The Democrats on Church and State

Here is one of the questions from last night’s bizarre CNN/You Tube debate with the Democratic candidates:

QUESTION: Hi, I’m Zenne Abraham in Oakland, California. The cathedral behind me is the perfect backdrop for this question. This quarter reads “United States of America.” And when I turn it over, you find that it reads “liberty, in God we trust.” What do those words mean to you? Thank you.

And here’s how Senator Biden responded:

COOPER: Senator Biden.

BIDEN: Religion informs my values.

BIDEN: My reason dictates outcomes. My religion taught me about abuse of power. That’s why I moved to write the Violence Against Women Act. That’s why I take the position I take on Darfur. It came about as a consequence of the reasoning that we’re able to do it.

You know, look, I don’t think they’re inconsistent. I don’t find anything inconsistent about my deep, religious beliefs and my ability to use reason. I think the coin’s got it just right. I think I have it in perspective.

That’s rather muddled, though I like the part about reason dictating outcomes. Sadly, that is no longer something that can be taken for granted. I don’t follow the part about religion teaching him about abuse of power.

Happily, things quickly got better:

COOPER: Here’s a question from the other side of the coin.

QUESTION: Good evening. My name is Stephen Marsh of Thousand Oaks, California, proud citizen of the United States of America that does not believe in God. However, the former President Bush said this statement was an oxymoron.

Now, I am worried about the amount of time given to evangelical concerns while secular voters are more or less getting a snubbed — the faith and politics forum.

So my question is this: Am I wrong in fearing a Democratic administration that may be lip service to the extremely religious as much as the current one? And if so, why? Thank you for your time.

I think something got garbled here. I was watching last night when this question was asked, and I don’t recall the question being so incomprehensible.

Anyway, here’s Senator Edwards replying:

COOPER: Senator Edwards?

EDWARDS: As president of the United States, we will embrace and lift up all Americans, whatever their faith beliefs or whether they have no faith beliefs, as Stephen just spoke about. That’s what America is.

Now, my faith is enormously important to me personally. It’s gotten me through some hard times, as I’m sure that’s true of a lot of the candidates who are on this stage.

But it is crucial that the American people know that as president it will not be my job — and I believe it would be wrong — for me to impose my personal faith beliefs on the American people or to decide any kind of decision, policy decision, that will affect America on the basis of my personal faith beliefs.


Pretty good answer. Here’s Senator Obama answering the same question:

COOPER: Senator Obama?

OBAMA: I am proud of my Christian faith. And it informs what I do. And I don’t think that people of any faith background should be prohibited from debating in the public square.

OBAMA: But I am a strong believer in the separation of church and state, and I think that we’ve got to translate…


By the way, I support it not just for the state but also for the church, because that maintains our religious independence and that’s why we have such a thriving religious life.

But what I also think is that we are under obligation in public life to translate our religious values into moral terms that all people can share, including those who are not believers. And that is how our democracy’s functioning, will continue to function. That’s what the founding fathers intended.

One of the more annoying varieties of preening, self-righteous, know-nothingism are the people who say there is no substantivie difference between the Democrats and the Republicans. The reality is that there are big differences, and this is one of them. These are not answers that any of the Republican candidates (with the possible exception of Ron Paul) would have given.

The fact is the Democrats believe in the separation of church and state and appoint judges who feel the same way. The Republicans do not believe in it and select judges accordingly. More precisely, they don’t care one way or the other about it but have to pander to people who do not believe in it.

For reasons that are entirely subjective and unscientific, I believe Edwards and Obama when they talk about the importance of their faith. Obama in particular seems very at ease when he is using religious language. This is in stark contrast to Senators Biden and Clinton, who I don’t think are any more religious than I am.

That’s it for church and state. But we should take note of Senator Biden’s excellent answer to the next question:

QUESTION: Good evening, America. My name is Jered Townsend from Clio, Michigan.

To all the candidates, tell me your position on gun control, as myself and other Americans really want to know if our babies are safe.

This is my baby, purchased under the 1994 gun ban. Please tell me your views.

Thank you.

As you have probably surmised, his baby was a rather formidable looking gun. Biden’s reply:

COOPER: Senator Biden, are you going to be able to keep his baby safe?

BIDEN: I’ll tell you what, if that is his baby, he needs help.


I think he just made an admission against self-interest. I don’t know that he is mentally qualified to own that gun. I’m being serious. Look, just like me, we go around talking about people who own guns. I am the guy who originally wrote the assault weapons ban, that became law, and then we got defeated and then Dianne Feinstein went to town on it and did a great job.

Biden went on a bit longer, lapsing a bit into his familiar stream of consciousness mode of speaking. I love that first part, though.


  1. #1 Reginald Selkirk
    July 24, 2007

    My religion taught me about abuse of power.

    Biden speaks more truly than he may realize.

  2. #2 The Ridger
    July 24, 2007

    Biden’s Catholic. I think the statement makes perfect sense.

  3. #3 The Science Pundit
    July 24, 2007

    Jason said:

    This is in stark contrast to Senators Biden and Clinton, who I don’t think are any more religious than I am.

    The Ridger said:

    Biden’s Catholic.

    I grew up in Delaware and went to the same Catholic school that Biden went to, and that school was one of the major reasons that I became a hard-core atheist. I think Jason is on to something.

