Two Appearances in the Secular Nation Podcast

Recently I served as guest and, later, host of Secular Nation, the podcast of the Atheist Alliance of America. In my guest appearance I talk about secularism and politics in the Trump Era with Aron Ra and Justin Scott of Eastern Iowa Atheists. In the show I hosted I interview Dr. Ron Millar, the PAC coordinator for the Freethought Equality Fund, a secular PAC.

For my guest hosting appearance I wanted to focus on the great work the PAC did in 2016, one of the few bright spots our movement had in this past election. You can listen to the show here. Ron discusses the process of finding and endorsing candidates, the importance of having more secular Americans running for office, and other issues. As a backgrounder I want to show some information about the PAC’s work last year.
The Fund endorsed 35 candidates in 17 states. Arizona led the way with 9 candidates, nearly one-quarter of the candidate pool. The states are quite diverse. There are hotbeds of American secularism such as Washington, Oregon and New Hampshire with multiple candidates. But there are also places like Utah, Missouri, and Tennessee.

One aspect we didn’t discuss in the podcast was the variety of offices that the candidates ran for. It wasn’t a matter of local offices. Most ran for state (legislative) offices and the second largest cohort competed for federal (Congress) offices.

Last but not least, the Fund was very successful with its endorsed candidates. The majority won their races. In the podcast Ron goes a little bit into detail into who was more likely to succeed.

I hope you enjoy the shows!

Trump Approval Watch

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I am not normally obsessed with presidential approval ratings. But since the election of Donald Trump as President I have been thinking a lot about the relationship between approval and governing. A popular President can use it as leverage, think post-9/11 George W. Bush. An unpopular President that is also incompetent, like our current Commander-in-Chief, may have trouble making policy even with a friendly Congress.

Trump was never popular to begin with. As it was said ad nauseam during the 2016 campaign both Trump and Hillary Clinton were the most unpopular candidates for President ever (since public opinion started tracking such a thing). It is not surprising that now that he’s President he has enjoyed no honeymoon period, just breaking even at 45% of both approval and disapproval in the first Gallup poll measuring his ratings. That is the lowest among the Presidents since 1969.

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Source: Gallup

Barack Obama, the only one of the last four President who won a majority of the vote had the approval of two-thirds of the country in his first Gallup appearance in 2009. His predecessor George W. Bush had the approval of nearly 60% of the country in 2001 even though (like Trump) he didn’t win the popular vote and (unlike Trump) his Electoral College victory was handed to him by the Supreme Court. Even Bill Clinton in 1993 had 58% approval following an election that he won by a plurality in a 3-way popular vote.

Before Trump the least popular presidents were Ronald Reagan in 1981 and George H.W. Bush in 1989. Both had 51% approval, 6 percentage points higher than Trump’s. Unlike Trump these two Presidents were not unpopular. In fact, none of the Presidents who preceded Trump in the Oval Office were unpopular.

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Source: Gallup

On average, all elected Presidents since Nixon had majority approval (58%). This ranged from 51% (Reagan and Bush I) to 67% (Obama). The average disapproval for Trump’s last 7 predecessors was 13%. Disapproval ranged from 5% (Nixon) to 25% (Bush II).

Trump’s first approval was 24% lower than the average recently sworn-in President. His disapproval was nearly 4 times higher than the average President since 1969 and nearly twice than George W. Bush, his most unpopular predecessor.

That leaves us with one additional number: those who did not have an opinion. Since 1969 nearly 3-in-10 Americans have not expressed an opinion of the new President. It makes sense, these polls are often taken in the first couple of weeks of an administration. Many people without strong opinions may want to wait and see how the new Commander-in-Chief does. In other words, the honeymoon period is a combination of positive opinion (approval), and willingness to cut some slack (no opinion). Even the last 3 Presidents in a more polarized environment have averaged 20% no opinion. Trump’s margin of error is much smaller. Only 10% of Americans did not have an opinion of him.

