Monday, 17 September 2012

View from America: A secular guide to voting Obama

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Do come on over (and change your bookmarks accordingly): rationalist.org.uk

To coincide with the publication of his new book How to Be Secular: A Call to Arms for Religious Freedom (Houghton-Mifflin) we have been 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 eighth and final dispatch, he completes his secular guide to November's presidential election. In the last instalment he examined Mitt Romney's secular credentials, and now it's the incumbent's turn. Should secularists vote for Obama on 6 November?
An American Secular Voting Guide: Part Two, Barack Obama

   

Barack Obama and the Democrats are secularists. So on Election Day secularists should cast their ballot for Barack Obama. Right?

Well, not so fast. The Democrats, as I have been noting for a while now, are no longer “secular” in the sense of advocating strict separationism. Few have played a more important role in getting them to step back from the Wall (of separation) than President Obama.
He’s been at this for some time now. While separationist presidential candidate John Kerry was alienating the “values voters” back in 2004, state senator Obama was blowing the roof off of the Democratic National Convention by waxing poetic about the Awesome God worshipped in the Blue States. It was Kerry’s eventual demoralizing loss to George W. Bush that year that led Democrats to radically rethink their commitment to secularism.

When the presidential election of 2008 rolled around one was hard pressed to even hear the phrase “separation of church and state” on the campaign trail. Hillary Clinton and John Edwards, cognizant of the need to reach out to voters of faith, were thumpin’ Bible on the stump.

Senator Obama did that and so much more; he announced that if elected he would expand George W. Bush’s Office of Faith-based and Community Initiatives. That star-crossed federal agency was seen as a disaster by Democrats and even many Republicans. Yet here was this brash newcomer on the Left promising to fix it up. A new era was dawning.

Once elected Obama effected a shift from separationism to what is known as accommodationism (what that is and whether it counts as a form of secularism is a problem I engage here). Seen from the old separationist perspective, Obama’s record has been a mixed bag. He had conservative Evangelical pastor Rick Warren offer prayers at his inauguration. Though Obama did surprisingly reference “nonbelievers” in his address on that chilly January day. The president engages in God Talk fairly infrequently. But when Obama does praise Him he does so in ways that would make George W. Bush blush.

The most distressing development, by far, for secularists has been the aforementioned Office of Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships. This is a unit of government intended to sluice taxpayer dollars into the coffers of religious social-service providers. Then again, during the debate about the HHS contraception mandates (wherein Catholic institutions were not permitted to deny their employees contraception coverage in their health insurance packages) Obama bravely stared down the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.

What can I say? The sixties are over, man. The days when John F. Kennedy spoke about “an America where the separation of church and state is absolute” are long gone. This is a new Democratic Party. But compared to the Republicans who seem hell bent on defining America as a “Christian Nation”, the Democrats are presently the only viable alternative.

So in 2012 a secularist should vote for the Democrat. Do so with no illusions. Hope for better days.
Dear readers: my book is now out so this wraps up the first – and I am pretty sure, last – season of SecularCenter. It was tremendous fun and permit me to thank my crew and researchers. Let me also express my gratitude to the fine folks a New Humanist for airing the show.
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