Romney attacks Obama's "secular agenda"

Has "secular" become a dirty word in US politics?

American presidential elections always produce their bizarre surprises, but few could have predicted that a row over the funding of birth control should be overshadowing the state of the economy as the focus of a heated national debate about religious freedom. Or to accusations that President Obama is engaged in an all-out "war on religion".

Yesterday Mitt Romney, looking ever more vulnerable to the socially conservative Rick Santorum, was answering audience questions in Michigan ahead of next week's primary -- one of those contests invariably described as "crucial". He took the opportunity to burnish his "pro-life" credentials, pledging for example to cut off federal funding for the abortion provider Planned Parenthood and promising to choose a pro-lifer as his running mate. He also spoke, not for the first time, of the need to protect "religious freedom". Criticising Obama's record, he put much of the blame on "the people the president hangs around with and their agenda, their secular agenda". They were people who "fought against religion".

This is, of course, code for the administration's policy, since watered down (largely under pressure from the Catholic Church) to force even religious employers to provide contraceptive coverage as part of their workers' health insurance. The ultimate problem might lie in the concept that healthcare provision should form part of the employer-employee relationship at all. There's no doubt, though, that an ad hoc alliance of Catholic bishops, Protestant evangelicals and Republican politicians has managed to turn this from an issue of equal access to healthcare into one of "religious freedom", at least in terms of the public debate.

Even though the freedom under discussion is not the freedom of citizens to worship freely but rather the freedom of powerful religious organisations to deprive ordinary Americans of provision that most of them have for decades taken for granted. Even though most ordinary Catholic voters disagree with their church leadership on the issue.

When Romney speaks of a "secular agenda" what he is actually talking about is the rights of women to have control over their own bodies and their own fertility. The vast majority of American women, including Catholics, have long used contraception in their own lives, whatever the official position of the church hierarchy. Romney himself, when he was governor of Massachusetts, took a far more nuanced position on abortion than the one he now advocates. It's fair to say, though, that his current pro-life stance long predates the emergence of Rick Santorum as a serious contender. He has been accused of flip-flopping, but it would probably be truer to observe that his shift mirrors the reorientation of the Republican party as a whole in recent decades.

As Ann Gerhart noted the other day in the Washington Post, there was a time when a Republican congressman from Texas (by the name of George Bush Sr) could argue that "if family planning is anything, it is a public health matter." That was the 1970s.

For all the heightened talk of a "war on religion", it's hard to see how the the Obama administration represents an atheistic lurch. As both candidate and president, Barack Obama has "done God" with the best of them. The US constitutional tradition, embodied in the First Amendment, has always stressed freedom of religion rather than (like French secularism) freedom from religion, but from the days of the Founding Fathers until well into the second half of the twentieth century, politics and religion were seen as largely separate spheres of activity. John F Kennedy's opponents tried to discredit him by hinting darkly that, as a Catholic, he might be taking orders from Rome. Today's Republican hopefuls, even the Mormon, seem almost to want to present themselves as instruments of Vatican policy. All very strange.

It's actually the Obama administration, insofar as it is pursuing a "secular agenda" at all, that stands in the mainstream of US political and legal history. A secular agenda is not the same thing as an anti-religious one, a fact that would have been obvious to every previous American generation. What is historically novel is the attempt on the part of the religious right to recast political questions as spiritual ones. They are trying to use the hallowed constitutional right to freedom of worship to restrict the freedoms of ordinary Americans, religious and otherwise. And, at least in the limited area of the race for the Republican nomination, they would seem to be making most of the running.

George Bush Sr, in the speech quoted above, could refer to opponents of state funding for birth control as "militants" who sought to use the issue as "a political stepping stone." Forty years later, it seems, the militants have taken over the Republican asylum.

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After Richmond Park, Labour MPs are haunted by a familiar ghost

Labour MPs in big cities fear the Liberal Democrats, while in the north, they fear Ukip. 

The Liberal Democrats’ victory in Richmond Park has Conservatives nervous, and rightly so. Not only did Sarah Olney take the votes of soft Conservatives who backed a Remain vote on 23 June, she also benefited from tactical voting from Labour voters.

