God is all very well and good, as long as he makes himself useful to the cause?

So I noticed on Facebook that a blogger with the Christian Broadcasting Network is making a bit of an issue of the fact that a plank in the proposed Democratic platform that mentioned God four years ago no longer does:

Guess what? God’s name has been removed from the Democratic National Committee platform.

This is the paragraph that was in the 2008 platform:

“We need a government that stands up for the hopes, values, and interests of working people, and gives everyone willing to work hard the chance to make the most of their God-given potential.”

Now the words “God-given” have been removed. The paragraph has been restructured to say this:

“We gather to reclaim the basic bargain that built the largest middle class and the most prosperous nation on Earth – the simple principle that in America, hard work should pay off, responsibility should be rewarded, and each one of us should be able to go as far as our talent and drive take us.”

Yes, that could have been the work of an overzealous secularizer, but it could also have been inadvertent. After all, “God-given” (something a Deist could well have said, by the way, not exactly a Bible-thumping sort of mention) wasn’t just deleted, as such; the whole sentence was recast.

I was more interested in what the blogger went on to cite as the platform’s only remaining mention of “faith:”

“Faith has always been a central part of the American story, and it has been a driving force of progress and justice throughout our history. We know that our nation, our communities, and our lives are made vastly stronger and richer by faith and the countless acts of justice and mercy it inspires. Faith-based organizations will always be critical allies in meeting the challenges that face our nation and our world – from domestic and global poverty, to climate change and human trafficking. People of faith and religious organizations do amazing work in communities across this country and the world, and we believe in lifting up and valuing that good work, and finding ways to support it where possible. We believe in constitutionally sound, evidence-based partnerships with faith-based and other non-profit organizations to serve those in need and advance our shared interests. There is no conflict between supporting faith-based institutions and respecting our Constitution, and a full commitment to both principles is essential for the continued flourishing of both faith and country.”

Anything strike you about that? Here’s what struck me: that the value of faith is set entirely in terms of how it furthers the political and social agenda of those writing the words. “a driving force of progress and justice… critical allies in meeting the challenges that face our nation and our world… We believe in constitutionally sound, evidence-based partnerships…” In other words, there is no particular inherent value; religion is only useful insofar as it is, well, useful.

Which isn’t exactly the way most people of faith would look at it. In fact, they’d be more apt to evaluate a party in terms of the degree to which it further’s God’s, or Allah’s, will. This seems the other way around, more like, God is good, but only when he votes our way.

I in no way malign the Democrats by interpreting the paragraph this way, though. Does anyone doubt that Republicans try to use the Almighty in the same manner? The Dems are just being franker about it. The main difference is that Democrats feel that they have to go through all kinds of explanations as to why it is, too, constitutional for them to be talking about faith.

45 thoughts on “God is all very well and good, as long as he makes himself useful to the cause?

  1. `Kathryn Braun Fenner

    Religion is only *appropriate* IN THE POLITICAL REALM insofar as it meets those guidelines. You are, as is your constitutional right, free to exercise your beliefs in private.

  2. Brad

    A person of principle exercises his or her beliefs, true beliefs, 100 percent of the time, and does not sequester those beliefs.

    You’re missing a key point here. That paragraph purports to describe the role faith has played “in the American story.” That role is considerably larger than “it’s done some stuff we agree with, so we guess it’s OK.”

    I mentioned recently that two of my favorite courses in college were U.S. Social and Intellectual History, before and after 1865. Before 1865, it was about 90 percent about matters of faith. Yeah, there was some enlightenment stuff in there, and some transcendentalism toward the end, but from the time the first settlers got here through the establishment of such hothouses of ideas such as Harvard and on and on, the story of the nation’s social and intellectual life was one of the development of and interaction between various ways of considering the divine. (And of course, the advocates of the Enlightenment and the Transcendentalists spent much of their time contemplating and trying to achieve some sort of understanding of the numinous.)

