People cheer as First lady Michelle Obama speaks on stage during day one of the Democratic National Convention.
Having endured a morning in which they were accused of godlessness the Democrats made sure that they wouldn’t be vulnerable to that charge come nightfall.
On the convention’s first evening Mayor Julian Castro of San Antonio reminisced about the prayers of his grandmother. “Our parents,” remarked Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley, “always taught us to love God.” Former Ohio governor Ted Strickland somehow used Matthew 6:21 to ding Mitt Romney’s finances. And first lady Michelle Obama spoke about “a young preacher lifting us to the mountaintop to reach our dreams.”
But Tuesday morning, however, was dominated by a quite different story line. As first noted by the Christian Broadcasting Network’s David Brody the party’s platform, a seventy-page text entitled “Moving America Forward,” is somehow bereft of any mention of the word “God.” As you may imagine, ructions ensued.
This raises a key question: How did those who drafted the platform make an error that hands back to the Republicans–if only for a nanosecond–the stick they had used to beat the Democrats senseless for a good 30 years?
Let us be very clear: this platform did not come into being because a staffer on Team Obama gathered fellow caffeinated charges together and said: “Guys–a little focus here- what can we do to reach out to the atheists of America? There’s electoral gold in their vote!”
The reason that conversation never took place is that the Democrats have labored mightily for eight years to neutralize a devastatingly effective smear. Since the late 1970s the Christian Right has tarred them as the party of Godlessness.
The charge was morally wrong—there is neither shame nor indecency in non-belief. But more importantly, the charge was false. The Democratic ranks over the past few decades have included few atheists. The party did contain countless believers who did not share the religious sensibility of conservative Christians.
You can call them “religious liberals,” “religious modernists,” “religious progressives,” or “secular religionists.” But calling them “irreligious” or “godless” or even “less religious” is simply inaccurate, if not libelous. They are no more, nor no less religious than their Red State counterparts.
What must be stressed and what makes the Democrats’ blunder so puzzling is that since Sen. John Kerry’s defeat in 2004, the party has spared no effort in broadcasting its word-and-thought-defying faithiness to the American people. This has rankled not only the aforementioned atheists, but religious secularists as well (i.e., those many believers who are suspicious of all church/state entanglements).
Political platforms are misleading things. The GOP also has shifted references to religion in their platform at different times. The 2004 Democratic platform may indeed have mentioned God seven times to the scant one reference in the 2008 version. Yet the difference in terms of attention to faith issues between the 2004 Kerry and 2008 Obama candidacies is staggering.
Kerry, a privately religious man, was deeply uncomfortable with public expressions of religion. Obama, for his part, wore his Awesome Blue State God on his sleeve.
The Kerry team ran what just might be the most ham-fisted campaign in the history of faith and values politicking (read Dan Gilgoff’s “The Jesus Machine” to understand how utterly unprepared the Kerry people were to engage religious constituencies). The crack Obama outfit with its religiously themed “house-parties” and grassroots networks skillfully neutralized the advantages provided to the Republicans by the “values voters” of 2004.
The 2008 platform may have only mentioned God once. But it was there that Obama doubled down on the justification for his renovation of former President George W. Bush’s Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives. A Kerry administration would almost have surely favored a tear down of that controversial federal agency.
The point is this: as much some atheists, separationists and conservative Christians would like it to be so, the absence of a divine reference in the party platform was an accident—an error that masks the Democrats often troubling turn to faith-based politics and pandering.
UPDATE: 10:35 p.m.: Trying to rectify what I surmised was a pretty bad oversight, the Democrats voted to reinstate God’s (and, on an unrelated issue, Jerusalem’s) name into their platform. Though in doing so, that somehow managed to exponentially enlarge their self-inflicted wound. Too, they helpfully provided the GOP with helpful video documentation of the proceedings to boot!
As this video demonstrates, the amendments on reinstating Jerusalem and God into the platform met with some derision. The video also demonstrates that no one in the party figured out that it would be a really bad and confusing idea to couple a vote on “Jerusalem” (whose inclusion some would oppose for one set of reasons) with a vote on “God” (whose inclusion some would oppose for completely different reasons). Jerusalem, God—it’s all good for the Republicans who now have a record of dissenting delegates plausible booing God and America’s greatest ally.
Needless to say, few were giving God the old Bronx cheer at the DNP. The story is more complex than that. But tell that to the assorted Republican SUPER PACS who have been handed their second mind-boggling flub in as many days.
Jacques Berlinerblau is associate professor and director of Jewish Civilization at Georgetown University. His next book “How to Be Secular: A Call to Arms for Religious Freedom” will be released in September. Follow him on Twitter @Berlinerblau