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Jacques Berlinerblau Headshot

Secular America Wins!

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After last night's election, secular Americans can do things they haven't done in years: They can celebrate. They can feel a smidgen optimistic about the future of their country. And they can stop prattling on about repatriating to Canada.

For a while there, house-hunting expeditions in Manitoba seemed like a plausible course of action. After all, "secularism" in 2012 was the dastardly -ism whose name could not be spoken. Across nearly 18 months of garrulous campaigning, I counted fewer than a dozen references to the S-word by presidential candidates. Even less was said about secularism's preferred policy variant: separationism. The concept of a "wall of separation" was hardly ever mentioned, except by Rick Santorum, who reported that it turned his stomach.

Today, secularism should feel just swell. Those groovy and positive vibes, however, are not entirely attributable to Barack Obama's victory. Truth be told, our president's commitment to classic secular values has been uneven at best. One could argue that the prayerful Obama is responsible for moving his party away from the separationist secularism it espoused for half a century.

Sure, the president bravely held his ground against the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops in a surreal and time-warping controversy about, of all things, access to contraception. Still, a glance at this campaign video celebrating his leadership with "faith values" indicates that Barack Obama was no Mario Cuomo.

So let me be precise: Secularists are euphoric less because the Democrat was re-elected, and more because his Republican adversary was defeated. Even this statement needs to be qualified. A different iteration of Mitt Romney might have made a perfectly fine secular president. After all, secularism is perennially concerned about protecting religious minorities. A member of the LDS Church such as the former governor of Massachusetts might know a thing or two about the plight of small, vulnerable communities of faith.

In theory, Romney could have been a reasonable option for secularists. In practice, Romney constantly disappointed on this score. He ran as an "Evangelical Mormon" in 2008, going out of his way to lambaste secularism in his "Faith in America" address. While strategically dialing back the God Talk in 2012, Romney did occasionally make pandering gestures about "religious liberty," all the while playing the anti-abortion and anti-gay marriage cards. So much for the "Massachusetts Moderate."

Gov. Romney 's running mate Rep. Paul Ryan did little to balance the ticket. Just a few weeks back he suggested the question of school prayer was an "issue of the states" ("states rights" being a code word for endeavors to de-secularize America). In his last Faith and Values pronouncement before the election, Rep. Ryan fretted darkly about the president's threat to Judeo-Christian values.

Yet whatever fears secularists had about Romney and Ryan, those paled in comparison to their concerns about the party these men represented. For in 2012 the GOP seemed hellbent on pulverizing every existing American secular conviction, and with a crusading snarl no less.

While secularism strives to ensure the rights of religious minorities, Herman Cain expressed doubts about Muslims serving in his administration (though here Romney did the right thing and called him on it). Secularism cautions against real or symbolic establishments of religion. So what to make of Gov. Rick Perry of Texas kicking off his campaign by praying for 13 minutes in front of throngs in Houston?

We secularists warn about religious rhetoric in the public sphere getting overheated. But there was Rick Santorum complaining about Obama's "phony theology," Newt Gingrich lamenting an imminent atheist/Islamic takeover of America and a Rick Perry supporter calling Mormonism a cult.

Secularism urges politicians to bracket their personal faith convictions in their capacity as public servants. Yet candidates such as Michele Bachmann and Rick Santorum testified incessantly about the impact "biblical worldview" had on their thought. The secular ideal is one that values the role that science can play in policy formation. But this campaign featured one GOP candidate after another denying climate change, basic facts of reproductive biology (and math).

Most importantly, secularism seeks to prevent particularistic religious doctrines from being imposed on all citizens. Conservative Christian Republicans in 2012 became obsessed with reducing access to legal abortion and contraception, all the while trying to endow zygotes with constitutional rights.

Yesterday, Americans -- believers and unbelievers alike -- repudiated some of the GOP's worst, anti-secular impulses. Marriage equality initiatives fared well in four states. An openly gay candidate, Tammy Baldwin, was elected senator in Wisconsin. An amendment in Florida permitting taxpayer monies to go to religious schools was defeated. No fewer than 18 women are now sitting in the U.S. Senate and the GOP's loathsome "rape slate" was sent packing.

Had the Republicans won last night, they would have controlled both the executive and legislative branches (and soon enough the judicial one as well). That didn't come to pass; not since the Dover Trial on the teaching of Intelligent Design has secular America had as much reason to celebrate.

Still, a few words of caution are in order. The Christian right never gives up. They are built-out for activism and they will see the razor-thin popular vote as a mandate to double down (my bet is Rick Santorum is their frontrunner for 2016).

As for the Democrats, if they are pro-secular they sure seem hesitant to say so in public. Unless America's leaders in both parties can actually bring themselves to talk about "secularism" and its value to our democracy, last night's victory will be short lived.

Jacques Berlinerblau (@Berlinerblau) is associate professor of Jewish Civilization at Georgetown University and author of How to Be Secular: A Call to Arms for Religious Freedom.