The First Amendment is clear that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,” yet the practical separation between church and state is anything but. Public life is saturated with references to God, from the courts to the Pledge of Allegiance. Right or wrong, candidates are required to negotiate through the religious beliefs of others and account for their own.
In 1954 the phrase “under God” was added to the Pledge in an attempt to weed out communists at the height of the McCarthy era. Fast-forward to the 2013 race for City Council Speaker, in which Councilman Vinny Ignizio accused Melissa Mark-Viverito of failing to say the Pledge due to her “left-leaning” agenda. It was modern red-baiting at its best. Apparently Mark-Viverito had previously stood for but not said the Pledge, until a disgruntled colleague confronted her about it during the campaign. In response she started reciting the Pledge, which Ignizio seemed to think was mere pandering to the “mainstream.” It’s not clear why the Speaker chose previously not to say the Pledge, but presumably she bowed to pressure rather than face persecution for her religious beliefs, or lack thereof.
Although the Speaker’s politics are indeed to the left, her religious position may in fact be right around the center. According to a 2012 Pew Research poll, one-fifth of Americans—and a third of adults under 30—are religiously unaffiliated. But that doesn’t mean they’re antireligious. Two-thirds of the 46 million “nones,” as they’re known, say they believe in God (68%), while more than a third classify themselves as “spiritual” but not “religious” (37%). They are about twice as likely to describe themselves as political liberals than as conservatives, and majorities support legal abortion (72%) and same-sex marriage (73%). Most important, they vote: In the 2008 presidential election, religiously unaffiliated Americans voted for Barack Obama as strongly as white evangelical Protestants did for John McCain.
Affiliated voters still dominate the electorate: 87% in New York City according to exit polling done by Edison Research. Yet they seem willing to elect a “none.” Mayor Bill de Blasio, a self-described “spiritual person,” won overwhelming majorities among Catholics (66%), Protestants (83%) and Jews (53%). It’s the pro-life Catholic Mr. Ignizio who is actually more out of sync with the mainstream than either de Blasio or Mark-Viverito, as a majority of New Yorkers and Catholics support legal abortion.
“Nones” are a rising constituency, but political rhetoric has yet to catch up. Instead, candidates pander to religious communities about metzizah b’peh rather than acknowledge the gray space of “none” identity. The lack of discourse is reinforced by tactics like Ignizio’s, which turn religion into a weapon and force politicians to behave disingenuously.
“Freedom of religious thought and expression are sacred whether you believe in God or not. The willingness to talk about things in public even if they’re not comfortable is also sacred,” says Rabbi Brad Hirschfield, president of the National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership, which seeks to broaden religious understanding in public discourse. Indeed, it would be enlightening to know the Speaker’s true feelings about the Pledge, and why she chose to take the oath of office on a copy of the City Charter as opposed to the Bible.
During the mayoral campaign, de Blasio accused Mayor Bloomberg of having a “blind spot” when it comes to religion: “I don’t think the mayor really understands how crucial it is to protecting the fabric of the city.” Although Bloomberg was reticent to make concessions to religious groups, he was forthright about his own religious identity: a nonpracticing Jew. Mayor De Blasio’s comment that he’s “on the line” is less clear, and betrays some concern about having the conversation. Similarly, the Speaker’s actions seem born of uncertainty rather than self-assurance. Perhaps if these prominent “nones” decided to speak genuinely about their beliefs, they might be pleasantly surprised to find that they’re more mainstream than either they, or the Ignizios of the world, imagine.