Minnesota politics is a bit, well, different. The state elected Jesse Ventura, of course, and is currently served by comedian-turned-politician Al Franken. The state Democratic Party affiliate, the DFL, is in the news today for an ad that seems like a Saturday Night Live skit gone wrong.
I’m less interested, though, in the immediate political debate regarding the ad. For various sensible takes on those matters, see Grant Gallicho at Commonweal or Fr. James Martin over at America. I want to point out a few ways in which the response to the ad reflects the state of current debates about state secularism here in America and abroad. Bearing in mind Vince Pecora’s pointed advice not to exaggerate American exceptionalism, I’ll be grasping for comparative trends as much as possible throughout these comments.
First off, anyone who doubts that current debates about state secularism are heavily conditioned by history must not be paying attention to the howls of Catholic victimhood coming from parts of the blogosphere. There’s a reason that Catholics in the United States are touchy about images of clerics used to drum up political opposition: the long history of anti-Catholic media, particularly related to the political influence of the clergy and the threat they pose to democratic values and proper state secularism. The “American River Ganges” may have dried up, but the memory is what drives the still repeated quip that anti-Catholicism is the anti-Semitism of the intellectual.
Second, the hubbub over the ad reflects a secular-religious divide that, while potent in the contemporary U.S., may be overstated and is not a given on a comparative scale. Secularists in France and Turkey are more anti-religious than their counterparts here, and my own research in Senegal and the Philippines shows a much less hostile secular-religious relationship. In fact, many of the stronger advocates of the differentiation of religious and political authority in both places are religious individuals worried about the corrupting influence of political power. Such religious arguments for secularism of course have their history in the U.S. as well, and it’s plausible that work by progressive groups to build secular-religious coalitions will ease these tensions.
Finally, the messages conveyed in the ads are a fascinating glimpse into the shifting stakes of secular debates, both in the U.S. and abroad. The ads aren’t actually objecting to political participation by religious actors. Rather, they object to the particular policy stands taken by the chaplain/candidate on the GOP ticket. A second mailing explicitly preaches against electioneering in churches, but not to religious advocacy work in general. The text of the ads is worth noting here: “The Bible doesn’t tell us to neglect the poor, but Preacher Dan Hall stands with those who do.” The DFL isn’t actually saying that religion should keep out of the public square—if anything, they seem to want a theological debate on the relative priority of the preferential option for the poor!
I think this general trend applies far beyond Minnesota. Secular institutions crafted to meet challenges of official disestablishment and individual religious freedom must now manage very different religious actors, often less concerned with controlling the state than with crafting particular policy positions. In the Philippines, state officials struggle with managing the Catholic Church’s fierce opposition to reproductive health legislation. In Senegal, political parties with ties to particular Sufi brotherhoods push the bounds of laws banning religious parties without directly violating them. In terms of the stakes of secular debates, maybe Minnesota isn’t so different after all.