Image © Austin Cline
In her role as Howard Dean's Chief of Staff she is, "...responsible for managing day-to-day strategy and operations of the national party." This means that on a practical level, she is in charge of the Democratic Party. She's the head honcho, and this is one head honcho who sometimes looks and acts more like a right-wing Republican than a left-leaning Democratic. Then again, her entire schtick is about promoting faith-based values among Democrats and welcoming "people of faith" into the Democratic Party. By looking at her own positions, we can catch a glimpse of what that might mean: anti-atheist bigotry, homophobia, opposition to gay marriage, promotion of creationism, and promotion of Bible reading in public schools.
First, is it even legitimate to put Leah Daughtry's religious beliefs under the microscope? Absolutely: her entire agenda is centered around appealing to voters who support candidates at least in part on the basis of religion — they like the religious pandering that a candidate does or they agree with a candidate's policies because they think that's what their religion/and or god tell them. If Daughtry is going support or encourage inquiries into political candidates' religions and religious beliefs, then she should be willing to submit to the same critical scrutiny — and not just from fellow believers who might be expected to treat those beliefs sympathetically.
Second, just so we're all on the page, let's make it clear how religious Leah Daughtry is. This isn't a woman who merely makes a point of getting to church on time:
Daughtry, who keeps an altar at home and devotes a predawn hour a day to prayer and Bible study, is on a mission to narrow the "God gap" between Democrats and Republicans by winning over religious voters who have flocked to the GOP over the last 20 years. ...
Faith has been a constant in Daughtry's life. She sang in the choir at her church, ran its affairs and worked in the kitchen. But she felt God wanted more. "I don't have any more hours in a day," she remembers despairing, but lost the argument. "God doesn't allow me to be bossy with him," she says with a deep laugh.
Source: LA Times
And what sort of political activism is being driven by this level of religious fervor? Well, a very faith-oriented political activism in which one's faith is supposed to be realized through the political process:
Daughtry says churches, mosques and synagogues are filled with worshipers who might vote Democratic if only candidates discussed their beliefs and how they informed their politics. ...Daughtry is looking past November. "Obviously, you want to win elections," she says. But more important "is the extent to which we allow people of faith to be a vibrant, active part of the party. Because that is a longer-term benefit with greater implications . . . than what one election may or may not yield." [emphasis added]
The New York Times adds:
In her positions as Dean’s top aid and the convention’s top official, Daughtry, who is 44 years old, is leading the Democratic Party’s new mission to make religious believers — particularly ardent Christian believers — view the party and its candidates as receptive to, and often impelled by, the dictates of faith. She sparked this crusade, both to transfigure the party’s image as predominantly secular and to take enough votes from the Republicans to win this year’s presidential election...
Obama has declared that “secularists are wrong when they ask believers to leave their religion at the door before entering into the public square. Frederick Douglass, Abraham Lincoln, William Jennings Bryan, Dorothy Day, Martin Luther King — indeed, the majority of great reformers in American history — were not only motivated by faith but repeatedly used religious language to argue for their cause.” Daughtry couldn’t be more pleased. “As a pastor,” she said, “I think it’s wonderful. And as a voter, I want to know what makes the candidate tick; this is a core part of his understanding.”
It is the core part of Daughtry’s. “We were raised,” she said, referring to her brother and two sisters, “to believe that we would only experience success — success in the sense of contentment, peace — to the extent that we were faithful to the covenant made between our great-great-grandfather and God.” The covenant, her father told me, is “to struggle with and for the people, to make life better for the human family.” And Daughtry said that, in politics “at this point in time,” bringing about triumph for the Democratic Party is the best way to keep that promise. Her work is God’s wish.
...Her acceptance of God’s call to lead, to make herself visible and to make herself heard, converged with her commitment to liberation theology, as she exhorted herself and the congregation: “I am on the rise! I am the power and not the pig! I am on the rise! I am the master and not the mastered! I am on the rise!” Her voice seemed to hold no doubt that she was carrying out God’s plan. “I am on the rise! I am on the rise! I am on the rise!” Source: The New York Times [emphasis added]
So, it sounds like she is working to transform what is supposed to be a secular political party into a faith-based party in which people believe they are doing God's work here on earth. Gee, that sounds a lot like the rhetoric we've heard from Barack Obama... and George W. Bush. Leah Daughtry certainly seems to believe that she is doing God's work, and even seems to think that God has "called" her to be so heavily involved in politics.
