The Democratic Party’s 2020 Platform is a Historic Change for Secular Americans August 19, 2020

The Democratic Party’s 2020 Platform is a Historic Change for Secular Americans

This is a guest post by Sarah Levin, founder of Secular Strategies, a consulting firm working to mobilize religiously unaffiliated voters and empower lawmakers to champion secularism in the U.S. She’s also the program director for the Secular Democrats of America and Co-Chair of the DNC Interfaith Council.

After releasing its final draft last month, the Democratic National Committee (DNC) has now officially approved its 2020 platform.

Thanks to Secular Democrats of America’s advocacy, the platform acknowledges the non-religious, commits to ending broad religious exemptions, and recognizes the paramount importance of separation between church and state.

Take a look at these passages (which go far beyond what was in the 2016 platform):

Religious freedom is a core American value and a core value of the Democratic Party. Democrats will protect the rights of each American for the free exercise of his or her own religion. It will be the policy of the Democratic Administration to advocate for religious freedom throughout the world. Democrats celebrate America’s history of religious pluralism and tolerance, and recognize the countless acts of service of our faith communities, as well as the paramount importance of maintaining the separation between church and state enshrined in our Constitution.” (Page 48)

“During the Trump Administration, too many of our religious communities have been victimized by acts of intolerance, bigotry, and violence. We will reject the Trump Administration’s use of broad religious exemptions to allow businesses, medical providers, social service agencies, and others to discriminate.” (Page 48)

Democrats believe that freedom of religion and the right to believe — or not to believe — are fundamental human rights. We will never use protection of that right as a cover for discrimination. We reject the politicization of religious freedom in American foreign policy, and we condemn atrocities against religious minorities around the world — from ISIS’ genocide of Christians and Yezidis, to China’s mass internment of Uyghurs and other ethnic minorities, to Burma’s persecution of the Rohingya, to attacks on religious minorities in Northeast Syria.” (Page 84)

Where did these changes come from? On July 15, the Secular Democrats of America submitted a Religious Freedom Plank for the DNC Platform Committee’s consideration. It was signed by a broad coalition of Members of Congress, progressive organizations, DNC delegates, and party leadership at the federal, state, and local level. The plank made the case that Democrats have, for too long, ceded the narrative around religious freedom to the GOP, urged them to reclaim it, and provided guiding principles for doing so. This included vigorously defending the separation of church and state and ensuring that religious freedom is used as a shield to protect people regardless of their beliefs rather than as a sword to impose religion on others. The vast majority of recommended changes in the plank were not incorporated, but a select few were, and they are certainly cause for celebration.

These changes are, in many ways, historical.

Scouring every political platform since 1840 — you’re welcome — it’s clear that the inclusion of this language in the Democratic Party’s platform marks the first time that the freedom not to believe — an implicit acknowledgement and defense of non-theists — has been included in any such document.

Sure, non-theists have been mentioned in such documents before, but only when lumped in with Communists. We were vilified in a propaganda war against “godless Communists” in a way that still unfortunately resonates today. We’re not alone in that regard. From 1884-1896, three consecutive Republican Party platforms specifically mentioned the Mormon Church’s political power as a “menace to free institutions” and pledged to “stamp out the attendant wickedness of polygamy.”

The first time a national party platform invoked “the Almighty God,” it was the Populist Party (a third party) in 1892. The first Democratic platform to invoke God was in 1924 when the party nominated John Davis. The first Republican platform to invoke it was in 1908, when William Howard Taft was nominated. For what it’s worth, the context in which it was used was pretty benign, referencing things like “God’s bounty” when describing the United States’ prosperity, for example. (On the topic of benign and rather odd invocations of God, my personal favorite was the Democratic Party’s platform in 1940, which stated that “the power of falling water is a gift from God.”)

In 1856, the Democratic Convention that nominated James Buchanan condemned the conflation of religion and nationalism, specifically highlighting anti-Catholic sentiment:

… No party can justly be deemed national, constitutional, or in accordance with American principles, which bases its exclusive organization upon religious opinions and accidental birth-place. And hence a political crusade in the nineteenth century, and in the United States of America, against Catholic and foreign-born is neither justified by the past history or the future prospects of the country, nor in unison with the spirit of toleration and enlarged freedom which peculiarly distinguishes the American system of popular government.

The first party to explicitly express support for the separation of church and state was the Democratic Party at its 1876 convention nominating Samuel Tilden:

We do here reaffirm our faith in the permanence of the Federal Union, our devotion to the Constitution of the United States, with its amendments universally accepted as a final settlement of the controversies that engendered civil war, and do here record our steadfast confidence in the perpetuity of republican self-government; in absolute acquiescence in the will of the majority, the vital principle of republics; in the supremacy of the civil over the military; in the two-fold separation of church and state, for the sake alike of civil and religious freedom

Interestingly, in 1880, both the Democratic and Republican platforms supported separation of church and state. This was the first time the Republican Party addressed it, and quite forcefully — the platform called for an amendment to the Constitution that would enforce the Establishment clause in the states to prevent public funding for religious schools.

The Constitution wisely forbids Congress to make any law respecting the establishment of religion, but it is idle to hope that the Nation can be protected against the influence of secret sectarianism while each State is exposed to its domination. We, therefore, recommend that the Constitution be so amended as to lay the same prohibition upon the Legislature of each State, and to forbid the appropriation of public funds to the support of sectarian schools.

