The Campaign for Secularism

The Editors

We are chagrined that during the current U.S. presidential campaign, secular Americans cannot point to a single candidate who is willing to maintain a clear distinction between religion and public policy, insisting on the strict separation of church and state.

On the GOP side, this is not altogether surprising, given the way in which many Republicans have sought the support of religious fundamentalists in the past. John McCain says that America is a Christian nation. Mike Huckabee, who quit the race after the March 4 primaries, declared that “My faith doesn’t influence my decisions, it drives them.” Of course, the Bush administration has spent almost eight years injecting faith into politics.

Alarmingly, leading Democrats are waxing pious too. The party of Howard Dean, who once insisted that “my religion doesn’t inform my public policy,” has hurled itself into the arms of that old-time religion. Hillary Clinton says “I am very dependent on my faith” and, jarringly, that “works without faith cannot be sustained.” Barack Obama claims to be “a devout Christian” and asserts that “secularists are wrong when they ask believers to leave their religion at the door before entering into the public square.”

Regrettably, all the presidential candidates now seem to support President Bush’s faith-based initiatives, which enable federal funds to support religious charities. John McCain has affirmed that he would use federal monies to support faith-based charities, especially in education. (Mike Huckabee established a faith-based office when governor of Arkansas.) Hillary Clinton sees no contradiction between “our constitutional principles” and “faith-based initiatives.” And Barack Obama depicted faith-based programs as a “uniquely powerful way of solving problems,” especially for substance abusers.

The faith-based initiatives were never enacted into law by Congress but rather were created by George W. Bush’s executive order. A new president could end them with the stroke of a pen—but apparently that will not happen.

Rob Boston of Americans United laments that in Campaign 2008, church-state separation is “the constitutional principle that dare not speak its name.” We submit that we need a campaign for secularism!

What in the world is going on? Democratic front-runners apparently have embraced an agenda sympathetic to religion that gained prominence in 2006: closing the blue party’s perceived “God Gap.”

Much of the initiative is credited to one individual: Mara Vanderslice, a Unitarian turned evangelical who felt ignored as John Kerry’s religious outreach director. After Kerry’s 2004 defeat, she founded a consulting firm “dedicated to helping Democrats reclaim the debate on faith and values.” In 2006, she urged her client candidates (most of whom won their elections) to buy time on Christian radio stations and adopt conservative rhetoric, avoiding the phrase “separation of church and state,” because “that language says to people that you don’t want there to be a role for religion in public life.” What matters most to voters, Vanderslice insists, is “Are you on your knees?”

Vanderslice was not working for any candidate during the current primaries. But whoever gains the Democratic nomination already embraces her ideas. Clinton retained an evangelical Christian, Burns Strider, as director of faith-based outreach and appointed a “faith steering group.” Obama employed faith-outreach advisor Joshua DuBois and made “faith forums” a campaign centerpiece. Both candidates appeared alongside Pastor Rick Warren at his cavernous Saddleback Church and in many other churches.

All too few objected; though National Organization for Women president Kim Gandy complained, “I don’t want a progressive evangelical movement any more than I want the conservative one we have right now.” Democratic National Committee chief of staff Leah Daughtry was unmoved: “We’re people of faith . . . we’re not a secular party.”

This is troubling at a time when the differences between the parties matter so much. Acknowledging Mitt Romney’s withdrawal, John McCain condemned abortion and promised to appoint more Supreme Court justices like John Roberts and Samuel Alito. Though Obama and Clinton have been muted in their discussion of abortion rights during the campaign thus far, either could be expected to lean prochoice and certainly to appoint justices who will better respect the separation of church and state.

All told, the newly faith-friendly Democratic strategy may be imprudent. During Election 2006, Democrats attracted 67 percent of the vote among the secular and unchurched and just 28 percent among white evangelicals. (The two blocs are roughly similar in size.) Pursuing voters of faith may backfire if it alienates secular voters so much that they support a minor party candidate or just stay home on Election Day.

Do the candidates—or their consultants—understand the danger in lurching headlong toward the pews? Presidential candidates campaigning on their piety threaten to estrange the 43 percent of Americans who are unchurched and the 16 percent who have no religious preference or live without faith. Let’s hope the candidates soften their devout rhetoric and acknowledge that seculars are Americans too. Otherwise, secular humanists and other nonreligious voters opting to support a Democrat or Republican in November will have to hope that on matters of faith in government, the candidate of their choice was dissembling all along.

Secularists defend the First Amendment, which states that “Congress shall make no law respecting the establishment of religion,” and the constitutional principle that “no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States.” The Constitution is a wholly secular document, and our Founders consciously constructed a state based on secular concerns and interests, not religious tenets. We need a campaign to recognize the secular basis of our Constitution!

— The Editors

The Editors

Free Inquiry editorial staff.


We are chagrined that during the current U.S. presidential campaign, secular Americans cannot point to a single candidate who is willing to maintain a clear distinction between religion and public policy, insisting on the strict separation of church and state. On the GOP side, this is not altogether surprising, given the way in which many …

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