For the last few election cycles we have heard much about politicians who "speak to people of faith" and "truly understand the concerns of religious Americans." Indeed, the national political stage has been overrun by prayerful sorts, Republicans and Democrats alike. Bibles have been thumped, blessings have been dispensed, and candidates have even willfully submitted to religious tests (see Pastor Rick Warren for that one).
Yet who speaks to and for secular Americans? And by secular Americans I do not mean atheists and agnostics, though they too are part of this cohort. I mean all citizens, religious or non-religious, who are downright queasy about the increasing manner in which religion is pervading political rhetoric and even policy.
To these Americans I say: Michael Bloomberg is the politician for you! The mayor of New York City is the most intuitively secular thinker in America's leadership class. This does not mean that he is in any way opposed to religion. On the contrary, one of the achievements of the mayor's overlong (see below) reign has been his ability to maintain cordial relations with the city's many communities of faith. Secularists -- how many times need I repeat this? -- are not the anti-religious Stalinists that the Religious right makes them out to be.
Secularists do, however, have a problem with even the faintest whiff of religious establishment. This explains why the mayor forcefully pushed back against an attempt by the Religious right to have clerics deliver invocations at the memorial commemorating the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. As Bloomberg explained to a Fox News reporter (see video above) there is an abundance of faith traditions in New York and the government can't get into the habit of offering platforms to just a handful.
Yet secularism places limits on government as well. A state cannot penalize lawful religious expression simply because it offends others. Thus, Bloomberg perfectly toed the secular line during the recent Chick-fil-A controversy. He did not join other American urban leaders in suggesting that the homophobic sentiments of the restaurant's owner should result in state sanctions. In Bloomberg's words:
It's inappropriate for a city government, or a state government, or the federal government to look at somebody's political views and decide whether or not they can live in the city, or operate a business in the city, or work for somebody in the city.
Yet Bloomberg exemplifies not only the good of the secular vision, but its scaly underbelly as well. Secular states are often accused of being, well, statist. At their worst they arrogate to themselves way too much power over citizens' lives. The mayor's publically expressed concerns (and occasional bans) on smoking, large sodas, sodium in meals for the homeless and even the use of baby formula have led his critics to suggest he is presiding over a "nanny state."
Most unpleasantly, there was Bloomberg's successful drive to change laws about term limits in New York City and grant himself a third tour of duty as mayor. Historically, secularism's weakness, its drinking problem if you will, has been the type of autocratic statism I am describing here.
Still, in the grand scheme of things the feisty mayor is a solid and distressingly rare exponent of the secular vision. He may be able to stand up to the Religious right because his great personal wealth insulates him from having to pander to religious blocs. Whatever the case may be, Michael Bloomberg is America's secular mayor (if we could only correct those bouts of absolutism).