09/24/2012 04:15 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

A Secular Voting Guide: Romney or Obama?

Back in hoary antiquity -- say, prior to the presidential election of 2004 -- a secularist's voting preference was fore-ordained. To wit, a secularist voted for the Democrat and the Democrat only.

It didn't matter if that Democrat was Bible-thumpin' liberal evangelical Jimmy Carter, or the separationist Wonder Twins Walter Mondale and Geraldine Ferraro, or card-carrying ACLU member Michael Dukakis.

Those voters who believed in separation of church and state always eschewed the Republican option. And they did so vengefully after the GOP became a wholly Falwell-ized entity in the 1980s. After all, the Dems were the party of John F. Kennedy, whose 1960 proclamation, "I believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute," was a tacit party plank and an article of faith.

But things have changed. I have often written about the demoralization and panic that afflicted the Democratic Party in the wake of John Kerry's 2004 loss to George W. Bush. Long story short, it was around 2006 that observers such as myself and others started noticing that the Democrats were abandoning their old fealty to separationism. Their newfound embrace of God on the campaign trail (see the strenuous 2008 Faith and Values politicking of John Edwards, Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama) seemed to signal a recognition that there were more votes in religious constituencies than in separationist ones (whose members, however, were often religious).

With this morose preamble rendered, we can now make better sense of the reality confronting secularists in 2012. A secularist, as I argue here, need not be a total separationist. But a secularist does lose sleep over blatant entanglements between government and religion. Such behaviors render us -- and by "us" I refer to those who believe in God and those who do not -- itchy and uncooperative.

President Obama's record here is mixed -- as befits a politician who has aggressively ushered his party away from its old-school hardline separationism. Let's start with the good. On the rhetorical level, Obama could give a gracious shout out to non-believers in his inaugural address. As I have noted, American atheists are rarely acknowledged in any official state documents and pronouncements (going back to the nation's founding). It is crucial to their well-being that leaders legitimize and normalize non-believers' rightful place in the American polity. Most impressively, Obama held his ground in the complex and very bitter battle with the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops over the HHS contraception mandates.

But it's not all good news. Secularists have always been very attuned to political rhetoric and on this score the president has given them pause. Obama has talked about faith in ways that would be inconceivable for someone like former New York governor Mario Cuomo, or Michael Dukakis, or any of the classic separationist Dems. Consider the accent he placed on Christ in his addresses at the National Prayer Breakfast in 2011 and 2012, as well as the Easter Prayer Breakfast last year and this April. Or think about his recent proclamation of "national days of prayer and remembrance" to commemorate 9/11.

Most troubling to secularists has been Obama's support of the Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships. This was a Bush-era contraption which represented an existentialist threat to the old separationist worldview. By retaining (and enlarging) the Office, which sluices federal funds into the coffers of religious social-service providers, Obama has moved his party into the domain of "accommodationism."

Those who police church-state boundaries are sufficiently concerned by these developments to do the unthinkable and give a Republican presidential candidate a good looking-over. Unfortunately for secularists, there's not much solace in the Republican camp as the party has been seized by a strain of Christian nationalism, which appears not to be confined to its fringes anymore.

The irony is that a Mormon candidate such as Mitt Romney belongs to a religious minority group that has often run afoul of those very fringes. Yet, Romney has shown very little eagerness to stand up to the wingnuttery of the GOP's social conservative base. All of which is a shame because, when he was governor of Massachusetts, Romney evinced no such predilection for mixing government and religion. But in 2008, his handlers also took note of those 2004 "values voters" and flip-flopped him accordingly.

In short, a secularist in 2012 pulls the lever for Barack Obama, but with a sense of loss and melancholy. The old separationist era has passed. Vote Democrat. Hope for better days.