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Our Secularist Democratic Party

Louis Bolce & Gerald De Maio

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Two professors of political science at Baruch College, City University of New York, argue that the secularist worldview is as powerful determinant in politics as fundamentalism.

Anyone who has followed American politics over the past decade cannot help but feel some concern about the supposed fundamentalist Christian threat to democratic civility, pluralism, and tolerance. At the very least, the attentive citizen would find it hard not to regard the cultural and political positions of fundamentalists as outside the mainstream, given the volume of media stories that have conveyed this point. At the same time, the media's obsession with politicized fundamentalism distracts public attention from the changing role of religion in political life today. In particular, the media overlooks the remarkable erosion of denominational boundaries that until a quarter century ago defined the religious dimension of partisan conflict, with Catholics, Jews, and southern evangelicals aligned with the Democratic party and nonsouthern white, mostly mainline Protestants forming the religious base of the Republicans. Also, the media mistakenly frames cultural conflict since the 1970s as entirely the result of fundamentalist revanchism. In so doing, the media ignores the growing influence of secularists in the Democratic party and obfuscates how their worldview is just as powerful a determinant of social attitudes and voting behavior as is a religiously traditionalist outlook.

Secularists first appeared as a political force within a major party at the 1972 Democratic National Convention. Prior to then, neither party contained many secularists nor showed many signs of moral or cultural progressivism. Moreover, prior to the late 1960s, there was something of a tacit commitment among elites in both parties to the traditional Judeo-Christian teachings regarding authority, sexual mores, and the family. This consensus was shattered in 1972 when the Democratic party was captured by a faction whose cultural reform agenda was perceived by many (both inside and outside the convention) as antagonistic to traditional religious values. The political scientist Geoffrey Layman has defined this block, the largest in the party, as "secularists," - that is, self-identified agnostics, atheists, and persons who never or seldom attend religious services. Over a third of white delegates fit this description, a remarkable figure considering that, according to James Davison Hunter, only about 5 percent of the population in 1972 could be described as secularists.



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