But what about her actual political beliefs? You can't have political activism unless you have particular political goals you wish to achieve. It's not enough to just generally want the Democratic Party to "win," because that's a pretty empty goal unless the Democratic Party is actively pursuing an agenda that matches what you want to see happen in society. So, what does Leah Daughtry want to see happen in society? Well, a whole bunch of things that genuine progressives and secularists should be worried about:
When asked about whether she supports gay marriage, Daughtry replied that she does not. The Pentecostal minister turned politico goes on to explain that same-sex nuptials go against her personal beliefs: "I believe, as the church believes, that marriage is intended for one man and one woman." Daughtry goes on to insist that she keeps her religious beliefs separate from her duties at the DNC: "People know that I am a reverend but it is completely separate from the work at the DNC."
The Blade also points out that Daughtry objected to requisite gay delegates because we haven't faced "historic discrimination at the voting booth". Girl must not remember all those anti-gay marriage initiatives.
Meanwhile, our sources in DC tell us the DNC has asked the judge to seal all documents pertaining to the case. They plan to argue that all the attention has cost them financially. Yeah, the truth can do that sometimes…
Source: Queerty [emphasis added]
Wait a minute, Leah Daughtry keeps her religious beliefs separate from her work at the DNC? What kind of an answer is that? This is a woman looking for candidates whose politics are "informed" by their religion, who is reaching out to voters specifically on a religious basis, whose own religion appears to inform every aspect of her life from the time she wakes up to the time she goes to bed, who is an active Pentecostal minister, who started an influential movement in the Democratic Party to promote religion and faith-based politics among Democrats, who wants to promote an image of the Democratic Party as not being secular, and who seems to believe that God has called her to get involved in politics and do what she is doing now...
...And we're supposed to believe that Leah Daughtry is really a secularist at heart who leaves her religion at the door before entering the office? Please, how could anyone be dense enough to believe such a statement?
A person that dedicated to blending religion and politics, and to getting people motivated by religion to become more involved in politics, does not leave her own religion at the office door before starting work. I might be able to believe it if her job was in accounting or computer programming, but when her job is the day-to-day operations of a major political party plus the active promotion of religion within the party, of course her religious beliefs are not separate from her work at the DNC. Her religious beliefs are a major part of what motivates her work at the DNC.
Isn't the entire push for more religion in politics based on the idea that religious believers can't be expected to separate their religion from their politics? Isn't it awfully convenient that these promoters of faith-based values, faith-based politics, and reaching out to "people of faith" become strict secularists when they are suspected of doing something immoral or illegal while under the influence of faith? Maybe that's how it's supposed to work: strict secularism is only necessary when it comes to avoiding responsibility for faith-based behavior.
Remember, too, that there is no such thing as "religious beliefs" in isolation or in the abstract. Religious beliefs always exist as specific beliefs: beliefs about the supernatural, moral beliefs, beliefs about the nature of humanity and human existence, etc. This means that a person who is influenced or motivated by their "religious beliefs" is influenced or motivated by very specific beliefs; this, in turn, means that they will end up making specific decisions or at least adopting specific attitudes because of those beliefs.
If a person believes that homosexuality is an abomination, that homosexuality is condemned by god, and that a secular state should not permit gay marriage because their religion — but not every religion — condemns it, then how can they be trusted to make fair judgments and decisions regarding gay staffers, much less gay-related issues generally? Anyone who thinks that secular, civil marriage laws should be determined by personal religious dogmas is not merely not a secularist; they are an anti-secularist who is pushing a fundamentally theocratic policy.
Morevoer, it's not just that Leah Daughtry is against gay marriage; apparently, she also has problems with treating gays like they are deserving of equal civil rights alongside everyone else:
[Howard Dean] acknowledged a proposal by gay DNC member Garry Shay of California to add gays to the party’s affirmative action guidelines for selecting convention delegates triggered a contentious internal debate. Dean said some “influential individuals” within the DNC Black Caucus, such as Donna Brazile, opposed the plan because it was seen as “an affront to the civil rights movement.” Brazile, who chairs the DNC’s Voting Rights Institute, declined to comment for this article.
Dean said the dispute grew to the point where “we had two very important groups of people in the DNC disagreeing with each other” and several DNC and caucus officials were asked to broker a deal that would make peace on the issue. “I wanted equal representation for gay and lesbian Americans,” he said, “and I wanted to achieve it in a way that wasn’t offensive to the history of the civil rights movement.”
