Get comfortable talking about your faith," Arkansas senator Blanche Lincoln, the only Democrat in the South to be reelected, recently told a party meeting called "The Road Back." The gathering, sponsored by the Democratic Leadership Council, brought together a number of mournful party members looking for a way to break into the red states and get themselves some votes.
Lincoln's prescription for electoral success may make sense for Democratic politicians thirsting for office, but its unstated premise is one that should scare the bejesus out of any nonbeliever -- if there are such persons willing to so designate themselves in a climate thick with assertions of the primacy of faith. Lincoln is saying, in effect, that if you don't have faith, you have no place in the public life of the nation.
What's being asked of the religiously nonaligned is more than the respectful, if somewhat insincere, doffing of the hat toward the faith of others. This is not about some goofy debate over taking "under God" out of the Pledge of Allegiance or complaining about the electric menorah in front of the public library. Nor is it about the bombastic, self-righteous imprecations uttered by an overly compensated licensed divine at a ribbon-cutting or the opening of the legislative day. Regardless of how antipathetical toward religion a person may be, if one is sane, one shrugs one's shoulders and gets on with the day's agenda. What's going on here is intimidating people into uttering religious thoughts they do not mean and going along with the insertion of the religious interest and religious advantage into all and every aspect of public and institutional life.
The president and his administration push religion and persons of faith (odious term) up and into every place they can. Corporations are sweetly pressuring their employees into religious groups. They used to say that you couldn't get ahead if you were fat, short, bald, or any combination thereof. We are swiftly moving toward the moment when you will not be able to get ahead if you haven't demonstrated that you are religious.
Lincoln, whether she realizes it or not, is backing an informal but devastatingly effective religious test. The Republicans have had one going for some time, and now the Democrats are accepting a test of faith as what they must do to be competitive.
So let them go do it. Judging from the miserable time that John Kerry had not getting comfortable talking about his faith, the Democrats might think of going on the Internet to buy equipment to help them fit into red-state culture. There must be a Web site where you can buy a wrench for tightening your ass, and there should be Internet schools where formerly louche Democrats can learn the language of religious cant.
As the pietistical pose becomes the uniform stance in public life, brace yourself for the especially nauseating form of hypocrisy which is religious hypocrisy. The phony reverential attitude, the lowering of the eyes, the clasping of the hands in a way which denotes piety and pure living, the formulaic braying and the unarguable deference for any inanity so long as it comes from a religious source -- it all follows. Perhaps the worst consequence which comes with elevating religion to a place of such importance is empowerment of the clergy.
The cost of destroying a secular public life will, if allowed to proceed, undermine the stability of American democracy. All these people on their knees holding candles may not appreciate it, but public religion -- not privately held religious beliefs -- is the enemy of our kind of government. Even in the long-past era when most Americans were some brand or other of Calvinist, religion had to be pushed into the corners of politics so that a nascent secular culture could nourish democracy. In the first half of the 19th century, the battle to drive religion out of the political forum and into the home was not easily or ever entirely won. Waves of religious mania battered the country and threatened democratic institutions and practice. They still do.
The conservative Christians and their churches, which are using their temporary, strategic, electoral-minority position to gain majority dominance, will live to wish that they hadn't labored so long to put "people of faith" in the driver's seat. Other than dogmatism and a built-in resistance to reason, logic, and science, sectarian religions have nothing in common except a potential antagonism for each other. "Religion" and "faith" are pushing ahead on a common front now, but in due course they will fall on each other with mortal fury. History teaches that the one thing religions hate more than secularism is other religions. With each year that religions are encouraged and given a preferential place, they become more demanding and more truculent in claiming power and deference.
Intra-sectarian violence has already manifested itself in France and the Netherlands. In France, it has taken the form of Muslim anti-Semitism; in the Netherlands, the Muslims apparently started it, but the Christians have eagerly joined in. You would have thought that 15 years after the end of Communism and the resurgence of pre-Marxist religious antipathies and feuds, no democratic politician with his or her head screwed on right would encourage religionism, but the nonsectarian Republicans have been supporting and backing the religious fanatics in their ranks. Possibly some of the nonreligious nuts in the party think that this upheaval in religion is a long-needed moral purgative while at the same time believing that they can control these hopped-up evangelicals and use them for their own not-so-religious, profit-making purposes.
What possesses the Democrats to play this game is beyond understanding. Their lately-come-by piety is not going to fool anyone. The Democratic Leadership Council types are saying that Bill Clinton is an example of a politician who was able to talk comfortably about his faith, to use Lincoln's phrase, but they're kidding themselves. The religious people took Clinton for the lying whoremaster he regrettably was and broke their backs trying to drive him out of office on morals charges. They almost did it too. If the leaders of the Democratic Party hope that they can fool the holy people by buying themselves white leatherette-bound Bibles and pink plastic Jesuses and turning up to give testimony at church, they've got another think coming. That is going to hoodwink the same number of people who can't see through it when liberals call themselves progressives. You know the old saying: "Just because he's crazy doesn't mean he's stupid." The same for religious nuts.
When you consider the background of so many people in the Democratic Party, it is bewildering that they would take the risk of encouraging what can so easily become communitarian/sectarian conflict. The parents and grandparents of many of them suffered from the hatreds and violence which sprang from allowing religion the kind of role that the evangelicals are demanding. Now their grandchildren are willing to risk a reprise?
Once the flames of sectarian conflict are ignited, it takes a thousand devils to stamp them out -- and that is 999 devils more than the Democrats have at their command. Religion is absolutism, and absolutism goes to war with anything it abuts. Turn on the Christian television -- cable is full of it --and listen to them denounce "humanistic relativism." What is relativism? It is moderation, it is accommodation, it is the rule of reason, it is acknowledgment of others who are different, it is a repudiation of dogmatics -- but dogmatics are what religion is built on.
Given the history of this party, given the thousands of members who in the past have been prime targets of faith-based hatred, Democrats will do better in every way to leave the dogmatics to the Republicans. There are worse things than being accused of humanistic relativism and a proclivity for the rule of reason. Who knows, the Democrats may be in for a surprise: On occasion, those who are true to themselves have been known to win an election. n
Nicholas von Hoffman writes for The New York Observer, where this column first appeared.