On Aug. 24, the Democratic National Committee passed a resolution recognizing the “value” of “religiously unaffiliated” Americans and describing them as “largest religious group in the Democratic Party.” Democrats should reach out to everyone, including those who are not religious, but this resolution does more than that. It is bad politics, and it is also utter nonsense on its own merits.
The resolution was promoted not by an organization representing the religiously unaffiliated but by secularist groups like the Secular Coalition for America and the Freedom From Religion Foundation. These groups do not represent all the religiously unaffiliated, many of whom believe in God and are anything but “secular.” To inflate their standing, these groups use the category “religiously unaffiliated” as a kind of cover for their own ends. They speak for a group they do not represent.
The resolution describing the “religiously unaffiliated” as “largest religious group in the Democratic Party” is bad politics, and it is also utter nonsense on its own merits.
In addition, the resolution claims that the “religiously unaffiliated group represents the largest religious group within the Democratic Party.” This is a ridiculous claim that groups together atheists, agnostics and those who do not belong to a specific faith tradition—while splitting Catholics from Protestants; Hispanic Protestants from black Protestants from white Protestants; and Methodists from Presbyterians from Baptists. This claim might advance the interests of the groups that wrote the resolution, but why should it be ratified by the D.N.C.?
The resolution also includes an incoherent, dog-whistle-ridden passage that is an aspersion on religious people who do not have the right kind of politics. I have some guesses about exactly what it is referring to, but I could not tell you with any real confidence. (And I work on these issues for a living!) Here it is:
WHEREAS, those most loudly claiming that morals, values, and patriotism must be defined by their particular religious views have used those religious views, with misplaced claims of “religious liberty,” to justify public policy that has threatened the civil rights and liberties of many Americans, including but not limited to the LGBT community, women, and ethnic and religious/nonreligious minorities….
It is odd to include a statement on religious freedom in a resolution about those who are not religious. Yes, religious freedom has applications for the non-religious—for instance, the state should not coerce belief—but that is not quite the context this resolution seems to invoke. And it is hypocritical to attack those “most loudly claiming that morals, values, and patriotism must be defined by their particular religious views” in a resolution that later asserts the “value, ethical soundness, and importance of the religiously unaffiliated demographic.”
The religiously unaffiliated are not a coherent voting bloc. They are defined by what they are not, rather than by an affirmative characteristic. The problem with lifting up the religiously unaffiliated for praise is that, by the very nature of the category, the only thing you are praising is that they are not religious. Is that a virtue in and of itself?
The resolution concludes that “religiously unaffiliated Americans are a group that, as much as any other, advocates for rational public policy based on sound science and universal humanistic values and should be represented.”
“As much as any other” is one of those phrases used to allow for plausible deniability while still communicating what you really want to say. The message in this proclamation suggests that it is the religiously unaffiliated who are “rational” and grounded in “science” and “universal” values. Hemant Mehta, who blogs as the Friendly Atheist, wrote that the D.N.C. resolution must only be the “beginning of a longer relationship,” adding, “the eventual [Democratic] presidential nominee must openly court non-religious Americans by talking about the importance of church/state separation, science, and reason-based policymaking.”
By implication, religious folks are irrational and anti-science. (But notice how much so-called universal humanistic values amounts to secularized, unmoored restatements of ideas that grew out of religious teachings.) The good, or at least neutral, kind of religious people, one gathers, are those who affiliate with a religion but do not really believe it.
Playing into Trump’s hands?
The “religiously unaffiliated” resolution was passed with little thought by people entrusted with the health of the Democratic Party. Someone who was present for the vote told me it was voted on after a multi-hour debate on the climate presidential primary debate, and folks were ready for the day to be over. The resolution was viewed to be “non-operational,” meaning that it was viewed as just words on a page rather than any actual commitment from the party (it is not on the D.N.C. website), and so it was passed without much thought or care. I read a section of the resolution to someone who voted on it, and they responded: “That’s really in there? That’s not right.”
Even if many of those actually voting on the resolution did not find it important, I can guarantee that the Trump campaign and the Republican Party took note. A resolution promising that the Democratic Party will intentionally build the political power of atheists is not exactly countering religious right fear-mongering and Mr. Trump’s “we’re starting to say ‘Merry Christmas’ again” nonsense.
A resolution promising that the Democratic Party will intentionally build the political power of atheists is not exactly countering religious right fear-mongering.
We know the Trump campaign is going to try to depress turnout among Democrats (about two-thirds of whom are Christian). Imagine ads on gospel radio stations that publicize a D.N.C. resolution—without a whole lot of spin—as affirming the religiously unaffiliated (who are overwhelmingly white) and demeaning those who “loudly claim that morals, values...must be defined by their particular religious views.” What might be the reaction of the strongly Democratic “devout and diverse,” a voting bloc defined by the Pew Research Center?
This resolution is just a glimpse of the tensions in the Democratic Party that had been transcended by Barack Obama and are now being suppressed by the party-unifying disdain for Donald Trump but that will show up more as Democrats approach political success. For instance, I believe there will be significant pushback from a large faction of the party should the next Democratic president choose to swear their oath of office with their hand placed on a religious text.
Many Democrats believe that the unpopularity of the Trump administration offers the opportunity to win big by concentrating on broadly shared values and policies and running truly inclusive campaigns. But others believe that Mr. Trump is so offensive that he provides an opportunity to move the Overton Window and gain a hearing for ideas that previously had little traction in American politics. They do not necessarily believe that Democrats will win if they say certain things and support certain policies but that for the first time they have a chance of winning on these ideas.
Some Democrats in the latter category believe that these previously out-of-bounds ideas could gain mass appeal, but others are simply willing to risk losing to Mr. Trump for the chance to promote their ideological preferences. This attitude can be seen most prominently among Democratic Socialists of America members, but it was also present in 2016, when a senior strategist for the Hillary Clinton campaign reportedly bragged that they would run the first “post-Christian” campaign.
This “religiously unaffiliated” resolution certainly gave voice to some valid claims and legitimate frustrations with the religious right’s attempt to monopolize the discussion of “values.” But in its carelessness, it is just the kind of thing that helps Republicans hold on to political power.