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Sunday, August 01, 2004

Signaling Secularization

This is a very belated impression from Kerry’s speech Thursday. It occurs to me that Kerry’s statement that he doesn’t “wear his religion on his sleeve” was really quite an important moment in the speech, and possibly a kind of turning point in mainstream liberal-progressive politics.

This is not so much because it is the moment when Kerry, as it were, “takes back religion” for the Democrats, as I heard many pundits commenting over the weekend. I mean, that is true in a sense and it does seem to play out in important ways in the contemporary scene and all. But I am an atheist myself, and “taking back religion” is hardly an enterprise that I can get too worked up about, honestly.

What seems really important to me now that I think about it is that Kerry signaled in that phrase (along with the powerful championing of science and technology he chose to close his speech with) his awareness that Americans live in a secular society. Even if it is true that America is a society that still has an important role for individual religious beliefs and spiritual practices, we all of us bear the imprint of a profound secularization.

Kerry’s reference to religion was very different in form, it seems to me, from Obama’s “we worship an awesome god in the Blue States” comment. I say this because Kerry’s affirmation of the religious does not assume such worship but merely welcomes it as part of the larger American culture.

We all know that the Republicans have become masters at insinuating their real minoritarian moral commitments -- racism, homophobia, misogyny, etc. -- to those who share them, or at any rate are eager to cynically exploit these divisive views in support of militarist corporate welfare cronyism they can’t sell any other way, but all without affirming these commitments in an explicit way that would alienate majorities who abhor them (or feel they should).

Kerry’s comment about refusing to wear his religion on his sleeve relies for its force on an awareness that American culture has grown more secular than it can easily admit to itself. In a way it provides a converse strategy to the Republican one: it insinuates a majoritarian commitment, but in a way that won’t alienate minorities.

Remember, it is because secularization has taken hold of America that social conservatives organize with such single-minded ferocity in the first place. Republicans feel forever embattled despite their control over every branch of government precisely because they sense the reality that they are embattled. They are a diminishing minority, maintaining their hold on power and the imagination of our public institutions only through sheer panicked force of will, unscrupulous single-minded determination, the fund-raising and organizational genius of a desperate army making its last stand, and the convenient accident of an electoral college that favors backward rural voters over progressive urban majorities (not to mention that the phalanx of icky white guys who espouse Republican bile managed to accumulate huge piles of cash before the world started to notice they were dinosaurs).

Kerry has signaled that he is aware of and part of the secular society that America has become, even for those millions of Americans like himself who still maintain a personal place for religious belief and spiritual practice in their own lives. That Democrats are offering an invitation to all Americans to participate as partners in making that America better was a master stroke and a luminously positive and encouraging sign of the times.

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