    On a certain level, I guess you might say, that paragraph offended my sense of history…

  3. Brad

    And yes, I know I’m being a nit-picker here. That person was TRYING to say something nice about faith. I just thought it fell way short.

    And this is closely related to the reasons why modern liberals cannot count me among their number, so I have baggage on this one…

  4. Kathryn Fenner

    Plenty of good things have been done for this country by people with no religious faith, too. Probably a lot more than one might think, given the need to keep quiet about it.

  5. Joanne

    I read on one of the news sites that the Republicans did not reference our military during their convention.

    Can we call it even?

  6. Karen McLeod

    But, when you’re talking about the poor and disenfranchised (and yes, when talking about climate change, guess who has to live with the problems without any buffers?), then caring for them is God’s will, or at least Isaiah, Jeremiah, Amos, et. al., not to mention Jesus seemed to think so.

  7. Herb Brasher

    Just listening to the convention, one speaker after another seems to be falling over the other to refer to Scripture. So I think they are doing their best to make up for the lack of civil religion in the platform.

    Both parties are out to appeal to their electoral base. The Republicans know that they have to use civil religion directly in order to appeal to the large portion of evangelicals within their ranks.

    The Democrats have it a bit more difficult, but it seems to me that this platform statement is cleverly designed to reassure religious people (while not putting off others), in particular by coming out in defense of faith-based organizations.

    Either way, civil religion is at the service of political aspirations, as you have well pointed out. This is always curious to Europeans, who find it difficult to understand. Both Europeans and Americans could benefit from more teaching on religion and its role in US history and politics, but of course Europeans don’t have a whole lot of respect for US history. They probably should, for though it is brief (in comparison to theirs, of course), it has had a lot of impact on our world today.

    The real embarrassment is the lack of knowledge in our own country about the role of faith and religion in US history and politics (both the good and the bad).

    On second thought, maybe the greatest embarrassment is that the leadership of the free world rests upon the shoulders of those who engage in what appears to me to be a media circus for no purpose, and the election of leadership based upon slogans and ten-second sound bites. Or can someone explain to me the purpose of these conventions? Do they really warrant the expense they involve?

    My personal preference would be to spare us the conventions (and the debates, for that matter), and instead have several TV round-table discussions, each involving both the Pres and Veep candidates as well as other key political representatives, and each session dedicated to just one particular issue.

  8. Phillip

    I wouldn’t argue with your historical analysis of the role of religion in American history, but a political party’s platform is not the place for that discussion, rather, it has to outline the appropriate intersection of religion and politics in our modern liberal democracy, today.

    Since politics and governance must deal with the needs of people here and now on earth, the best and most appropriate point of intersection between religion and the state is exactly in the areas outlined by that platform paragraph. Discussing any other aspects of religious belief or the “inherent value” thereof is not a proper role of a political party in a nation that is not a theocracy.

    If I am reading between the lines correctly here, it may bother you that liberals or Democrats sometimes (to your ears) sound apologetic or go through “all kinds of explanations” to accommodate those of faith, those of different faiths, those of no specific religious belief, within their ideological umbrella. But isn’t that far preferable to the Republican view as expressed last week by Marco Rubio in his speech at the convention: “Faith in our creator is the most important American value of them all.” Which of course tells all non-believers that they are essentially un-American. Not to mention who is “our” Creator?

    BTW, “a person of principle” is not synonymous with “a person of faith.” And of course one does not “sequester” one’s beliefs, but liberal democracy cannot work unless people of faith–or principle—understand that they are surrounded by people equally motivated by different beliefs, and thus establishing a framework that accommodates all is the only way for the democracy/society to function. If people of faith really are “more apt to evaluate a party in terms of the degree to which it further’s God’s, or Allah’s, will,” (an incredibly depressing prospect to me, except until I remember that religious belief is on the decline worldwide) then maybe we should just get rid of the sham of Democrats vs. Republicans and just have candidates and parties labeled strictly by religious affiliation or lack thereof.

