Raul Carrillo has a column in today’s Crimson arguing that Democrats need to become better at the “politics of spirituality.”
Such exhortations often contain an ambiguity, and Carillo’s is no exception. Is he criticizing liberals on substantive grounds, i.e. for their support for separation of church and state and their “neutral stance on issues of faith”? Or is he just saying they need to get better at speaking in the code of religiosity, i.e. they need better messaging and marketing? He says, for instance, that Democratic candidates in 2010 should “emulate” Obama’s religious outreach and try to “shed the stereotype of condescension toward faith.” It seems incongruous to talk about the Social Gospel and Martin Luther King if all you really want is for Democrats to improve their marketing tactics and stop being allergic to speaking in churches.
Unless, that is, Carillo wants Democrats to shed their anti-religious image by actually becoming a more or less sectarian political party like the GOP and rejecting secularism outright. Perhaps his vision is of a two-party system: evangelicals, conservative Catholics, and Mormons on the right; liberal Protestants, reformist Catholics, and Jews on the left. The rich American tradition of secularism, and the vibrant American nonreligious community, would seem to have no place in such a system. Perhaps they’d form a third party?
Now of course I’m just riffing on Carrillo’s column. I’m sure he doesn’t want to kick secularists out of the Democratic Party. But it’s not clear whether he buys into the misconception that today’s secular liberals have “socioeconomic concerns detached from moral premises,” or whether he just thinks that’s an image problem. Carrillo’s historical narrative, including his praise for “Social Gospel theologians, Catholic priests and nuns in the social justice tradition, and Reformed Jewish lawyers,” unfortunately implies the former—that modern liberals have gotten away from their genuine moral (read: religious) roots.
But secularists are not “detached from moral premises” at all. And they participated actively in all the major liberal movements that Carrillo mentions. Carrillo says, “The Civil Rights movement was cultivated in Southern Black Baptist churches,” implying, of course, that it was cultivated there only. The role of secularists and humanists in the Civil Rights movement is tragically under-appreciated. King’s close friend, adviser, and speechwriter Stanley Levison was a nonreligious Jew. As were Michael Schwerner and Andrew Goodman, the two Northerners who were murdered along with a local black man, James Chaney, by Klansmen in 1964. As was Viola Liuzzo, a middle-aged mother and activist from Detroit murdered in 1965 while driving between Selma and Montgomery. There was a reason the Civil Rights movement was called “communistic” and “atheistic” by its white opponents.
Carrillo’s claim that the “feminist, environmental, and anti-war movements were spiritual if not religious in nature” is particularly confused. First, it’s not even clear what this means. Does it mean that all those whose political beliefs are “moral” in some way, as opposed to “technocratic,” are spiritual if not religious? If so, it seems a desperate attempt to steal good people and good ideas away from the humanists and the secularists and to claim them for the “spiritual” and the religious. But the feminist movement, for one, was an obvious rebuke to the traditional and, for many, religiously mandated division of family labor. If that was “spiritual,” the word loses all meaning.
Of course, Carrillo is not wrong to say that politicians must speak to the “whole human,” and appeal to moral premises as well as material interests. But he’s wrong in thinking, or at least implying, that the religious have a monopoly on moral premises and on connection to the “whole human.”