  4. #4 Pseudonym
    July 24, 2007

    Biden speaks more truly than he may realize.

    Why do you think he doesn’t realise it?

  5. #5 Caledonian
    July 25, 2007

    One of the more annoying varieties of preening, self-righteous, know-nothingism are the people who say there is no substantivie difference between the Democrats and the Republicans. The reality is that there are big differences, and this is one of them.

    They’re both groups of power-seeking opportunists. If they happen to be attempting to appeal to different segments of society, and the talking points they parrot differ in response, forgive me if I don’t view that as a ‘substantive’ difference.

    On the vast majority of issues, the two parties don’t only agree but treat the matters as fait accompli. Of the few remaining issues, very few have any serious implications for who we should elect. One of the points they share is that their campaign promises are essentially useless for predicting their post-election behavior.

  6. #6 JBL
    July 25, 2007

    Caldonian: are you opposed to all political parties? Because “power-seeking” is an inherent property of a political party, and I assume other parties in this country would be “opportunists,” as well, if they had any opportunities they could actually take advantage of.

  7. #7 Angrytoxicologist
    July 25, 2007

    I think Obama’s statement was great – the part about separation but also about liberals translating faith into moral values that everyone can talk about religious or not. One of the problems of these past 2 decades or so is that fundametalist Christians dominate the public faith conversation. Jews and Non-Fundamentalist Christains (Catholics, Lutherans, Episcopalians, Methodists, Unitarians) believe in the separation of church and state and therefore don’t talk in the public square very loudly. It’s high time the religious on the left (those in those religions on the left) did and doing so stop the religion vs the left (or science or evolution or…).

    Particularly in the area of evolution, the scientific community would do well to use the Catholic schools in combative areas (KS, GA) as examples since they teach evolution in Biology class (I think the AAAS President did in some statement a while back that I can’t find right now). In fact the US Bishops are worried about the anti-evolution forces ruining kids’ education “Catholic educators need better teaching programs about evolution ‘to correct the anti-evolution biases that Catholics pick up’ from the general society, according to a U.S. bishops’ official” (from a Catholic News Service Release). Episcopalians have said similar things though not as harshly since they don’t run many schools.

    They should be saying this kind of stuff louder and louder. I think the popularity of Obama should help make it easier for the more rational religious groups to get heard.

  8. #8 Caledonian
    July 25, 2007

    Because “power-seeking” is an inherent property of a political party

    Permit me to clarify, then – seeking power as its own end.

  9. #9 bmkmd
    July 28, 2007

    Gun Control

    I think that most gun control arguments and legislation is just blowing in the wind. The support for the 2nd ammendment is entrenched and strongly supported by the religious right. (Isn’t it interesting that the people most concerned about unborn fetuses’s rights and the literal word of the bible are most concerned about having all the guns available as possible?)

    It is a fait accompli, but for minor tinkering. Biden’s ban on asssault rifles, that’s assault rifles, faced a very stiff fight to get passed.

    But there is a very good use for this misfortune.

    The support for the 1st ammendment for freedom of speech, religion, press and assembly should be leaveraged against support for the 2nd ammendment’s freedom to bear arms.

    You want guns? Okay.

    But you have to trade for our right for protection from religion and for free speech, and press and assembly.

    You can keep guns, we get to keep religion out of public life, and out of school science classrooms.

  10. #10 Science Avenger
    July 29, 2007

    Isn’t it interesting how the two parties treat the first two amendments, having a rigid interpretation of one, and an expansive interpretation of the other, just differing on which is rigid and which is expansive.

    As to getting effective legislation dealing with guns, I would agree that the issue is just blowing in the wind as long as one’s aim is to get rid of all the guns. Maybe I’m just biased because this is my position, but I think the gun control people could make a lot more headway if they concentrated on outlawing the really dangerous weapons. I don’t know many pro-gun people that can argue with a straight face that the second amendment gives us all the right to own a bazooka or 50 caliber machine gun.

    Also, concentrate more on preventing mentally ill people like Cho (the Va Tech shooter), and convicted felons, from being able to acquire weapons of any kind. Make it a felony for such people to even be in possession of weapons, and you might find support where you didn’t expect it.

  11. #11 JBL
    July 30, 2007

    Um, Science Avenger, are you aware of the fate of the Assault Weapons Ban?

  12. #12 Science Avenger
    July 30, 2007

    I hear you JBL, but the problem is that the pro-gun people perceive (and not without cause) all gun control proposals as the camel’s nose in the tent towards the ultimate goal of outlawing all firearms. My contention is that as long as the anti-gun side has this as it’s agenda, it will find little support for legislation like assault weapons bans that in isolation would be noncontroversial to the vast majority of Americans.

    Try getting the anti-gun people to acknowledge what every bit of data I’ve seen makes clear: that small caliber non-automatic weapons in the hands of non-felonious, middle-aged people pose a negligible threat to the safety of those around them, and therefore will not be the target of any future legislation. Make it clear that it’s the elimination of large caliber, automatic weapons, and elimination of any weapons in the hands of the lawless, the insane, and the juvenile, that is the agenda.

    Do that, and I think many who resist your efforts now will become allies. I am certain at least of one who will.

New comments have been disabled.