How the Democratic Party Left Traditional Believers Behind
by James Hitchcock
In 1943 the United States Supreme Court dramatically reversed itself on the matter of church and state. In the Barnette case it found that children could not be required (on pain of expulsion) to recite the Pledge of Allegiance in public-school classrooms if that violated their religious beliefs. But Justice Felix Frankfurter dissented, passionately supporting the Court’s earlier decision to the contrary (Gobitis, 1940). He argued that a state could reasonably conclude that certain religiously motivated behavior (such as the refusal of Jehovah’s Witnesses children to participate in a mandatory classroom flag salute) tended to undermine national unity—an important social value. Frankfurter therefore held that public schools could expel children who refused (on religious grounds or otherwise) to participate.
But the Court’s seeming new solicitude for religion soon went in the opposite direction. In two cases following World War II (Everson, 1947; McCollum, 1948) a nearly unanimous Court ruled that “separation of church and state,” a phrase not found in the Constitution, was intended to define the relationship of religion and public life and that there was a constitutional duty to expunge all traces of religious influence from public institutions, a principle that was applied with increasing rigidity until the 1990s, when for the first time it became a matter of serious contention within the Court itself.1
The seeming contradiction between the Court’s new vigilance for religious liberty and its equally strong conviction that religion should be excluded from the public square was explained in 1948 by Justice Wiley Rutledge, who misconstrued Acts 22:28 by recalling that Paul had said that his freedom was bought at a great price. (In fact Paul said that his freedom was his birthright.) All religious believers, Rutledge warned, must buy their freedom at a price, and the unhindered right to practice one’s religion in private necessarily demanded that it be restricted in public.
Roots of Alienation
Although Supreme Court rulings have applicability mainly to governmental agencies like public schools, the separationist philosophy first articulated in 1947 has set the direction for American life in general ever since, as a growing number of people have approached religion as potentially a dangerous phenomenon, which must be kept as private as possible.
One key to understanding the Court’s new position in 1947 is to notice that each of the justices who fashioned the separationist philosophy was alienated to some degree from the religion of his own youth (Frankfurter from Judaism, for example, Rutledge from the Southern Baptists) and seemed personally to think that orthodox faith was narrow, irrational, even dangerous.
The proximate causes of this attitude were perhaps two famous events of the 1920s—the legal prohibition of alcohol and the trial of John Scopes, which found that the teaching of evolution could be forbidden by law. Not widely noticed at the time, many of the American elite—academics, professional men, government officials, even some business leaders—seem to have concluded that traditional religion was socially damaging, that it stood in the way of progress, and that its influence had therefore to be curtailed.
The ultimate rationale for this was the claim that the Founding Fathers of the United States had been appalled by the specter of religious strife in Europe and realized that any religion that “intruded” itself into public life would have the same effect in America. Thus, the Constitution was intended to restrain all religions for the sake of civil peace.
In 1937, President Franklin D. Roosevelt was thwarted in his famous “court-packing” plan, his effort to increase the size of the Supreme Court in order to gain its approval for his various New Deal programs. There is no evidence that Roosevelt, a conventional Episcopalian who often invoked God in his speeches, intended that the Court should revolutionize the First Amendment as it applied to religion. However, he appointed all the justices who effected that revolution, and it was probably not coincidental that a philosophical commitment to the New Deal led some people in that direction.
The Working-Class Democrats
Since the Civil War, the Democratic Party had been primarily the party of the South and of the Northern working classes, with the social elites in general thought to be Republicans. The New Deal changed this by drawing many of the intellectual elite—people who believed that social problems could be solved by intelligence and boldness of experimentation, a new marriage of wisdom to power, a new opportunity for would-be philosopher-kings. Henceforth, the Democratic Party would also be the party of the intellectuals, as it took on a new glamour as the party of challenging ideas and bold programs in a Washington no longer merely a sleepy Southern city but an intellectual mecca.
Intellectuals are, of course, a very small minority of the population, and it was part of Roosevelt’s political genius that he held his traditional constituencies in the fold even as he moved the party in directions some people considered revolutionary. The Democrats became a quasi-permanent majority, because of their perceived ability to alleviate the sufferings of the Great Depression, reinforced by the patriotism of World War II.
