If Obama is as smart as he seems to be, he will not be the secularist's friend during his term in the White House (assuming he has a term in the White House). He will either need to toss secularism to the wolves, or he will need to give up his office in four years to somebody else who will toss secularism to the wolves.
One of the observed facts of this campaign is the degree to which McCain's nomination of Sarah Palin galvanized the religious right to work for his campaign. It generated millions of dollars in campaign contributions, and millions of hours in volunteer labor, that he would not have otherwise had from the religious right.
It turns out that it had other ill effects. Palin's utter lack of experience, combined with her inability to form a coherent sentence on political policy, more than cancelled out the political advantages of her religious leanings. However, let us imagine for a moment that Palin was, in fact, capable of making intelligent statements about political policy – that she knew the Bush Doctrine, could cite numerous Supreme Court cases, was widely read, had travelled broadly as Governor of Alaska to set up trade deals with, for example, Japan, China, Russia, and the like.
There are a lot of religious conservatives that have these types of credentials. She happened not to be one of them. But that was a happy coincidence, not a law of nature.
I also want you to note the fact that the Obama campaign never attacked Palin's religious beliefs or her credentials. The criticism heaped on Palin came from forces outside of the campaign (or forces whose connection to the campaign were largely invisible). Obama does, in fact, seem smart enough to know that it would be political suicide to challenge the Religious Right – that his political future depends on his ability to appease them.
He will almost certainly continue to appease them through four years as President.
He will give them the Office of Faith Based Initiatives – making this a permanent part of the American political system. And he will, in all likelihood, increase funding – his way of paying to prevent the religious right from campaigning too heavily against him.
He will certainly condemn what I expect will be the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals' opinion that 'under God' in the Pledge is unconstitutional. He will – probably with some politeness – assert in all likelihood that it is absurd to think that 'under God' in the Pledge is somehow oppressive. He will, by necessity, put his Justice Department to work defending "under God" and "In God We Trust" before the Supreme Court, as well as campaign publicly on what he is doing to protect these traditions. against us on this issue. And he will campaign against us hard enough so that the religious right will have little reason to doubt his sincerity, and thus have less of an incentive to close ranks and form a political army that will work against him.
[Note: Having a national pledge that equates one who does not favor 'one nation under God' with one who does not defend a nation 'indivisible, with liberty and justice for all' certainly goes a long way towards prejudicing the population against such a person, and there is a growing stack of evidence on how real and potent that prejudice is.]
So, I suspect that, in addition to giving the religious right the Office of Faith Based Initiatives, he will also give them the courts. He is going to choose his battles – and his battles will be on Roe v. Wade and forms of discrimination other than discrimination and the promotion of prejudice against atheists. He will toss the atheists to the wolves in order to save others who are more important to him.
The Religious Right will probably realize that if they keep the right to subject generation after generation of school children to the propaganda that atheism is as un-American as tyranny and injustice, that they will win on the other issues eventually.
I would like somebody to ask Obama the question – while there is still a chance to do so – "President Bush said that we need common-sense judges who believe that our rights come from God, and declared that these were the types of judges he would appoint. Do you share his view that a person who does not believe in God is, by that fact alone, unqualified to be a judge?"
As I said above, his personal views do not matter. What I am writing about here is the fine art of political manipulation. It has to do with being effective, versus being right, and a mindset that says that being effective goes a long way towards being right. He will console himself by telling himself about the good that he has accomplished. Though it was sad that he had to sacrifice some people (atheists, secularists) to realize these goods, the gains were important enough to justify the sacrifice.
So, what comes from all of this pessimism?
Well, actually, I think that we ought to live in the real world and make real-world plans that reflect the facts of the universe that surrounds us. What I have stated above is what I believe to be the political facts.
What I mean is that, if you believe in fact-based initiatives rather than faith-based initiatives, if you would prefer a society that did not teach prejudice that particularly targets young children, values science education, and would like to end the social barriers that keep atheists out of public office and positions of public trust, you need to take this message to the people themselves.
It is because our culture is the way it is that a politician like Obama will almost certainly need to sacrifice secular values in order to obtain other goods. It is because of the things that people are willing to invest their contributions of political time and money in that the politician who refuses to sacrifice seclar values will find himself replaced by one who does not refuse. It is only by changing the culture, from the ground up, that we can alter these political facts.
It means that it is time to stop thinking that the situation will magically correct itself. It means that it is necessary to contribute political time and political money to protesting the sacrifice of secular values.
Obama will almost certainly sacrifice secular values just to stay in office. Mumbling among ourselves will not accomplish anything.
Writing letters to Obama himself will be worth than useless. He will toss them aside and scoff, "Live in the real world, people. If I followed your suggestions I might as well simply resign and give my seat over to Huckabee or Palin because, by following your advice, I would give them an excellent chance of winning the next election."
The message has to be taken to the people themselves, and delivered in such a manner that even those who do not want to hear that message cannot ignore it.
Until we create a culture in which it is safe for a politician to support a secular government, we are self-deluded fools if we demand politicians to support secular government. Such a politician will simply be replaced with a different politician who does not have, or is smart enough not to let people know that he has, secular values.
We need to create a culture in which it is safe for politicians such as these to hold secular values, and we cannot do so by hiding our beliefs and praying that, without any effort on our part, a messiah will come along and do all of the hard work for us.
It is up to us to make the political and cultural environment safe for politicians with secular values.