While approval ratings may rise and fall as Presidents get in trouble or out of it, as they accomplish goals or botch them, they start with a lot of leeway. Trump’s first numbers suggest that the vast majority of Americans have an opinion formed of him and what he’s going to do while in office.

As I write this Trump’s approval stands at 41% while his disapproval has increased to 53%. Right now 94% of the country has an opinion of his performance and it is not a good one. With executive orders, a friendly Congress, and his sheer incompetence he can still inflict a lot of damage. But he’s vulnerable even if he thinks the normal rules of engagement do not apply to him.

The Republican Party as of now stands united but as Trump increasingly becomes a liability we will witness more Republicans willing to break with him. Maybe not on their sweet tax cuts, but on issues that they don’t care much about but now feel bound to follow out fear of igniting the wrath of the President’s base. You will see the seams starting to fall apart in the Senate.

Senators have different electoral incentives since they have staggered terms. The first Republican Senators smelling blood on the Michael Flynn saga do not face election next year.

With a Democratic base energized in these first weeks and a bumbling President, expect a few more to start opposing in the longer term if the bad ratings continue. House Republicans will be harder to move, they have safe districts. Expect the few vulnerable ones to start considering their exit strategies.

Of course, it is possible for Trump to improve or have other external events to have people outside his base rallying in his favor. One potential event that has been suggested is a terrorist attack. George W. Bush initially became widely popular  after the 9/11/2001 attacks. But Donald Trump is not George W. Bush. The younger Bush was more charismatic than our current President. Also, Bush used the attacks to try to unify the country (in his own way). Trump is incapable of doing that, he will use the opportunity to tweet an “I told you so” message.

I think it will be very hard for Trump to gain net positive approval ratings. He’s certainly way over his head, most people dislike him, and once Republicans see that he’s more a distraction than an asset, opposition will line up within the GOP. I think he is incapable of uniting the country in case of a tragedy or a war. The latter will more likely be seen with the suspicion that Bush II never received. Finally, I think that when his approval ratings among the voters of his own party (currently at 88%) start dropping and hopefully reach and surpass the Nixon line (50% was his Republican approval at his lowest point), he will get a primary challenge. While his policies matter, his approvals (or lack of) will be of great help in his downfall.

Edit 2/15/2017 to fix a mention of GWB approval rating.

Representation requires more than votes

The Pew Research Center released its now-traditional “Faith on the Hill” study of religion in Congress. Among the not-so surprising findings are that Christians are overrepresented compared to their share of the population. The most underrepresented group, once again: the nones (nonreligious/atheist/agnostic). Emma Green has a piece up at The Atlantic blaming nonreligious Americans for their lack of representation in Congress. In essence, she argues that secular Americans don’t vote in large numbers and for that reason they do not have enough members of Congress representing them. She also makes an argument that the movement is not coherent because many nonreligious people don’t really care about religion enough to organize about the issue.

Both arguments are wrong. Let’s take first the first argument that the nonreligious do not vote enough to get representation. Green shows a chart from PRRI (full disclosure: I was once an employee of PRRI) showing the percentage of people who identify as nonreligious in the general population and the percentage of nonreligious voters in exit polls. The latter number is always much smaller, but that does not mean that we are certain that the secular cohort is less likely to vote. Most general population polls are conducted over the phone (landline and cellphones) and/or (increasingly) online. Exit polls are mostly done face-to-face. Considering how disliked are nonreligious people, particularly atheists, in the United States, it is possible that many secular-minded people are not willing to tell a stranger their real religious beliefs.

Even if it were true that secular Americans are less likely to vote, they are still a significant part of the of the electorate and should have more than 1 openly nonreligious member. But in our political system numbers do not translate to equal representation. After all, women do not account for half of our representatives and people of color do not comprise a third of elected officials. Just because the number of secular Americans has jumped in the last decade, mostly thanks to young people, doesn’t mean that they have a pool of people ready to run for office and win offices that are not very often open for business when we consider the high reelection rates of incumbents.