Even during the 1950s, when a “return to normalcy” placed Dwight D. Eisenhower in the White House, the Democrats retained the image of being the party of ideas, as the mediocre Adlai Stevenson was turned into a genuine intellectual in the public eye. As the Democrats were losing elections during the Eisenhower era, they continued to tell themselves that it was because of their superior understanding of the nation’s needs and their moral seriousness.
The brief ascendancy of John F. Kennedy revived the New Deal glamour and carried it still higher, as once again a man of mediocre intellectual abilities and rather philistine tastes was turned into a cultural leader. The brief Kennedy era combined the veneer of high culture (Pablo Casals in the White House) with fervent moral idealism, the claimed ability to solve all the nation’s problems and usher in a golden age. Kennedy’s assassination froze that image as a permanent myth. After 1960 self-consciously cultured people found it almost unthinkable not to be Democrats, and they tended to dismiss their political opponents as merely stupid or immoral.
The traditional Democratic backbone—the white working class—remained culturally conservative, as summed up in the liberal sneer at “hard hats.” The Vietnam War exposed the growing internal contradictions in the party, as its popular base came to view its elite as disrespectful of God, country, and family. The dramatic confrontation occurred at the 1968 Democratic convention, when the police of Mayor Richard J. Daley of Chicago clashed with anti-war demonstrators, and Daley was jeered at inside the convention hall.
The nomination of Vice President Hubert Humphrey seemed to mark victory for the party’s more conservative elements. But Humphrey was stretched to the breaking point between the old and new Democrats, and by 1972 the party had subjected itself to a public breast-beating and had adopted new rules largely favorable to those who had been defeated at the 1968 convention.
The New Left & Revolution
The movement that threatened to split the party in 1968 seemed to be focused on race and war, but scarcely beneath the surface was the Cultural Revolution. In 1972 the Democratic candidate for president, George McGovern, bristled at the charge that he favored “acid, amnesty, and abortion.” But every informed person was aware that the New Left was at least as interested in the “social issues” as they were in their stated political goals. As it turned out, those issues—the sexual revolution and a visceral contempt for all traditional forms of authority—were the New Left’s permanent achievement, toxins that they succeeded in injecting into the bloodstream of American society. If the cultural revolutionaries were to have a political home anywhere, it would have to be in the Democratic Party, and despite McGovern’s indignant denials, they found themselves welcome.
Traditionally, the core of Democratic support was the labor unions, which through most of the 1960s remained conservative except on economic issues. But the new Democrats were ruthless, especially given the fact that they enjoyed overwhelmingly favorable treatment in the media, and before long they were able to pressure the unions to support abortion, homosexuality, and other things of which most of their members probably disapproved and which the unions themselves would have opposed only a few years before. Mayor Daley’s son, succeeding his father at the apex of Chicago politics, quickly made his peace with the liberals and now espouses all the positions his father opposed in 1968.
As white Southerners began to move towards the Republicans, blacks became Democrats. But despite the aura of chic that surrounds race in liberal circles, blacks, too, tend to be socially conservative (disapproving of abortion in higher proportions than do whites, for example). Blacks were among the principal beneficiaries of the new party rules of 1972. But black conservatism on cultural and social issues has never translated itself into a political position, and white liberals also had little difficulty in pressuring black leaders like Jesse Jackson to move away from their early social conservatism.
The unifying issue of the party is a commitment to the continued expansion of the welfare state, the continuing enactment of “entitlements” for particular social groups, and the price of being included in these is to accept the liberal agenda as a whole.
For a time, a liberal stance on social issues was merely one of the numerous arrows in the Democratic quiver. But the heirs of the New Left tend to be fanatics, both ruthless and politically skillful, and they have successfully pressed to make the sexual revolution the party’s defining position. Thus, practically no prominent Democrat found it possible to disapprove publicly of the conduct of President William J. Clinton, with party loyalty employed to ratify the revolution by insisting either that Clinton’s conduct was not wrong or that it should not matter.
Religion Is Dangerous
Religious believers tempted to throw themselves uncritically into a Republican embrace should never cease to recall that Roe v. Wade, the 1973 Supreme Court decision legalizing abortion, was written by a Republican justice, Harry Blackmun, and among its most determined supporters have been Republican appointees to the Court—William Brennan, Lewis Powell, John Paul Stevens, and now David Souter. But after floundering on the issue during the 1970s, the party under Ronald Reagan (who had himself supported legal abortion in California) offered pro-lifers a political home, as the Democratic Party became preeminently the party of abortion and also evolved quickly into the party of homosexuality.
