In Sunday’s WaPo, George Washington University law prof Jonathan Turley delivered himself of one of those classic Beltway “both sides are doing it” scoldings that contend that Democrats and Republicans are equally guilty–in this case, of breaching the Jeffersonian wall separation of church and state. The guilty Democratic party is President Obama, whom Turley charges with betraying the Danbury Baptists who wrote to President Jefferson 210 years ago asking for help in the church-state separation department.
Like his Republican counterparts, Obama has denounced secularists — and,
implicitly, their view of complete separation of church and state. He
has chastised people who object to the religiosity that has become the
norm in American politics. “Secularists,” he once insisted, “are wrong when they ask believers to leave their religion at the door before entering into the public square.”
Let’s hold it right there. The denunciation in question occurred in Obama’s 2006 Call to Renewal speech, in which Obama also declared, “I do not believe that religious people have a monopoly on morality.” And in which he went on to say that “progressives”
need to understand the critical role that the separation
of church and state has played in preserving not only our democracy, but
the robustness of our religious practice. Folks tend to forget that
during our founding, it wasn’t the atheists or the civil libertarians
who were the most effective champions of the First Amendment. It was the
persecuted minorities, it was Baptists like John Leland who didn’t want
the established churches to impose their views on folks who were
getting happy out in the fields and teaching the scripture to slaves. It
was the forebears of the evangelicals who were the most adamant about
not mingling government with religious, because they did not want
state-sponsored religion hindering their ability to practice their faith
as they understood it.
Moreover, given the increasing diversity of America’s population, the
dangers of sectarianism have never been greater. Whatever we once were,
we are no longer just a Christian nation; we are also a Jewish nation, a
Muslim nation, a Buddhist nation, a Hindu nation, and a nation of
I’d say that was a pretty robust defense of the Jeffersonian wall, nicely contextualized in Turley’s own terms of early Baptist separationism.
So how else is the president the Democratic equivalent of Perry, Bachmann, Santorum, Gingrich, et al. OK, Obama has used religious language on the stump, borrowed the title of his first book from a sermon, and invited Rick Warren to give the invocation at his inaugural. But also, in his inaugural address, he made a point of including those pesky Nones: “We are a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus, and non-believers.”
Once in office Obama did, as Turley says, expand the “scope” of President Bush’s faith-based initiative. A good argument could be made that, in doing so, he watered down Bush’s project of shifting federal dollars into faith-based non-profits. What’s indisputable is that his November 2010 executive order replacing Bush’s 2002 rules governing faith-based social service provision went some way (if not far enough) toward repairing the breach in the separationist wall.
In other ways, too, the Obama administration has pushed back against the sort of merging of religion into state activity condoned if not encouraged by the GOP. To take one recent example, Air Force brass last month issued letters to all personnel but especially the cadet wing of the Air Force Academy laying out a standard of government neutrality towards religion. The evangelical near-takeover of the Air Force during the Bush era has been stopped in its tracks. Meanwhile, as noted yesterday, the administration is standing up for secular principles in health care provision and employment law.
For better or worse, Obama has not come close to mirroring the Republican embrace of what Turley calls “theopolitical policies.” It does a disservice to the public to pretend otherwise.