Condemnation of discrimination on the basis of religion or creed was a common and recurring theme for both Republican and Democratic platforms. Given the current political climate, I was particularly struck by the following language in the Democratic Party platform from 1916, when Woodrow Wilson was nominated. It stated that those who tried to “promote the interest of a foreign power” or sought to arouse “prejudices of a racial, religious or other nature,” were themselves “faithless” and therefore disloyal to their country.

But by 1948, there was a striking contrast between the Democratic and Republican platforms on religious freedom issues and faith. While the Democratic Party condemned a law passed by Republicans in Congress that it characterized as imposing “no-American restrictions based on race and religion upon such admissions,” the Republican party platform made its mark as the first (but not the last) party platforms to conflate non-theism and Communism. The political ideology of Communism was, in that platform, drawn in comparison to a “godless dictatorship,” and that the protection of American guiding principles would only come with “continuing faith in Almighty God.”

The Republican platform of 1952, when Dwight D. Eisenhower was nominated for a second term, really upped the ante, using the phrase “godless terrorism.” From that point onward, you could see an increasing tendency in Republican platforms to frame faith as an integral part of what it meant to be an American.

Those were the early stages of the rhetoric alleging that American rights were derived from God, rather than from the U.S. Constitution.

Eight years later, the Democratic platform took what could be characterized as a humanist tone:

It is our faith in human dignity that distinguishes our open free society from the closed totalitarian society of the Communists.

At least they didn’t trash the “godless.”

In 1964, the Republican Party’s platform claimed that the nation was facing a moral decline because of “indifference” to religion. It lay blame of the so-called “moral decline and drift” of the time at the “indifference to national ideals rounded in devoutly held religious faith.” In the same platform, we also saw the appearance of a policy agenda with an eye toward tax exemptions for churches. The intent was clear. The Republican Party sought not to separate from religion but to “reaffirm and reapply it.”

The Republican platform of Richard Nixon, in 1968, invoked the then-relatively recent addition to the Pledge of Allegiance — “We rededicate ourselves to this Republic — this one nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.”

Nixon’s Republican Party religious agenda went further in 1972, when addressing family planning, funding for private religious schools, and prayer in schools. It’s important to note that by this point, Republicans were still at least trying to make the case that their agenda was within the boundaries of church/state separation, the existence of which is now outright denied by many Republicans who insist advocates of the principle are pulling it out of thin air and that the United States has always been a “Christian nation.”

We reaffirm our view that voluntary prayer should be freely permitted in public places — particularly, by school children while attending public schools — providing that such prayers are not prepared or prescribed by the state or any of its political subdivisions and that no person’s participation is coerced, thus preserving the traditional separation of church and state.

It was in the 1980s that we saw a truly striking contrast between the Democratic and Republican Party platforms. Not only did they come out on the opposite sides of abortion in more forceful terms than in previous conventions, but this was where you could see the Party of Reagan frame free market capitalism in religious terms with statements like, “We assert the people’s stewardship of our God-given natural resources” and “the divine command to help our neighbor is directed to each individual and not to a bureaucratic machine… Not every problem cries out for a federal solution.” The Democratic platform of 1980, on the other hand, called for the federal government to “cooperate with tribal governments in such matters as changes in the use of sacred and religious areas.”

The Reaganites went even further in marrying free enterprise and religion in that 1984 platform, stating that “Free enterprise is fundamental to the American way of life. It is inseparable from the social, religious, political, and judicial institutions which form the bedrock of a nation dedicated to individual freedom and human rights.” Also noteworthy was how the 1984 Republican platform opposed “taxation of churches, religious schools, or any other religious institutions.”

When Republicans nominated George H.W. Bush in 1988, the insidious phrase “Judeo-Christian,” referring to values, made its debut. It was also included 20 years later in the party’s 2008 platform and has been included in every Republican platform since then. Much of the same language we’ve been discussing continued to ramp up until 2016. That’s when the platform began to resemble a church hymnal.

The word “God” came up 16 times in the 2016 Republican platform (which the party has rolled over to 2020 without making any substantive changes) — one of which was this rhetorical gem:

The Dodd-Frank law, the Democrats’ legislative Godzilla, is crushing small and community banks and other lenders.

We can give them a pass on that one.

In 2016, among many other issues, the Democratic platform spoke extensively against discrimination on the basis of religion, condemning religious tests and faith-based profiling. It had a single line articulating religious freedom — “We support a progressive vision of religious freedom that respects pluralism and rejects the misuse of religion to discriminate” — and included two more mentions in the context of civil rights and anti-Muslim discrimination.

The Republican platform, on the other hand, had an entire section dedicated to “religious liberty,” outlining a long list of policy priorities, from repealing the Johnson Amendment, to allowing taxpayer-funded adoption agencies to discriminate, to supporting public displays of the Ten Commandments. There was no discussion of respect for non-Christian religions, nor support for the separation of church and state, even in theory.

Through that slow trickle of increasing religious fervor within the GOP, we have arrived at today, where the party’s platform clearly, and unequivocally, implies that the United States has, and always will be, a Christian nation.

It’s important to recognize that platforms are not a list of legislative priorities written in stone. An administration’s actions always speak louder than its campaign promises. However, party platforms play a role in defining what the party stands for by virtue of forcing its leadership to put pen to paper. It provides a basis to advocate for the commitments in the platform to be fulfilled. And as we’ve seen from the past, they leave a historical imprint that says a lot about where we are as a nation. They can also show us where we might be heading.

By that measure, the Democrats’ present and future is one that recognizes and welcomes atheists.

(Image via Shutterstock)


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