So fanatical is Democratic zeal for abortion that, except for isolated state and local instances, it permits ideological variation on almost every issue except that one. The party’s hard-core left demands repeated confirmations of its power, to the point that the late Governor Robert Casey of Pennsylvania, an enormously popular figure, was denied the right to speak at the national convention in 1992, and this year all announced candidates for the Democratic nomination for the presidency have already appeared before the National Abortion Rights Action League, vying with one another in giving assurances of their commitment to the cause.
The party has in fact systematically embraced almost every kind of deviation from traditional morality. As conservatives have proclaimed “family values,” liberals have ridiculed the phrase as a mantra of ignorant and bigoted people. Former Vice President Albert Gore and his wife Tipper have published a book—Joined at the Heart: The Transformation of the American Family2—which, rather than attempting to overcome the impression that Democrats are anti-family, enthusiastically enshrines an infinitely elastic concept of family as virtually any group of people living together in some degree of intimacy.
The present ideology of the Democratic Party is the trickling down to the level of electoral politics of the principles laid out by the Supreme Court in 1947–1948—that religion is a dangerous and divisive force in society and must be restrained. It is a view that derives ultimately from John Dewey, who, long before there was any popular constituency for the idea, erected “democracy” into a kind of religion and urged that public policy enforce that faith against traditional religions, which, he insisted, were inherently incompatible with a democratic society.
But the embarrassment to Dewey’s argument is the inconvenient fact that a large majority of the citizens remain stubbornly attached to traditional religious beliefs, that the plebeians are usually more pious than the patricians, thus giving the lie to the idea that traditional beliefs are undemocratic. Of necessity, therefore, courts must become sacred institutions, judges treated as philosopher-kings.
Liberals overcome this embarrassment by positing that the majority are benighted and do not understand what is best for the country, so that truly “democratic” decisions must be made undemocratically. There is at present a vigorous but largely unnoticed debate in intellectual circles over whether liberalism should be regarded as “procedural” or “comprehensive,” that is, whether it means merely that everyone agrees to work within democratic institutions, conceding to everyone the basic liberties guaranteed by the Bill of Rights, or whether enjoying full citizenship requires accepting prevailing liberal views about abortion, sexual behavior, and other things. Lurking just out of sight of the mass media, but enjoying influence in some quarters of the Democratic Party, are ideologues who argue forthrightly that orthodox religious believers and other “reactionary” people cannot be allowed full freedom to propagate their beliefs, not even within their own families. Some liberals have now pulled away from the idea that “democracy” requires complete toleration of all viewpoints and argue precisely that the freedom of some people must be curtailed in the name of freedom.3
Although much of the New Deal was genuinely pragmatic in the ordinary sense of the term, to some extent it derived from Deweyite assumptions, and implicit within it was a concept of social engineering—the belief that ordinary people are often incapable of judging what is best for society, even for themselves, and must be guided by enlightened experts. Thus, a political party must aspire to embody the distilled wisdom of the intellectuals and must seek to lead the people, even against their wills, in the proper directions, a belief that was given new life by Kennedy’s “New Frontier” and President Lyndon Johnson’s “Great Society,” both of which revived the claim that, given knowledge and good will, the world could be profoundly transformed.
Until about 1970 this dream of what might be called a “soft utopia” was restricted largely to economics or to the things that politics is capable of achieving, such as repealing laws that enshrined racial discrimination. But an enduring legacy of the New Left has been the belief that the liberal state has the obligation to help people realize their “full potential,” their maximal state of personal well-being, so that abortion and sexual behavior become central issues, crucial indices of the revolution’s progress. Conversely, the liberal state also has an obligation to remove all barriers to fulfillment, which requires using its power to weaken the authority of “oppressive” institutions like the family and religion.
Liberalism has thus become a rival faith to traditional religion, because contemporary liberalism cannot tolerate any view of life more ultimate than its own, or any wisdom that might call into question the wisdom of the liberal state. Indeed, as some liberals forthrightly admit, religion’s claims to ultimacy are precisely what make it dangerous, since citizens should not be “distracted” from their political tasks. Although quick to condemn what it regards as immoral, liberalism does not sit easily with a belief in sin, since positing a deeply flawed human nature calls into question the very possibility of social engineering, of the achievement of any kind of earthly utopia.
