An amazing thing has been happening here in God’s own country: For the first time in living memory, religious skepticism is hot. In the past two years a whole slew of atheistic polemicists — Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Christopher Hitchens — have been on or near the bestseller list, speaking to packed houses, debating the faithful with no holds barred. It’s no mystery why these writers are doing so well even though there haven’t been any new arguments against the existence of God since around 1795. Seven years of Bush shoving born-again Christianity down everyone’s throats has sickened and disgusted a lot of us members of the reality-based community.
We look with dismay at a country where pharmacists refuse to fill birth-control prescriptions, where teaching evolution is controversial and where more than a hundred million taxpayer dollars go to the religious scam known as abstinence education. We always suspected that the televangelists and right-wing family-man politicians were protesting too much, and — thank you, Ted Haggard, David Vitter, Larry Craig! — now the whole country can see we were right. It’s one thing to show respect for religious belief in the context of social tolerance in a pluralistic society — freedom of speech, separation of church and state, live and let live — but when Christians make faith a matter of public policy, it becomes hard to explain why nonbelievers should be deferential. If I wanted to live in a theocracy, I would move to Tehran.
You would think that the left would savor this new, muscular secularism. But that’s not what has happened. In the progressive media, the atheist bestsellers have gotten a lukewarm reception. Writers continue to blame leftists’ and liberals’ lack of respect for God for the rise of evangelical Christianity, the triumph of the Republican Party, the conservative impulses of the working class and the general failure of events to turn out as we would like. Just what this respect is supposed to involve is never spelled out: Behaving nicely to the religious people we know? Supporting certain religion-inflected policies? Becoming religious ourselves?
There’s something both grandiose and masochistic in all this breast-beating. We’re far too few in number to have so huge an effect. I’ll bet most right-wing Christians have never even seen a copy of The Nation. We might as well just say what we think. Besides, a huge percentage of us are Jewish! If we found "faith" we’d be brushing up on our Hebrew, not accepting Christ as our personal savior or filling up the pews at Our Lady of Sorrows. From the right-wing Christian point of view, we’d still be suspect, alien and bound for hell. That leftists themselves have a God-shaped hole in their souls strikes me as most unlikely.
Politicians don’t get it either. Republican candidates compete over who can deny evolution most firmly. As for Democrats … oh, Democrats! Who said this: "You need to embrace Christ precisely because you have sins to wash away — because you are human and need an ally in this difficult journey." I need to embrace Christ, Senator Obama? I don’t think so! Or how about this: "We are all sinners. We all fall short, which is why we have to ask for forgiveness from the Lord." Speak for yourself, John Edwards.
As these remarks suggest, the Dems have decided that respect isn’t enough. "It has to be authentic," Mara Vanderslice, Democratic consultant and evangelical Christian, told CNN. "This is not about Jesus-ing up the party, so to speak. … It just won’t work if it’s seen as a cynical ploy." Right: Make it a sincere ploy. Don’t be like poor Howard Dean claiming Job was his favorite book of the New Testament — which, come to think of it, would have been a clever Jewish joke, if Dean were Jewish. Hire faith-friendly outreach consultants, liaisons and gurus; show up at the Sojourners’ Forum on Faith, Values and Poverty to get Jim Wallis’s blessing; and most of all talk about your deep, intimate, personal belief in God — better yet, Jesus — as often as you possibly can.
Coriolanus had to show his wounds in the marketplace, and you, Democratic presidential hopeful, have to publicize your spiritual life going all the way back to Sunday school. But at least Coriolanus had the sense to be embarrassed. Is John Edwards embarrassed to answer such interview questions as, "In what ways do you feel God is happiest with you right now?" As for Hillary Clinton, it’s bad enough that she actually supports faith-based initiatives and — something I very much doubt Jesus would do — lobbied for Bill Clinton’s crime bill, which expanded the death penalty. Do I really need to know that she prays that God will help her lose weight? Kudos to Dennis Kucinich and Joseph Biden, who have refused to discuss their relations with the deity.
It’s fine with me if a candidate believes in God. Unlike some militant atheists, I don’t think it matters for public policy that Obama believes Christ absolves his sins, or that Hillary Clinton hopes God has time to help her pass up dessert. We all believe weird things. My parents, for instance, believed for decades that the Moscow show trials were legit.
But all this wearing of religious faith on the political sleeve is a huge pander, and lacking in dignity besides. Next they’ll be talking about how their marital troubles have made their marriages stronger than ever. Oh wait, they already do that. Message to the progressive community: There are more of us secularists, skeptics, atheists and agnostics out here than you think. How about sending a little love our way, for a change?
Katha Pollitt writes for publications including The Nation, where a version of this column recently appeared. Her new collection of essays, Learning to Drive and Other Life Stories (Random House), considers love, sex, betrayal, motherhood, divorce, proofreading pornography and the decline and fall of practically everything, including herself. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.