. When we ﬁnd thousands of verses in the Bible on the poor, we must insist that overcoming poverty is also a moral issue. Protecting the environment (known to some of us as God's creation) is a moral and religious issue. And the ethics of war -- whether we go to war, when we go to war, and whether we tell the truth about going to war -- is a profoundly moral and religious matter. When Jesus has somehow become pro-rich, pro-war, and only pro-American, many of us feel that our faith has been stolen, and it's time to take it back.
What the left doesn't get is that religion is not all right wing, nor does relating faith to politics inevitably result in theocracies and jihads. Religion can be compatible with both pluralism and democracy and can add important values to both. And the separation of church and state does not require the silencing of religious and moral conscience in politics. The biggest mistake that progressives have made in the last several decades is conceding the whole territory of religion and values to the religious and political right. The results of that have been disastrous for progressive politics. Religious or not, most Americans care about the moral compass of their society.
Last summer, I concluded a speech at a People of Faith luncheon at the Democratic National Convention by saying: “By withdrawing into secularism and failing to deﬁne critical political issues in moral and, when appropriate, religious terms, the Democratic Party concedes the ‘religious issue' to the Republican Party, which then deﬁnes it solely on their own terms. It also deprives Americans of an important moral and religious debate on crucial issues like poverty. We must not let that happen.”
It happened in the 2004 campaign, and that mistake should not be made again.
It has become an article of faith among many leading Democrats that they lost the 2004 election because their party and its candidates were considered “too secular” and too removed from the “moral values” cherished by a majority of American voters. According to this credo, Democrats, to regain the White House, must adopt a strategy of ﬁghting ﬁre with ﬁre -- presenting socially progressive religious values as an alternative to the right-wing religious ethos so forcefully articulated by President George W. Bush. Americans are to be convinced that God himself is displeased by the Bush administration's tax cuts for the rich, its war in Iraq, and a host of other initiatives that the Republican religious right has cast in its image of the deity.
If the advocates of faith-based campaigning have their way -- and there is good reason to fear that they will, given the Democrats' panic at the election results -- it could mean nothing less than the end of the American experiment as we have known it since 1789. If Democrats opt to place an irresolvable conﬂict of biblical interpretation front and center in politics, they would be turning their backs, as Republicans have already done, on the genius of the ﬁrst secular Constitution in the world -- and on the Framers who shocked the religious rightists of their day by deliberately omitting any mention of a deity, instead ceding supreme governmental authority to “We the People.”
Political campaigns would be reduced to a duel of theologies, with each side claiming that its version of religion -- deﬁned, for the most part, as biblically based Christianity -- represents the true soul of America. Opponents of the Iraq War would quote the Jesus who said, “Blessed are the peacemakers,” and pro-war hawks would cite the Jesus who declared, “I came not to bring peace but a sword.”
Jim Wallis makes it clear in God's Politics that many liberals are as determined as conservatives to invoke divine authority. In a broad and startling assertion, Wallis argues that Bush is guilty of “bad theology” in his attitudes on war and social justice, and that “the answer to bad theology is not secularism; it is good theology.”
But Americans are not electing a theologian in chief -- not yet, at any rate. What Democrats and liberals need to do is convince voters not that Bush is a bad theologian but that he is a bad president. Moreover, liberals who cite the peace-loving, wealth-redistributing Jesus as their authority are every bit as selective in their interpretation of the Old Testament and the New Testament as are Bush and his favorite Supreme Court judge, Antonin Scalia, who frequently uses biblical quotations to argue on behalf of the government's right to impose the death penalty. That I generally agree with Wallis' politics and disagree with Scalia's is irrelevant to the civic danger inherent in looking heavenward for solutions to social problems that can only be resolved on the earthbound plane of human reason.
On a pragmatic level, an explicitly religious campaign strategy would surely fail. In the ﬁrst place, politicians who have never been comfortable talking about religion are bound to look like hypocrites -- even if their faith is of long standing. Howard Dean, who was tarred with the dreaded s-word (for “secularism” or “Satan,” take your pick) during the 2004 primaries, got no points in Iowa for suddenly discovering that he prayed daily. As Democratic Party chairman, Dean's tin ear for religious sensibilities recently resurfaced when he described Republicans as an exclusionary party of white Christians. Dean would have been accurate had he amended his remarks to note that the Republican Party is beholden to a minority of far-right Christian fanatics -- but that statement would have created an even greater furor.