There are some changes coming that way. In 2016, the Freethought Equality Fund, a secular PAC, endorsed several candidates, many of whom got elected and did not run away from identifying with a secular label or from the support of a secular group. These candidates ran mostly at the state and local levels and represent a growing bench of secular leaders.

On Green’s second point, that is hard to organize a group of people with little in common except for their lack of religion, truth is there is a lot in common. Secular Americans regardless of labels agree on many social and economic issues. As a Puerto Rican, I have experience with imagined identities among groups with a hint of history together. Latinos have become an important force by combining the forces of groups that share some traits, but also have some major differences (I know a bit about this, trust me).

There are important problems of collective action in the secular movement that hinder its ability to become a major political force in the short term. I’ve written about this before. But there are important structural and cultural problems in this country exacerbating the lapses in political organization in the secular movement. Those are to blame for the lack of representation during this decade. We need to work on reversing them in the future.

 

Latinos, the Nones, and the Decline of American Catholicism

Last week PRRI released a new survey providing an in-depth look at the nones. The nones are now America’s largest “religious” cohort, surpassing Catholics. This is no coincidence. Former Catholics (or people raised as Catholic like yours truly) have been boosting the numbers of the nones for years. The stability of Catholic religious identification in the United States was a mirage. The growth of the Latino population in the 1990s and 2000s, back then overwhelmingly Catholic greatly contributed to the overall numbers and give the impression that Catholic identification was very stable in the face of overall declining religiosity in the country.

Back when I was at the Institute for the Study of Secularism in Society and Culture (ISSSC) and we released the 2008 American Religious Identification Survey we noted that anomaly. On page 15 of the 2008 ARIS Summary Report Barry Kosmin & Ariela Keysar noted that “…Catholicism lost ground within every ethnic group between 1990 and 2008. If the Hispanic population, which is the most Catholic, had not expanded then the Catholic population share nationally would have significantly eroded.” This observation was based on an analysis of a subsample of nones that received additional questions on ethnic heritage. We found a substantial number of former Catholics of Irish descent among the nones that was further explored in ISSSC’s report “American Nones.”

Even as Latinos seemed to give Catholicism a boost, under the surface there were problems. The third ARIS report, published in 2010, was on Latino religious change. In that report we noted that Catholic identification among Latinos had declined from to-thirds of all Latinos in 1990 to 6-in-10 by 2008 while the share of nones had doubled. The decline in Catholicism among Latinos led us to conclude that “…while Latinos helped to mitigate some of the losses in Catholic identification in the U.S., the Catholic identification is much lower than it could have been.”

By 2013 I had joined PRRI and our Hispanic Values Survey found that the growth of Latino nones was fueled by an exodus of Latino Catholics. The next year, 2014 the Pew Research Center found that 20 percent of Latinos were nones.

In sum, though the growth of the nones seems to be a mostly white, male phenomenon because the most prominent secular faces are white dudes, people of color especially Latinos have helped the group become the largest “religious” cohort in the country. So, secular America, in the name of all former Latino Catholics I say, you’re welcome.

 

Colorblind Conservatism

At TheHumanist.com, Sincere Kirabo writes about black conservatives. In the piece he dismantles the arguments of African-American speakers at the Republican National Convention in Cleveland. A task simplified by the fact that there were so few, most fit in one magazine column. A sample quote below:

Black conservatives, along with their brethren, favor respectability politics and place faith in the idea of “pulling yourself up by your bootstraps”—both notions supported by a victim-blaming rationale that neglects the way some identities are privileged over others.

Sincere Kirabo, “The Black Conservative Anomaly

Though Kirabo’s focus is the current lineup of black conservatives in the GOP, black conservatism is an ideological current with a long history, something I learned during my years in graduate school. In fact, it was the scholarship on African-American ideologies, particularly the work by Michael Dawson and Melissa Harris-Lacewell (today Harris-Perry), what inspired me to write a dissertation on Latino ideology.