Other case documents suggest Leah Daughtry, Dean’s chief of staff and coordinator of the party’s upcoming convention in Denver, also opposed Shay’s proposal. Dean, however, said he couldn’t recall her position.
Source: Washington Blade [emphasis added]
Setting standards for how gays are represented in the Democratic Party is an "affront to the civil rights movement"? Excuse me, but I think it would be more of an affront to the civil rights movement if the principles and ideals of that movement were ignored because of faith-based objections to homosexuality. To be fair, it's not clear that Leah Daughtry holds precisely this view and Howard Dean goes on to insist that she wasn't one of the primary movers behind that effort to exclude gays — that dubious honor seems to go to Donna Brazile.
However, other documents and reports I read while researching this places Daughtry much more in the center of anti-gay efforts at the Democratic National Committee. Remember, she is in charge of the day-to-day operations there. If she really did support equality for gays and a strong voice for gays in Democratic politics, she could put her foot down and make it happen. Taking all the evidence together, there are very good reasons to believe that Leah Daughtry, Donna Brazile, and a few other prominent Democrats are actively working to pit black political interests against gay political activists.
The relative treatment and status of gays should matter a lot to atheists. One reason is the obvious fact that any faith-based bigotry towards and discrimination of gays would mean that the Democratic Party is moving away from secularism and towards a more theocratic, authoritarian system. It may be a system that still upholds more liberal policies than not, but theocratically-based liberal policies are as unacceptable as theocratically-based conservative policies.
Second, and perhaps more importantly, is the fact that the treatment of a minority group like gays is an indication of attitudes towards minorities generally. The fact that Leah Daughtry feels comfortable excluding atheists from the Democratic Party shouldn't be surprising given her attitudes towards gays and gay marriage — and we shouldn't expect the exclusion to just stop there. Gays and atheists are probably the most easily marginalized minorities in America because distrust of and animosity towards both is so widespread. One good indicator of just how truly progressive and livable a community really is would probably be how openly tolerant and accepting they are of gays and/or atheists.
If you as an atheist were in the process of moving and were faced with two communities, one in which gays can move and live openly without a second glance and another where gays are marginalized, have to stay in the closet, are openly mocked, have to fear discrimination, or are even publicly attacked, which do you think you as an atheist will be most likely accepted? Which do you think you are most likely to be comfortable living? Well, the same is true of political parties as well — a Democratic Party where it's acceptable to marginalize and discriminate against gays is one where atheists will never stand a chance at being treated as equals, especially when the homophobic bigotry is so blatantly faith-based.
If the bigotry against gays and gay marriage aren't bad enough, it also looks like Leah Daughtry and her F.I.A. activists have been involved in promoting quite a few right-wing, faith-based policies which would be more at home among conservative Republicans than progressive Democrats:
[Howard Dean] asked her to stay on as chief of staff and backed her plan to hire a team, to be known as Faith in Action, that would help the party to hear, and to be heard by, voters of deep religious conviction. Gradually she put together the F.I.A. group that has met weekly at the Democratic National Committee’s headquarters in Washington: three evangelicals, a Catholic, a Muslim and a Jew, all with backgrounds blending work in religion and politics. ...
F.I.A. has also financed the faith outreach of state parties, sometimes in striking ways. In Alabama, the pro-life party chairman was given F.I.A. money to publish a “Faith and Values Voters Guide” in local newspapers just before Election Day in 2006. The 12-page insert provided the religious narratives of statewide Democratic candidates — “I was richly blessed in my life with parents who raised me in a Christian home. . . .” — and concluded with a Democratic “covenant for the future.” The covenant pledged to “require public schools to offer Bible literacy as part of their curriculum” and made at least two vows that run counter to positions of the national party: to “pass a constitutional amendment confirming that all life is a gift from God and should be protected; and that life begins at conception” and to “defeat any efforts to redefine marriage or provide the benefits of marriage to a same-sex union.”
Daughtry sounded surprised when I read her these vows. Though she is a biblical literalist who sees no problem with teaching creation theory side by side with evolution — “For me, the Bible is history” — she, following the teaching of her father’s church, is also pro-choice. “God allows us to choose in the biggest matter,” she said, “whether to accept Him in our lives. How then can we take away choice on other profound issues? We don’t believe the government should interfere.” Hearing Alabama’s covenant, she said right away that F.I.A. has not vetted everything the state parties have done with its money. Then she leaned heavily on the poles of the big tent: “The wonderful thing about the Democratic Party is that we have room for all kinds of opinions.”