Indeed, there is scant evidence to support the theory that religious values were decisive in the last election. A post-election poll conducted by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life found that only 21 percent of voters considered faith “more important than other factors” in casting their ballots. An additional 26 percent said that faith was “about as important as other factors.” A majority -- 53 percent -- declared that faith was “less important than other factors” or “not important at all.” Why should Democrats base their campaign strategies on the one-ﬁfth of voters for whom faith outweighs everything else?
Much has also been made of the fact that Bush won a majority of Catholic votes. But here again, there is little evidence that religion was decisive. Among non-Latino Catholics, Bush's majority was 53 percent, but 69 percent of Latino Catholics voted for John Kerry. Are white Catholics more devout than Latinos? Given the vast economic disparity between white and Hispanic Catholics (many more of whom are ﬁrst-generation immigrants), it seems likely that Mammon had more to do with the election results than God. The drift of American-born Catholic voters from the New Deal coalition is of long standing and parallels the upward economic mobility of the overall Catholic population.
In any event, Democratic candidates can talk about God's green earth and beating swords into plowshares all they like. They can speak of “our Bible” in the ingratiating, proprietary tone that New York Senator Hillary Clinton recently adopted. But right-wing fundamentalists are still going to favor the party whose leadership displays open contempt for the separation of church and state. That would be the Republican Party.
Yet critics of recent Democratic campaigns are absolutely right to argue that civic life would be greatly enhanced by a discussion of moral values that transcends the current American ﬁxation on sexual issues. The advocates of faith-based politics are also right when they call for Democratic candidates to begin speaking about values with a passion and moral conviction that has been sorely lacking. But they are wrong to confuse, as they regularly do, the appropriate presence of religion in public life with an inappropriate relationship between religion and government.
Numerous politicians have cited the leadership role of black churches in the civil-rights movement as evidence that strict separation of church and state is a fantasy of the secularist left. But men and women of faith wield their most effective inﬂuence in public life when they speak truth to power, as the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. did so eloquently, from outside the governmental structure. Proponents of publicly ﬁnanced faith-based programs never stop to consider how ineffective the civil-rights leadership of the African American clergy would have been in the 1950s and '60s if the black church had been dependent on a faith-based government dole.
The civil-rights movement succeeded because it helped to forge a new moral consensus that transcended all religions and ran counter to some. The blood of Michael Schwerner and Andrew Goodman, secular Jews and atheists, was shed for the same moral principles as that of James Chaney, a Christian murdered alongside them in Mississippi during the summer of 1964. To imply that secular moral values are inferior to religion-based moral values is an insult to the memory of all the freethinkers, agnostics, atheists, and secular humanists -- however they identify themselves -- who have put their lives, fortunes, and sacred honor on the line for this country.
The push for faith-based politics is based not only on the unexamined philosophical premise that there can be no morality in the absence of religion but also on the fallacious historical premise that American leaders have always appealed to their countrymen on the basis of faith. In fact, American presidents before 1976 almost never emphasized religion -- particularly their personal beliefs -- in their most important speeches. (Abraham Lincoln's second inaugural address is the exception that proves the rule, but Lincoln's observation that both North and South prayed to the same God, while receiving entirely different answers about slavery, is hardly an argument for the efﬁcacy of divine guidance in resolving political conﬂicts.)
For those appalled at the direction in which the Bush administration has taken the country, the paramount task is ﬁnding a way to appeal to the conscience of the nation in an inclusionary, rather than an exclusionary, way. I have a hunch, given the strong public support for embryonic stem-cell research and the widespread public disapproval of Congress' sanctimonious attempt to intervene in the Terri Schiavo case, that mainstream voters have had enough of politicians who claim that their morality should dictate moral -- and legal -- standards for all Americans.
To reach those fed-up voters, an invocation of reason -- not religion -- is of primary importance. A concept that once ﬁgured prominently in both ordinary and elevated American political discourse, “reason” now seems as verboten a word as “secularism.” Whatever the nature of their individual religious beliefs, the most important members of the revolutionary generation were united by the Enlightenment (another naughty word) conviction that if God existed, he had created human reason as the supreme instrument for understanding and governing the natural world.
