This is a point several of us here and many others have made over and over, but it’s nice to see it being made again: Our mainstream intellectual culture declares religious opposition to abortion theocratic, a violation of the separation of church and state, etc., and often says so very loudly and with great indignation, but either doesn’t say anything at all when religious leaders push liberal causes or praises them for it. It is rare to find anyone on the left who applies to all sides a consistent idea of the relation of religion to public life.
As I say, it’s nice to hear this said again. Yair Rosenberg writes in the Tablet,
Consider the following statement: “I don’t see how a person can separate their public life from their private life or from their faith. Our faith informs us in everything we do. My faith informs me about how to take care of the vulnerable, of how to make sure that people have a chance in life.” It’s a fairly anodyne sentiment. But when Rep. Paul Ryan said these words in response to a moderator’s query during October’s vice presidential debate, the reaction was anything but mild.
“That’s a shocking answer—a mullah’s answer, what those scary Iranian ‘Ayatollahs’ [Ryan] kept referring to when talking about Iran would say as well,” exclaimed The New Yorker’s Adam Gopnik. “Ryan was rejecting secularism itself, casually insisting, as the Roman Catholic Andrew Sullivan put it, that ‘the usual necessary distinction between politics and religion, between state and church, cannot and should not exist.’ ”
But now consider this statement, uttered by another American politician: “If we leave our values at the door, we abandon much of the moral glue that has held our nation together for centuries and allowed us to become somewhat more perfect a union. Frederick Douglass, Abraham Lincoln, Jane Addams, Martin Luther King, Jr., Dorothy Day, Abraham Heschel—the majority of great reformers in American history did their work not just because it was sound policy, or they had done good analysis, or understood how to exercise good politics, but because their faith and their values dictated it.”
Those are the words of President Barack Obama at the February 2011 National Prayer Breakfast. He went on to say: “I’d be remiss if I stopped there; if my values were limited to personal moments of prayer or private conversations with pastors or friends. So instead, I must try—imperfectly, but I must try—to make sure those values motivate me as one leader of this great nation.”
Neither Gopnik nor Sullivan flagged that Obama speech as objectionable.
Of course they didn’t. The charge is a political tactic, not an expression of serious principle. It’s the ruling of a different kind of Mullah.