Part of what is so grotesque about Lieberman’s tactic (and I realise it is indeed a tactic, and part of a political campaign, and that people will say whatever they think will work in those situations [which is one of the more irritating and destructive aspects of democracy] and so in a sense perhaps not to be taken too literally – but then again if the candidate thinks the tactic will work, perhaps that makes it still worth examining) is the fact that Dean hasn’t exactly been campaigning as an atheist. Has he? Not that I’m aware of. No, it’s just that he ‘has run a steadfastly secular campaign’ as the Times put it.
So he’s not even allowed to be neutral. Not allowed simply to be silent on the matter, to take no position one way or the other, to keep his opinions to himself, to keep his own counsel. Neutrality on this subject is not permitted. He has to declare, and he has to declare for one side and not the other. Public avowed ‘faith’ in a pious fiction is mandatory if you want to win high office in the US. Plenty of people are perfectly happy with that, think it’s a fine thing, an excellent guarantor of moral principles. That’s one argument, but let’s at least be clear about it. We can’t have the argument at all if most of the terms of it are forever being covered up, prettified and fuzzied and blurred and confused. If we pretend that there’s nothing at all dubious about demanding public declarations of faith in a fictional supernatural entity as a condition of election to a secular office.
I’ve noticed a couple of clichès in play that help this fuzzification process along.
“I know that some people believe that faith has no place in the so-called public square,” said Mr. Lieberman, an observant Jew. “They forget that the constitutional separation of church and state, which I strongly support, promises freedom of religion, not freedom from religion.
That’s a very popular one, almost as popular as ‘God created Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve,’ that unanswerable retort to people who favor equal treatment for gays. One has to wonder what people mean by it. We can have freedom of religion but not freedom from religion? Does Lieberman really want to say that? Religion is mandatory? We are free to choose one but we’re not free to choose none? Funny, I would have thought that the constitutional separation of church and state does indeed promise freedom from religion in the realm of the state. But then that would rule out all those invocations and prayer breakfasts and ‘in God we trust’ on the money, and that would never do.
The other banality is from the Atlantic.
Dean signed a gay-civil-union bill and is suspected of having culturally elitist values-a point made by Scott Spradling, the co-moderator at the New Hampshire debate. “Governor Dean said recently that religion does not play into his policy decisions,” Spradling noted. “Do you believe this could hurt the Democratic Party’s chances in areas of the country like the South, where politics and religion tend to go very much hand in hand?”
Culturally elitist values? Making policy decisions on grounds other than religion? That’s culturally elitist?
Well, maybe it is, maybe it is. Or maybe not. But then, surely lots of things are in some sense ‘culturally elitist’ that one would think would be useful qualifications for the job in question. Things like, you know, knowledge of the world, politics, society, history; ability to think and talk well and quickly; wisdom, understanding, judgment. Those are all minority attributes, though they’re also all attributes we can all aspire to, they’re all attributes we can all develop in ourselves if we put some effort into it, they’re not like being seven feet tall, which only a few of us can do. But even more than that, consider the way such assertions function as directives; the way the descriptive becomes the normative in the act of being uttered. ‘Most people ______.’ Therefore (the implication goes) you’d better _____ too if you don’t want to be abnormal and weird and geeky and, ooh er ah ugh, ‘culturally elitist.’ So both religion and being like Everyone Else become mandatory, and we get yet another drearily mediocre talent-free guy for president. The resounding banality has done its work again.