Now we're getting a more complete picture of what faith-based political activism must mean for Leah Daughtry and her supporters: a focus on evangelical Christians with at most a minority input from other Christians and other religions (but always mostly Christian), promoting candidates' religious beliefs and background as if that were relevant to how they can serve in public office in a secular government, teaching the Bible in public schools, denying gays the ability to marry, denying gays the ability to have any of the same benefits and rights that go with marriage even in a "separate but equal" arrangement, and perhaps even criminalizing abortion on the constitutional level.
Granted, Leah Daughtry doesn't personally want to criminalize abortion, but I don't see her specifically condemning the use of FIA funds and resources to promote that policy nor do I see her express any reservations about using religion within the political sphere to promote such a policy. It is interesting that the Democratic Party has a big enough "tent" to include Christians who want to criminalize abortion because of and even on the basis of their belief in god (even writing their god for the first time into the Constitution), but it's not a big enough tent to include atheists. This tells us a lot about Leah Daughtry's priorities and real attitudes.
...she told me that God had granted her the “gifts of administration.” This, she explained, is her first and most natural calling: to keep things organized, to make things happen from behind the scenes. And she let it be known that she doesn’t appreciate the fact that the media — partly because they are “fascinated with the Pentecostal thing,” she said with subtle annoyance — has begun to focus its mostly positive attention on her, to push her from the background to the forefront. “The intellectuals, the egghead types — Pentecostalism is incomprehensible to them. They don’t understand the spirit-driven. I can make the trains run on time, and they have a hard time reconciling that with my religion.”
Although it's only expressed subtly here, I see something that I've read in many other places regarding a clash between secular reporters or politicians and religious believers: annoyance from the religious believers at others' ignorance, curiosity, and questions about one's religion. But why are they annoyed or disturbed? They are acting like their religion is such a natural and basic thing that everyone should know about it, have a basic understanding of it, and of course have a generally positive attitude towards it. Under no circumstances should anyone treat the beliefs of any Christian denomination as weird, irrational, or an object of curiosity.
If you think back to the nature of privilege generally and religious privilege in particular, though, you'll notice that this is an excellent example of religious privilege at work. Christianity is singled out as some sort of natural or expected background system which everyone should be well versed in, even if they aren't a part of it, and which no one should treat as the least bit foreign — or, to be more specific, outside the norm. Christianity is supposed to be what defines "the norm," which means that it is never questioned or treated in such a "disrespectful" way; every other belief system, cult, and religion, though, can be treated that way because they clearly are outside the cultural, social, and political norms.
This, in turn, seems to be used as a justification of bringing more religion into politics and especially the Democratic Party. Did you ever wonder why so many Democrats have been pushing this despite the unambiguous fact that the numbers of non-theists and people with no particular religious belief are larger than many religious groups, that they are the fastest growing groups in America, and even many conservative religious believers think there is too much religion in politics today? It's a bizarre contradiction, with Democratic leaders apparently working against their own long-term self-interests (in such circumstances, a more explicitly secular party should have the advantage).
If, however, we see these leaders as fighting against a loss of religious privilege generally and Christian Privilege in particular, the contradiction becomes easier to understand — and perhaps even disappears. After all, if they see the same numbers we are seeing, then they are also seeing the writing on the wall: their religious beliefs will play less and less of a role in defining cultural, political, and social norms in America. Over time, they won't be able to just assume that everyone around them understands their theological language or sympathizes with their faith-based approach to life. If this frightens a person, then pushing to include more explicit religion in politics won't appear to be a contradiction; instead, it will appear to be a necessary step in fighting the growing secularization of America.
Leah Daughtry doesn't seem to like "intellectuals" and "egghead types" question, challenge, or just don't "get" her religion. Perhaps she is more comfortable around people with similar religious beliefs and who take supernatural ideas and superstition for granted. I can understand if she's worried about a loss of privileges for her beliefs, especially given how important her beliefs are to her, to her sense of identity, and to her understanding of where she comes from (remember, she's not just a minister but a fifth generation minister). In an increasingly diverse and secular America, though, those privileges simply cannot be maintained in the long term. She'd be better off simply accepting the idea that people like gays and atheists will and should have an equal role next to her.