  9. Mark Stewart

    Brad, sometimes your ruminations on faith’s centrality remind me of the eternal question that made the chicken and the egg argument possible: Did God create man in his image, or did man create God to challenge his need for neurological growth and social development? Either way, faith is the yearning for a higher purpose in life. Without it we are just ants.

    So it is always frustrating to see it debased. We should always be principled; but must always be aware that the best principles are the ones that unify us and provide for a shared purpose outside of our own selves – and that when these principals are allowed to be debased they become bludgeons of self-serving rectitude.

  10. Mark Stewart

    Steven, Allah is God.

    Were you see/seek conflict is at the lower level of religious affiliation. All the lines of religious thought eminating from the areas around Jerusulem are like siblings. Jews, Muslims, Christians, Mormons, Jehovas Witnesses et al share a common ancestry.

    If you feel that way about Islam, think about that maybe we have less conflict with Hinduism, Buddism and all those other isms because they are so completely alien to our conception of spirituality.

    It makes more sense to fear the unknown than it does to hate your relations.

  11. Brad

    Thank you Mark. As for my other friends here — see how we talk in circles?

    I’m a smart guy. That doesn’t sound modest, but it’s verifiable fact, to the extent that such things are verifiable. Kathryn and Phillip are very smart people, as evidenced by their comments here and my many conversations with them.

    But I write something that seems perfectly clear to me, and they misunderstand it, and argue with things I didn’t say — things that would insult me (particularly the seeming presumption that I am incapable of imagining the world from outside a narrow personal frame of reference) if I didn’t know them better.

    An example of such condescension: “BTW, ‘a person of principle’ is not synonymous with ‘a person of faith.'” Who on Earth suggested otherwise? I deliberately said “person of principle” so that people of all faiths and no faith could understand me. For a person of faith, there are NO principles more important than those having to do with God’s will. If you believe that you are supposed to live your life a certain way — for whatever reason, and on whatever basis — then to act otherwise is to be false to oneself. It reminds me of the words that the playwright put in St. Thomas More’s voice in “A Man for All Seasons:” “When a man takes an oath, he’s holding his own self in his own hands like water, and if he opens his fingers then, he needn’t hope to find himself again.”

    (I hope it’s allowed to cite More, or a fictionalized version of him, in these days in which he’s made into a monstrous figure in popular culture. At the moment, I’m reading “Wolf Hall,” and no character is held in greater contempt by the protagonist, Thomas Cromwell. Cromwell is portrayed as a modern man, which in our culture today is the ultimate accolade.)

    Read my words again. It SHOULD be obvious that I was fairly unbothered by there being NO mention of God. What got to me was that the plank writer decided to remedy that with a paragraph about faith — and it was the utter inadequacy of that paragraph, the attempt to reduce the infinite to a small set of approved characteristics, that bothered me.

    Political parties, with their absurd reductionism, are not equipped to contemplate the divine. They just aren’t. They are bound to come across as deaf, dumb AND blind men trying to describe an elephant they haven’t even touched.

    Of course, all humans are inadequate in that respect. But when you try to reduce God to the sorts of lowest-common-denominator considerations of a party platform, you get language that’s bound to be insulting to anyone with respect for the subject.

  12. Herb Brasher

    Philip’s insights are always very insightful, but I find his statement rather curious that ‘religious belief is on the decline worldwide.’ It would be interesting to know on what data this conclusion is based.

    Estimates I am reading show the growth of the church in China to have reached approximately 100 million, which is getting close to a tenth of the population. That doesn’t include Muslims and other minority groups. Evidently atheism didn’t convince everybody.

    Of course I don’t have ‘hard data’ on China, either. Real figures on the house church movement are hard to get, and of course the government has no interest in letting the truth be known. But 100 million Christians is probably not too far off.

    And 1.5 billion Muslims? The liberal and moderates among them seem to be losing ground, especially due to the interventionist tendencies of colonialist powers–this galvanizes extremists; it certainly doesn’t tend to lessen religious belief. Unless one is thinking of people like Ayaan Hirsi Ali, but they are exceptions.

