A bill to put “In God We Trust” in public schools. A resolution declaring this the “Year of the Bible.” Another bill declaring that “wildlife found in this state is the property of Almighty God.” A law mandating the placement of a Ten Commandments monument on public land.
These moves are unconstitutional because the government is promoting religion. But often, they are as much a political tool as they are a religious declaration. Fortunately and at long last, we might be seeing the blunting of this political weapon.
Religious pandering is toxic.
These bills, resolutions, laws and others like them pander to religious voters. At FFRF, we’ve always been quick to call out this pandering. So were the Founders. James Madison was fond of explaining that the wall of separation between state and church benefits both sides: “both exist in greater purity, the less they are mixed together.” I also love the lines that Lawrence O’Donnell wrote for Alan Alda’s character, Arnie Vinick, on The West Wing:
“I don’t see how we can have a separation of church and state in this government if you have to pass a religious test to get in this government. And I want to warn everyone in the press and all the voters out there if you demand expressions of religious faith from politicians, you are just begging to be lied to. They won’t all lie to you but a lot of them will. And it will be the easiest lie they ever had to tell to get your votes.”
Religious pandering is losing its power.
There are many principled reasons to stand against this pandering, but it still happens because it has proven fruitful. It is also proving to be less and less valuable every day. The massive demographic shift away from religion ensures the depreciation of religious pandering as a political strategy. The more secular We the People become, the less politicians will cater to religious sensibilities. Eventually, we ought to hit a tipping point where the pandering is not simply worthless, but actually harmful. Theocrats will not be rewarded with higher office, but passed over by the voters.
Harbingers of this coming shift are all around. Let’s look at southwestern Pennsylvania and state Rep. Rick Saccone as a portent. Saccone thrives on pandering to the lowest common religious denominator, including proposing a bill to put “In God We Trust” in every public school and a proclamation for a “National Fast Day.”
Saccone convinced the Pennsylvania Legislature to declare 2012 the “Year of the Bible,” and FFRF sued. The judge dismissed the suit because legislators have immunity, but he hammered Saccone for the unconstitutional bill and his “premeditated pandering designed to provide a re-election sound bite.”
Saccone’s political piety may work locally, but it hasn’t helped him win a national office.
He ran for the U.S. House of Representatives in a 2018 special election because he wants “people who will rule with the fear of God in them to rule over us.” He lost. The race was close, but not when you consider that others in his party have won the district by 20 points and that outside groups spent $10 million on Saccone and only $2 million on his opponent.
Last week, Saccone lost another contest for the U.S. House. It was a primary race — and he went down by 11 points.
Saccone, who apparently believes he’s been chosen by his god, is now 0 for 2 in big elections.
Did Saccone lose because of his religious pandering? We can’t say that for sure. For now, this is anecdotal. But possibly not for long (though some areas will take longer to evolve than others).
Soon — perhaps sooner than we think — religious pandering will become a political liability. Until then, FFRF will keep fighting theocrats like Saccone.