Monday, February 11, 2008

Religious Talk is not Enough to Close the God Gap

2/11/2008--In the Sunday, February 10, New York Times book review, Notre Dame History Professor R. Scott Appleby reviewed two books that applaud the efforts of the Democratic Party and left-wing religious people to close the “God gap” in American politics: Amy Sullivan’s How and Why Democrats Are Closing the God Gap and E. J. Dionne Jr.’s Reclaiming Faith and Politics After the Religious Right.

I have not read either book, which by now should teach me not to say anything. In addition, I described and predicted some of the same phenomena that these authors are discussing, in my 2007 book, American Religious Democracy. So I should have no complaint.

Nevertheless, references to God and openness to religious belief in the public square are not consistent with the strict separation of church and state that many liberals still insist on. As far as I can tell, neither Sullivan and Dionne, nor the politicians and religious people they describe, have dealt with that fundamental problem. In fact, rather strangely, while Appleby quotes Senator Barack Obama criticizing secularists for asking that religious language be banned from the public square, as late as last year, the Senator was insisting that "democracy demands that the religiously motivated translate their concerns" into secular language when debating public issues. If Senator Obama has changed his mind about that, I am glad. But I never heard him address the matter.

Making a genuine pitch for religious votes requires more than donning a yarmulke or uttering the word “God”. It means accepting a real and enduring place for religion in public life. You cannot have that and, at the same time, laud Mark Lilla’s book The Stillborn God, which “praises America and Western Europe for simultaneously separating religion from politics, creating space for religion, and staving off sectarian violence and theocracy.” There is a great deal of conceptual confusion about religion and politics on the left.

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