    So I’m still interested in knowing how it can be said that religious belief is losing ground? Perhaps traditional denominations in this country are losing ground, but that’s about the only proof I can think of.

  13. bud

    As usual Phillip is spot on. Unfortunately the religious genie is out of the bottle and I suspect we’re stuck with religious intrusions into our political discourse from now on. Has it always been standard procedure to end every political speech with “God Bless the United States of America”?

  14. Herb Brasher

    Political parties, with their absurd reductionism, are not equipped to contemplate the divine. They just aren’t.


    What I’m wondering is if they are equipped to contemplate anything. Why isn’t someone honest and just call them pep rallies?

  15. Brad

    Herb, generally speaking, among the chattering classes in the West at least, Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens and fellow travelers have been much in the ascendance in recent years.

    In our materialistic culture, it would appear that atheism is on the rise — and mere secularism much more so. I don’t have statistics in front of me (and wouldn’t trust them if I did, given the multitudes of people who will profess faith then act to the contrary); I’m just going by the tone and thrust of conversations that I see and hear. As you note, if we stop being narrow in our focus and look beyond our own circles, we see faith growing in other parts of the world. For instance, we have this sort of reverse-missionary phenomenon in the Anglican and Catholic churches, in which African priests come to the West to assert traditional beliefs that Westerners are moving away from.

  16. bud

    Brad I think part of the reason that your comments are sometimes misunderstood is simply that your comments are extremely nuanced. That’s not a bad thing but in a world where nuance is rare that can get you in trouble even with very intelligent people. My first thought when I read your post were similar to Kathryns and Phillips. Then I re-read it and decided it wasn’t so offensive afterall.

  17. bud

    Best speech from either convention was given by Iraq war veteran Tammy Duckworth last night. She ended with “God Bless the United States of America” which has pretty much become boilerplate for all such speeches. Aside from that she was elequent and moving. She laid out some powerful reasons the reasons why we should avoid foreign interventions. What really puzzles me is why there was no one like her at the GOP convention? The GOP is avoiding foreign policy, especially the two recent wars like the plague. Seems like an insult to the troops to completely ignore them entirely.

  18. Brad

    OK, here we go… now my fellow Catholic Paul Ryan is making an issue of this:

    “I’d guess you’d have to ask the Obama administration why they purged all this language from their platform. There sure is a lot of mention of government. I guess I would just put the onus and the burden on them to explain why they did all this, these purges of God.”

    Just what we needed, more oversimplification.

    Speaking of which — Bud pays me a compliment by saying my views are “extremely nuanced.” I don’t know about the “extremely,” but I know that it’s the nuances, in many cases, that keep me from being able to embrace either the Democratic or the Republican views of the world. I find the way they frame issues grating and insulting.

    It’s very, very rare to find someone in politics who can express things in a manner than I can respect and admire. Sometimes I have to look abroad — Tony Blair fit the bill. More locally, the one person I can think of involved in electoral politics whom I respect that way is Joe Riley. (As it happens, both are Catholic, but Blair was still technically Anglican when in office.)

  19. Herb Brasher

    I’d be surprised if genuine atheism is really on the rise in the West, given the interest in New Age, spirituality, and yoga evidenced at places like Barnes and Noble.

    As my German Lutheran colleagues used to say, ‘Glaube, dem die Tuer versagt, steigt als Aberglaub’ durchs Fenster.’ Loose translation: ‘when faith can’t go through the door, superstition climbs through the window.’ Which is, of course, a biased interpretation of all things non-Christian, but all of us have some kind of bias.

  20. Kathryn Fenner

    Of course Phillip is spot on. I take exception to Mark’s assertion that without faith, life is without a higher purpose. A higher purpose could be the fostering of community, or leaving the environment better off instead of worse off, or otherwise leaving the world a better place for your having been in it. One need not believe in a man in th sky or any other higher power to do so.

  21. Maggie

    I really don’t get Paul Ryan’s comment about no mention of God, but “There sure is a lot of mention of government.”

    Isn’t the purpose of a presidential election to choose a chief executive of, you know, the GOVERNMENT? And don’t his partisans mention it quite a bit .. as in, it is too large and there is too much of it?

  22. Brad

    Yes, Maggie. That is precisely what you would expect to hear about in a POLITICAL speech — what one intends to do with the government.

    And Kathryn, Phillip is “spot on” only to the extent that he says what you expect to hear, and you agree. I would appreciate it if my friends would read what I actually say, and not what they expect to read or hear.

    And thanks for mentioning “the man in the sky.” Herb, just for one small, anecdotal example of the rise of atheism in the West — at least in our popular culture — get a DVD of “The Invention of Lying” and watch it.

  23. Juan Caruso

    “I really don’t get Paul Ryan’s comment about no mention of God,…” – Maggie

    Have a clue:

    “Atheism is a natural and inseparable portion of Marxism, of the theory and practice of Scientific Socialism.” – Vladimir Ilyich Lenin; Dr. Fred C. Schwarz, ‘Why Communism Kills: The Legacy of Karl Marx’, a tract published by Christian Anti-Communism Crusade (C.A.A.C.), p. 4.

  24. bud

    Ryan was waaay off base with his “God” comment. There really shouldn’t be any mention of God in a political platform. Our government is or at least should be strictly secular.

  25. Kathryn Fenner

    Brad, it isn’t all about you or what you wrote or didn’t write. There is a penumbras discussion going on here, and I agree with what Phillip said here. I do not always agree with Phillip. His tastes in sports and chamber music differ from mine, for example.
    I also often agree with Mark Stewart, but took issue with what he said. Give me some credit. sheesh

  26. Brad

    Actually, Bud, I hate to break this to you… but I’ve been perusing some clips from last night’s speeches today, and I’ve heard two invocations of God (one of them from the head of NARAL, if you can wrap your head around that), and one quotation from the Gospel according to Matthew…

  27. Brad

    Kathryn, whaddya mean, it’s not all about me? It’s my blog, as you keep reminding me.

    I’ll have to take your word for it that you see a penumbra. I’m still looking for that one that Griswold discovered in the Constitution…

  28. Brad

    Oh, and let’s not forget the “emanations.” Penumbras and emanations, of all things, and we base life-and-death law upon them…

    And to think, people give ME a hard time for perceiving things intuitively…

  29. tim

    “Have a clue:

    “Atheism is a natural and inseparable portion of Marxism, of the theory and practice of Scientific Socialism.” – Vladimir Ilyich Lenin; Dr. Fred C. Schwarz, ‘Why Communism Kills: The Legacy of Karl Marx’, a tract published by Christian Anti-Communism Crusade (C.A.A.C.), p. 4.”

    Clueless Ayn Rand was a Leninist?

  30. Karen McLeod

    Herb, I liked your suggestion of round table discussions, one topic at a time, but I doubt you’d be able to get them to agree to it.

    It’s been my observation that, in general, the more often a politician talks about God, the more likely he is to resemble a Pharisee.

    Brad, I find no problem with a NARAL speaker invoking God. If honest, he/she sees abortion differently than you do (as I do); if not it’s just another political ploy.

  31. Doug Ross

    “Didn’t Ayn Rand worship herself?”

    Not really. She worshiped the power of the individual achiever over the collective mediocrity.

    “Isn’t that the root of every despicable action? Not selfishness, but precisely the absence of a self. Look at them. The man who cheats and lies, but preserves a respectable front. He knows himself to be dishonest, but others think he’s honest and he derives his self-respect from that, second-hand. The man who takes credit for an achievement which is not his own. He knows himself to be mediocre, but he’s great in the eyes of others. The frustrated wretch who professes love for the inferior and clings to those less endowed, in order to establish his own superiority by comparison”

  32. bud

    Actually, Bud, I hate to break this to you… but I’ve been perusing some clips from last night’s speeches today, and I’ve heard two invocations of God …

    Why would you hate to break that to me? I’ve been critical of the Democrats plenty of times and find poor behavior just as offensive coming from a Democrat as a Republican.

