Monday, 20 August 2012

View from America: A Model Secular Politician

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To coincide with the publication of his new book How to Be Secular: A Call to Arms for Religious Freedom (Houghton-Mifflin) we are posting a series of short films and blog posts by Jacques Berlinerblau, one of the most perceptive commentators on America’s religious and irreligious landscape.

In his sixth dispatch, he argues that New York's mayor Michael Bloomberg is America's best example of a secular politician.
The Secular Centre, Episode 6: A Model Secular Politician – Mayor Michael Bloomberg of New York

Very few American politicians have dared stare down the Religious Right. A rare (and highly instructive) case of one who did is Senator John McCain. Way back in 2000 “The Maverick” boldly denounced the “agents of intolerance” who had sabotaged his South Carolina primary campaign against a certain George W Bush. Of course, knowing where his bread was buttered, McCain eventually walked that one back. By his 2008 presidential run he was obediently and expediently spouting “Christian Nation” platitudes.

Mayor Michael Bloomberg of New York City, however, has yet to back down. Last September, for example, spokespersons on the Right drummed up a little controversy in the Big Apple. They charged that Bloomberg’s refusal to let religious (i.e., evangelical) clerics speak at the 9/11 memorial service constituted an assault on religious liberty. I should note that in ten years of commemorating the tragedy official clergy had usually not been invited to participate. The whole episode thus had the forced feeling of a war game for an increasingly probing, confident and swaggering Religious Right.

The mayor stood his ground (testily as you shall see in the video above) and stood for a core secular principle: a government cannot endorse one religion over any others.

His willingness to take on the powerful and well-funded Christian Right is such an oddity in American politics that it necessitates explanation. Maybe Bloomberg can stand firm because he presides over a city teeming with secularists. Maybe he can push back because he has generally maintained good relations with New York’s communities of faith.

Then again, maybe it's because he is one of the richest fellows in the country. Money talks (and eviscerates) in the American political process. Few un-secular individuals or groups can match the mayor’s personal resources; his vast wealth renders him fairly invulnerable.

More than any other US politician, New York mayor Michael
Bloomberg has stood up to the religious Right
Whatever the case may be, the Bloomberg administration is a case study in secular governance and sobriety. Last year the group American Atheists sued the city to have the “World Trade Center Cross” removed from a memorial commemorating the victims of the 9/11 attacks. Even though Bloomberg was named as a defendant in the suit (and supported the inclusion of the cross in the museum) he himself championed the right of the group to bring the case forward. In his own words: "This group of atheists, they're free in our country to not believe and not practice and we should defend their right to do that just as much as we should defend the right of every individual to practice and to believe."

Yet we should realize that secular forms of governance have their shortcomings and Bloomberg embodies these as well. At their worst, secular regimes have evinced a type of absolutism that tends to concentrate way too much power in the state. Bloomberg has brazenly banned smoking in public spaces. He has tried to limit the size of soft-drinks. The mayor has rallied against sodium levels in food at homeless shelters and recently launched a campaign against artificial baby formula.

He does this in the interest of public health and we should cut the civic-minded leader some slack. Less civic minded was his decision to grant himself a third term in 2009. At the time mayors were only allowed to serve two tours of duty. Bloomberg rammed through legislation making his eventual threepeat possible.

His considerable fortune, ostensibly, was exceedingly helpful here.

For better or for worse, Michael Bloomberg is America’s secular mayor par excellence. The next generation of secular politicians would be wise to emulate him on everything save that nasty absolutist streak.
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