Liberalism adheres to a kind of secularized version of salvation by faith alone, according to which human goodness or evil are judged primarily according to “correct” beliefs about public issues. (Thus Clinton’s misconduct was readily excused, even by feminists who should logically have excoriated him, because he held orthodox liberal views on abortion and homosexuality.) The various liberal constituencies constantly demand gestures of validation from public institutions.
Besides the active pressures pushing it towards acceptance of abortion and other moral deviations, liberalism has no basis for resisting such things because it is implicitly committed to moral relativism and has difficulty acknowledging any absolute principle. It is thus virtually forced to support any group claiming to be oppressed and demanding to be liberated, unless that group is deemed to be “reactionary.”
Of necessity, therefore, the party attempts to wean people away from their religious principles. The Kennedy brothers were quite secular Catholics and felt little tension between politics and faith. Former Governor Mario Cuomo of New York, however, was at one time a very serious Catholic, but he was reduced to offering increasingly incoherent explanations as to why his faith required him to oppose the death penalty yet forbade him to oppose abortion. If Catholics “came of age” in America with the election of 1960, the Democratic Party exacted a steep price, which was that Catholics who hoped for national office had to jettison their religious principles and behave like liberal secularists.
Stigmatized Stepchildren at Best
Congressman Richard Gephardt of Missouri, a candidate for the presidency, is currently a Protestant version of the same phenomenon. Despite the fact that he has repeatedly groveled before pro-abortion groups, he still suffers the stigma of having once been pro-life. His explanation is that, having been raised a Baptist, he was simply taught that abortion was wrong, and it took him some years to discover his error. Altogether, his stance sums up the liberal view of religion as an atavistic prejudice that enlightened people eventually outgrow.
Cuomo exemplified also the aspiration of the Democratic Party to be itself a moral teacher. Not content with only dissenting from the Catholic teaching about abortion, he presented himself to his fellow Catholics as a moral leader more authentic than their clergy, the liberal politician as the authoritative interpreter of the faith.
That, in turn, reveals another crucial aspect of the current political-religious scene in America, which is the role of the liberal “mainline” churches. Despite their perceptible growth in numbers over three decades, avowedly secular people are a relatively insignificant minority and of themselves could exert only very limited political influence. But the liberal churches now also embody secular values.
During the 1960s, liberal religion went religiously bankrupt, no longer embodying even an attenuated version of historical faith. Instead, the liberal churches quite willingly turned themselves into support groups for the secular liberal agenda. Today, the liberal churches agree with the secularists that religion ought not to be a powerful, independent, even superior kind of wisdom but should settle for the task of identifying which movements in the culture are to be deemed “progressive” and then offering religious arguments to support them. Many liberal church members would find it literally unthinkable to deviate from secular liberalism in any way.
Liberal church members harbor an animosity towards their conservative brethren at least as strong as that found among outright secularists, and many liberal church leaders now condemn the “Religious Right” as the chief danger to American freedom, strong religious belief being treated as a psychological disorder.
The Republican Party, as noted, is not immune to the same viruses, and some Republicans are openly embarrassed that their party is now the home of people they consider backward and even dangerous. But if the Republican Party often seems to treat serious religious believers as stepchildren, their only political alternative is the homelessness into which they have been cast by the Democrats, among whom many of them once dwelt.
1. The most substantial critique of separationist orthodoxy is by Philip Hamburger, Separation of Church and State (Harvard University Press, 2002), which might be subtitled “Hamburger Refutes Frankfurter.” See also Hitchcock, The Supreme Court and Religion (forthcoming from Princeton University Press).
3. The most extreme statement of this view is by James G. Dwyer, Religious Schools v. Children’s Rights (Cornell University Press, 1998) and Vouchers within Reason: A Child-Centered Approach to Education Reform (Cornell, 2002).
James Hitchcock is Professor emeritus of History at St. Louis University in St. Louis. He and his late wife Helen have four daughters. His most recent book is the two-volume work, The Supreme Court and Religion in American Life (Princeton University Press, 2004). He is a senior editor of Touchstone.
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