Although Richmond Park is the fifth most pro-Remain constituency won by a Conservative at the 2015 election, the more significant number – for the Liberal Democrats at least – is 15: that’s the number of Tory-held seats they could win if they reduced the Labour vote by the same amount they managed in Richmond Park.

The Tories have two Brexit headaches, electorally speaking. The first is the direct loss of voters who backed David Cameron in 2015 and a Remain vote in 2016 to the Liberal Democrats. The second is that Brexit appears to have made Liberal Democrat candidates palatable to Labour voters who backed the party as the anti-Conservative option in seats where Labour is generally weak from 1992 to 2010, but stayed at home or voted Labour in 2015.

Although local council by-elections are not as dramatic as parliamentary ones, they offer clues as to how national elections may play out, and it’s worth noting that Richmond Park wasn’t the only place where the Liberal Democrats saw a dramatic surge in the party’s fortunes. They also made a dramatic gain in Chichester, which voted to leave.

(That’s the other factor to remember in the “Leave/Remain” divide. In Liberal-Conservative battlegrounds where the majority of voters opted to leave, the third-placed Labour and Green vote tends to be heavily pro-Remain.)

But it’s not just Conservatives with the Liberal Democrats in second who have cause to be nervous.  Labour MPs outside of England's big cities have long been nervous that Ukip will do to them what the SNP did to their Scottish colleagues in 2015. That Ukip is now in second place in many seats that Labour once considered safe only adds to the sense of unease.

In a lot of seats, the closeness of Ukip is overstated. As one MP, who has the Conservatives in second place observed, “All that’s happened is you used to have five or six no-hopers, and all of that vote has gone to Ukip, so colleagues are nervous”. That’s true, to an extent. But it’s worth noting that the same thing could be said for the Liberal Democrats in Conservative seats in 1992. All they had done was to coagulate most of the “anyone but the Conservative” vote under their banner. In 1997, they took Conservative votes – and with it, picked up 28 formerly Tory seats.

Also nervous are the party’s London MPs, albeit for different reasons. They fear that Remain voters will desert them for the Liberal Democrats. (It’s worth noting that Catherine West, who sits for the most pro-Remain seat in the country, has already told constituents that she will vote against Article 50, as has David Lammy, another North London MP.)

A particular cause for alarm is that most of the party’s high command – Jeremy Corbyn, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott, and Keir Starmer – all sit for seats that were heavily pro-Remain. Thornberry, in particular, has the particularly dangerous combination of a seat that voted Remain in June but has flirted with the Liberal Democrats in the past, with the shadow foreign secretary finishing just 484 votes ahead of Bridget Fox, the Liberal Democrat candidate, in 2005.

Are they right to be worried? That the referendum allowed the Liberal Democrats to reconfigure the politics of Richmond Park adds credence to a YouGov poll that showed a pro-Brexit Labour party finishing third behind a pro-second referendum Liberal Democrat party, should Labour go into the next election backing Brexit and the Liberal Democrats opt to oppose it.

The difficulty for Labour is the calculation for the Liberal Democrats is easy. They are an unabashedly pro-European party, from their activists to their MPs, and the 22 per cent of voters who back a referendum re-run are a significantly larger group than the eight per cent of the vote that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats got in 2015.

The calculus is more fraught for Labour. In terms of the straight Conservative battle, their best hope is to put the referendum question to bed and focus on issues which don’t divide their coalition in two, as immigration does. But for separate reasons, neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats will be keen to let them.

At every point, the referendum question poses difficulties for Labour. Even when neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats take seats from them directly, they can hurt them badly, allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle.

The big problem is that the stance that makes sense in terms of maintaining party unity is to try to run on a ticket of moving past the referendum and focussing on the party’s core issues of social justice, better public services and redistribution.

But the trouble with that approach is that it’s alarmingly similar to the one favoured by Kezia Dugdale and Scottish Labour in 2016, who tried to make the election about public services, not the constitution. They came third, behind a Conservative party that ran on an explicitly pro-Union platform. The possibility of an English sequel should not be ruled out.  

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.