Throwing church-state separation under the bus

THROWING CHURCH-STATE SEPARATION UNDER THE BUS…. The New York Times has a fascinating piece today on Democratic strategist Mara Vanderslice, and her 2-year-old consulting firm, Common Good Strategies, which aims to help the Democratic Party and its candidates appeal to theologically conservative voters. I found most of what Vanderslice had to say compelling, with one major exception.

Vanderslice reportedly helped Dems make “deep inroads” among white evangelical and churchgoing Roman Catholic voters in 2006 in Kansas, Michigan, Ohio, and Pennsylvania. I haven’t seen the specific numbers — nationally, the evangelical vote was largely unchanged this year — but the Times piece reports that Vanderslice’s candidates did “10 percentage points or so better than Democrats nationally among those voters.” If so, that’s pretty impressive.

All of Vanderslice’s advice — speak at conservative religious schools, buy commercials on Christian radio, and organize meetings with politically-influential clergy — sounded largely inoffensive to my secular ears, right up until Vanderslice addressed church-state separation.

In an interview, she said she told candidates not to use the phrase “separation of church and state,” which does not appear in the Constitution’s clauses forbidding the establishment or protecting the exercise of religion.

“That language says to people that you don’t want there to be a role for religion in our public life,” Ms. Vanderslice said. “But 80 percent of the public is religious, and I think most people are eager for that kind of debate.”

That’s spectacularly wrong, and frankly, a little dangerous. The separation of church and state is what guarantees religious liberty in the United States. It’s the principal reason religion has flourished in this country — because believers have always known that they are free to worship (or not) without aid or interference from the state, which is bound by the Constitution to remain neutral on matters of faith. No matter what your beliefs, the separation of church and state protects you, not inhibits you.

To tell candidates to avoid support for church-state separation, and to insist that the constitutional principle is somehow hostile towards religion, is not only to play the religious right’s game, it’s endorsing the movement’s rules.

I can appreciate the fact that Vanderslice is almost certainly well-intentioned, and her approach to religious outreach appears to be successful, but have we really reached a point in which Democrats have to hesitate before embracing First Amendment principles, for fear that voters won’t approve?

Don’t answer that; I’m afraid I already know the answer.

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Steve Benen

Steve Benen is a producer at MSNBC's The Rachel Maddow Show. He was the principal contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal blog from August 2008 until January 2012.