KNEE-JERK REACTIONS….I’m on deadline, so don’t have time to respond in full to the feverish debate that has been taking place over the past few weeks about religion and politics. But since my name has been invoked/cursed in many of those conversations, I do want to address the reaction to an offhand comment I made about “the knee-jerk left.” Like Ed Kilgore, I have the most respect for those who can admit when they are wrong and re-engage in the debate having learned from their mistakes. So I’m here to say that I used that phrase intemperately and inaccurately. I knew as I typed it that I was reacting out of anger (and here I hear Bill Murray’s voice in my head: “Don’t blog angry, don’t blog angry”…). But having spent most of the previous week on the receiving side of dozens of emails that all went something like, “Fuck you, stupid little girl–you’re just a religious nut trying to push your backward superstitious shit on us,” maybe you’ll understand if I momentarily forgot that those views are just a small minority on the left.

That said, I do think there is a tendency on the part of some on the left to criticize conservative politicians on the basis of their religious views. Now, don’t misunderstand me. I am not defending conservative politicians, nor do I think it’s inappropriate to criticize religious beliefs, especially when they’re brought into political debate and certainly when they’re extreme. But when it’s done with broad brushstrokes–and here I’m thinking of the charge that Bush is trying to turn the country into a theocracy (see: Kevin Phillips, Bill Moyers, and other very smart people)–it can have the effect of sounding anti-religion when that’s not what I think it is. There are a lot of reasons to criticize George W. Bush, many of them related to his use and mis-use of religion. But theocracy isn’t one of them. Sam Brownback, on the other hand, does actually want to turn the U.S. into a theocracy and should be roundly criticized on that point.

Why does it matter? Not because I think Democrats are hostile to religion, because I don’t. It matters because the percentage of American voters who think the Democratic party is friendly to religion has dropped sharply in the past few years, and the change hasn’t come from Republican voters but from independents. The perception is unfair and inaccurate, but complaining about that doesn’t do any good. It’s not mouthing RNC talking points to say that Democrats are at a disadvantage when it comes to how voters perceive their approach to religion. You can say that doesn’t matter–and that’s a perfectly fair position to take. But if you think it does matter, and it certainly doesn’t help the party, the question becomes what to do about it.

More on that later. But here’s a sneak preview: It doesn’t mean, nor have I ever said, that we all engage in God-talk. That would be unnecessary, inappropriate, and wouldn’t work anyway.

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Amy Sullivan

Amy Sullivan is a Chicago-based journalist who has written about religion, politics, and culture as a senior editor for Time, National Journal, and Yahoo. She was an editor at the Washington Monthly from 2004 to 2006.