But Democrats can look to more recent examples of the power of forthright appeals to reason. On June 10, 1963, John F. Kennedy, in a major speech at the American University, announced his decision to begin negotiations with the Soviet Union on the comprehensive nuclear test-ban treaty. Kennedy did, in fact, make two biblical allusions. One quote, “the wicked ﬂee where no man pursueth,” was used to characterize the views of Soviet military leaders trying to convince Nikita Khrushchev that the United States intended to launch a preventive war.
The body of the speech -- now considered the beginning of détente -- is a masterful invocation of reason and its power for good. Noting that each nation possessed the capacity to destroy the other many times over, Kennedy described peace as “the necessary rational end of rational men.” He continued:
I realize that the pursuit of peace is not as dramatic as the pursuit of war -- and frequently the words of the pursuer fall on deaf ears. But we have no more urgent task … . Our problems are manmade -- therefore they can be solved by man. And man can be as big as he wants. No problem of human destiny is beyond human beings. Man's reason and spirit have often solved the seemingly unsolvable -- and we believe they can do it again. I am not referring to the absolute, inﬁnite concept of universal peace and goodwill of which some fantasies and fanatics dream. I do not deny the value of hopes and dreams, but we merely invite discouragement and incredulity by making that our only and immediate goal.
Kennedy then noted that “in the ﬁnal analysis, our most basic common link is that we all inhabit this small planet. We all breathe the same air. We all cherish our children's futures. And we are all mortal.”
It is difﬁcult to imagine a stronger statement of secular moral values than the contention that it is our obligation to secure peace not because we hope for immortality but because we are mortal. Kennedy might, of course, have quoted the “turn the other cheek” adage, as well as Jesus' command to “love your enemies” and “do good to them that hurt you.” But the president understood that history offers little support for the idea that people can be persuaded to love their enemies, however laudable that may be as a personal or spiritual goal. What citizens can be persuaded to do, albeit with considerable difﬁculty, is to stop trying to obliterate their enemies through war.
Because Republicans (and not only President Bush) have cited divine authority in support of their policy views, the next Democratic candidate must -- as John Kerry failed to do -- deal forthrightly with the religious issue. Kennedy's famous speech before the Houston ministers in 1960 was necessitated by Protestant suspicions that any Catholic president would pose a threat to the separation of church and state. But a Democratic candidate today must challenge the slanderous right-wing assertion that respect for secular government means disrespect for religion.
I am assuming, by the way, that the next Democratic candidate will be a believer in God as well as a member of some church. I believe the polls indicating that a majority of Americans would refuse to vote for an atheist. I doubt that even Abraham Lincoln -- who steadfastly refused to join any church because his personal faith had nothing to do with conventional religious hierarchy -- would be acceptable today as a major-party nominee. If I were a speechwriter for the next Democratic campaign, I would advise the presidential nominee to say something like this:
I stand before you as a candidate for the presidency of the United States, and I believe that it is my duty to share my views on the proper relationship between religion and government. For eight years, Republicans have mounted an unprecedented assault on America's cherished tradition of separation of church and state. They have attempted to write their particular religious views into law and have suggested that anyone who disagrees with their policies is lacking in values, morality, and respect for religion. This suggestion is an affront both to God and to a free people, and I will never insult your intelligence or your faith by claiming that I, or my government, speak for the Almighty.
I believe in God and am a practicing -- -- -- , and I believe just as deeply that separation of church and state was America's founding gift, not only to its own citizens but to the world. Above all, I believe -- as the Founders of this country believed -- that God has given us the gift of reason to solve our earthly problems. I will never suggest that my policies are the right ones for our country because my God says so. I will never allow one form of religion to exercise a veto power over any policies that I believe to be in the best interests of Americans. Rather, I will emulate Abraham Lincoln, who, when approached by ministers claiming that God had told them what the president should do about emancipating the slaves, replied, ‘Unless I am more deceived in myself than I often am, it is my earnest desire to know the will of Providence in this matter. And if I can learn what it is, I will do it! These are not, however, the days of miracles, and I suppose it will be granted that I am not to expect a direct revelation. I must study the plain, physical facts of the case, ascertain what is possible, and learn what appears to be wise and right.'
If you elect me, I pledge to you not miracles but a total commitment of my heart and mind to the hard work that lies before us all. Join with me as Americans -- whether you are religious believers or religious skeptics -- in this great enterprise. I speak of peace, social justice, and human rights -- at home and around the world -- as the necessary rational ends of rational men and women … .
Jim Wallis is the author of God's Politics, the editor of Sojourners, and the convener of Call to Renewal. Susan Jacoby is the author of Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism.