Over at the Revealer, Jeff Sharlet is puffing Adele Oltman’s Nation piece on Obama and the Martin Luther Kings, Sr. and Jr. Read it if you must, but I wouldn’t take seriously its claim that Barack Obama is more like Daddy than Dr. King. The suggestion that Obama is advocating some kind of throwback to the days when black churches dominated their communities is just silly, and the suggestion that he is some kind of crypto-theocrat is nonsense. No American politician running for national office has spoken more clearly about the the importance of maintaining the principle of church-state separation.
Ottman goes seriously astray in portraying Obama’s support for faith-based initiatives as contrary to the civil right’s leader’s view of things:
I’m not sure King would have been comfortable with Obama’s expanded view of faith-based initiatives, which allows for churches to design social programs and make decisions about who has access to them.
To the contrary, it was via Great Society programs initiated at the height of the civil rights movement that urban black churches began receiving public funds to undertake (via independent non-profits) a range of social services. Obama has hewed to the Democratic view that churches not be allowed to discriminate religiously in hiring for such programs, much less restricting access. Finally, Daddy King was a rather narrow-minded Protestant who was suspicious of Jack Kennedy because of his Catholicism. Obama’s spiritual vision is, as Steve Warner has pointed out, far more along the lines of the inclusive civil religious faith of MLK, Jr.
A better read is Ryan Lizza’s article on the shifting politics of the West in the current New Yorker. Lizza’s focus is on Colorado and its rumpled Democratic governor, Bill Ritter, Jr. Lizza points out that Ritter’s a pro-life Catholic–which fits into the pro-life sub-theme of Democratic Party coverage these days, e.g. here . Ritter lays out his portrait of his state’s electorate. These include the two die-hard GOP groupings: “Fox News conservatives” (16 percent) and “moral conservatives (13 percent). On the other end of the spectrum are the 20 percent who are “very liberal.” And, according to Ritter, the way Democrats can win the West is by picking up the plurality group, “government pragmatists” (37 percent) and picking up some of the “moral pragmatists” (14 percent). The latter are the ones susceptible to the Democratic Party’s campaign to assure voters that it feels their faith.
The counterpoise to Ritter in the article is Gary Hart, who urges a strategy more attuned to the Western libertarian tradition.
Hart’s approach for deëmphasizing the culture wars is different from Ritter’s. Whereas Ritter appealed to the religious convictions of voters, Hart suggests a more laissez-faire approach. “Westerners are individualists who do not like the beliefs of others imposed on us,” he wrote. “We are people who believe in principles: integrity, honor, courage, accountability. The religious right preaches values. Democrats, regionally and nationally, should espouse principles, for ourselves and for our country.” He argues that while “values” have religious connotations, “principles” are secular.
While there are different ways to skin this cat, it’s important to recognize that the religiously unaffiliated–i.e. the secular–constitute a significantly larger portion of the population of the West (outside of Utah) than in the rest of the country. Fifty-five percent of Coloradans are religiously unaffiliated (or uncounted), for example, as compared to 40 percent of Americans generally. The point is that, in the West, Democrats have a bigger secularist base to build on that elsewhere in the country.