    I suspect that a part of this is simply that the vast majority of voters feel a certain connection with speakers who play the God card and hence it’s become a requirement to throw God references in. The Dems have no chance if they come across as a party of atheist and agnostics so they play the game. What are you gonna do?

  33. bud

    Not really. She worshiped the power of the individual achiever over the collective mediocrity.

    My take on Ayn Rand is rather different. She glorified greed more than individual accomplishment. She dismissed relationships even to the point of suggesting sex was not enjoyable by anyone that was not financially successful. Her big hero was this ultra creepy dude who slaughtered a 12 year old girl and dismembered her. Rand was very upset when this guy was executed. Rand never had much good to say about anyone who was generous to their fellow man. In the end Ayn Rand relied on charity to treat her cancer rather than her own accomplishments. In short she was a hypocrit.

  34. Brad

    By the way, expect more God talk at the convention tonight. I see Sister Simone Campbell of the “Nuns on the Bus” tour will be on at 8:50.

    Earlier than that, I see Al Green is speaking.

    Unfortunately, I don’t think it’s the REVEREND Al Green. But I can’t tell…

  35. Phillip

    Brad, my apologies if I misinterpreted the “person of principle” statement…I thought you were referring back to K’s statement about following one’s religious beliefs in private, so I thought you were implying that “persons of principle” were people of faith, by definition. I was insomniac, so not necessarily interpreting clearly!

    But all this should make us realize how difficult it is to make reference to religious belief in any political platform, without either offending people of faith by apologia or explanations, or people of different faiths or no belief in a supreme Being but too much specificity. Could we agree that the Unparty would have no reference to religion in its platform other than a support for general religious freedom? How would you address religion in a party platform, Brad?

    Herb, there are a variety of surveys I’ve seen over the years that indicate some decline in religious belief, but I’m sure things vary with country. Here is one I’ve recently seen:


    I’m not anti-religious by any means. I just feel that true religious freedom must embrace those who either doubt the existence of a supreme being or are content believing that it’s an unanswerable, unprovable mystery unavailable to human possession, and that that very “pointlessness” (to play off of one of Mark’s comments) may sort of actually be the point.

  36. J

    Amen, brother Philip! Late to the discussion as I’ve been tied up with a grant. Brad, Looking forward to Sister Campbell this evening as I’ve heard her shorter media appearances and she’s so right on. Herb makes a good point on more discussion interactions.

  37. J

    “So join us as we nuns and all of us drive for faith, family, & fairness!” She’s so credible and has such a beautiful spirit.

  38. Brad

    Phillip, sorry to take so long to get back to you.

    It has never, ever occurred to me that the UnParty would address religion in any way. As I’ve said from the beginning, the first “fundamental, nonnegotiable tenet” of the UnParty is “unwavering opposition to fundamental, nonnegotiable tenets.” That would go for matters of faith as much as for views on economics, or whatever.

    But now that you make me think about it…

    Obviously, that first tenet prevents any sort of fundamentalism or orthodoxy from ruling the UnParty. To that I personally would bring to the table (and every UnPartisan brings something different) a message to secularists to lighten up as well — to stop seeing the imposition of a theocracy in every reference to God.

    My own orientation would be communitarian, and would be about emphasizing the things that unite us and being tolerant of our respective differences, so as to come together to work on the things in common.

    To me as an unPartisan, some of the religious flashpoints are non-issues. Take prayer in schools. Start the classroom day with a prayer or don’t; I’m not going to fight about it either way, because I don’t see society as harmed either way. I see it as a distraction. I think the secularists’ (successful, in the courts) assertion that it amounts to an establishment of religion overblown, and I find fundamentalists’ claims that the absence of that prayer makes schools a godless wasteland excessive as well. Fight over it all day, and you accomplish nothing toward helping schools educate kids better.


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