A Secular Candidate? What an Idea!

This is a heartening statement. It’s good to see something, finally, to counter the bilge about presidential candidates and religion one sees in a lot of the press.

In Campaign 2004, secularism has become a dirty word. Democrats, particularly Howard Dean, are being warned that they do not have a chance of winning the presidential election unless they adopt a posture of religious “me-tooism” in an effort to convince voters that their politics are grounded in values just as sacred as those proclaimed by President Bush.

Aren’t they though. And there aren’t nearly enough people saying what childish nonsense that is. Maybe they’re all too busy explaining why they call themselves ‘brights’ – no, I won’t believe that.

At any rate, this op-ed says something I’ve been muttering for years. Years.

Americans tend to minimize not only the secular convictions of the founders, but also the secularist contribution to later social reform movements. One of the most common misconceptions is that organized religion deserves nearly all of the credit for 19th-century abolitionism and the 20th-century civil rights movement…Abolitionists like William Lloyd Garrison, editor of The Liberator, and the Quaker Lucretia Mott, also a women’s rights crusader, denounced the many mainstream Northern religious leaders who, in the 1830’s and 40’s, refused to condemn slavery. In return, Garrison and Mott were castigated as infidels and sometimes as atheists — a common tactic used by those who do not recognize any form of faith but their own. Garrison, strongly influenced by his freethinking predecessor Thomas Paine, observed that one need only be a decent human being — not a believer in the Bible or any creed — to discern the evil of slavery.

It’s not even only Americans. I heard Ann Widdicombe, the Tory MP, say the same thing on the BBC once – that religion is a good thing because it inspired the abolitionists. Well it also shored up their opponents, so that argument is at best a wash. And as Jacoby indicates, there were far more pious opponents of abolitionism than there were pious advocates of it.

Not a scintilla of bravery is required for a candidate, whether Democratic or Republican, to take refuge in religion. But it would take genuine courage to stand up and tell voters that elected officials cannot and should not depend on divine instructions to reconcile the competing interests and passions of human beings… Today, many voters, of many religious beliefs, might well be receptive to a candidate who forthrightly declares that his vision of social justice will be determined by the “plain, physical facts of the case” on humanity’s green and fragile earth. But that would take an inspirational leader who glories in the nation’s secular heritage and is not afraid to say so.

And of course with all the candidates uniting to nag each other to declare for religion, and columns like this one all too rare – we’d better not hold our breaths while waiting for that inspirational leader.

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