In this regard, Kirabo’s piece reminds me of Chapter 3 of W.E.B. DuBois’s The Souls of Black Folk. That chapter is a serious takedown of the respectability politics and black conservatism of Booker T. Washington.

There’s a big difference between Washington and today’s black conservatives in the GOP. Washington’s conservative rhetoric included actions, such as the founding of the Tuskegee Institute. He was part of a debate about how to improve the conditions of the African-American community after the collapse of Reconstruction. Today’s GOP black conservatives deny there’s a problem at all, or that the problem lies in individual responsibility.

Which leads me to the contradiction of today’s GOP. As the party has moved from “dog-whistle” statements about race to explicit racism, it has also seen a boom in elected officials of color. The Party of Trump has South Carolina’s Tim Scott, the only African-American U.S. Senator, two Latinos in the U.S. Senate (Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz), as well as governors Brian Sandoval (NV) and Susana Martínez (NM), Indian-American governors Nikki Haley (SC) and Bobby Jindal (LA). Let’s not forget Dr. Ben Carson’s and Alan Keyes’s presidential aspirations. This shows that the party’s base may be racist, but also colorblind. They will elect anyone who spews the hateful rhetoric and reality-denying views they like.

The other day I was watching cable news in room as I waited for a meeting. I don’t recall which network it was, but I recall hearing something like this: A commentator asked where are the reasonable black conservatives like Colin Powell, Condoleeza Rice, and Michael Steele. And I though to myself, if Michael Steele is now considered a reasonable black conservative, the Republican Party is beyond salvation.

Contribute to YHC’s Green Light Project

The Yale Humanist Community is one of my favorite groups for various reasons: (1) it is very active in the state that I called home for more than a decade, (2) it is led by the amazing Chris Stedman, and (3) I’m part of their advisory board. They find new ways of promoting humanism and making people skeptical of our philosophy realize you can be good without believing in a god. One of their current projects is the Green Light Project. I’ll let Chris explain it, from his recent piece in TheHumanist.com:

After more than a year of planning and meeting with community partners, YHC has launched a crowdfunding campaign to fund an interactive, nonreligious sculpture that will go up alongside the religious symbols and serve as a reminder that, even during the coldest and darkest months of the year, human beings can come together to create light and warmth.

By doing this, we have a chance to model that nonreligious communities can stand alongside our religious neighbors in peace. But we also have a chance to model humanist values—to exemplify a universal, inclusive humanism that can speak not only to the growing number of nonreligious Americans but also to the shared values of our religious neighbors.

Chris D. Stedman, TheHumanist.com

Go and support this project and if you contribute today you’ll be able to double your donation!

Secular History at Sin/God Blog

Luciano Gonzalez is exploring secular history and major figures in the secular movement. He starts with George Holyoake:

This post is meant to mark the beginning of a series I want to do talking about figures who have relevance to the history of irreligion. One of the first figures I’d like to talk about is George Holyoake. This guy was and is someone who has real significance to global secularism, partially because he coined the term “secular”. I’m sure that at least some English atheists, secularists, and otherwise irreligious people are familiar with him but I know that many free-thinkers from other parts of the world aren’t as aware of him and the work he did.

Luciano Gonzalez Sin/God

I learned about Holyoake when I was working at the Institute for the Study of Secularism in Society & Culture and I encourage Luciano to continue his unearthing of secular history. It is something I’ve been interested in for a while and served as the start of my first talk about diversity in the secular movement last year at the CFI Leadership Conference. Some books that have been helpful in my search are Susan Jacoby’s Freethinkers and her fascinating biography of Robert Green Ingersoll The Great Agnostic, and John Farrell’s biography of Clarence Darrow.

Personally, I’m also interested in Hispanic/Latino/Latin American secularism which is why I am very interested in the history of the Spanish Civil war and the Cristero War in Mexico. About the latter there are two movies: an excellent La Guerra Santa (1979) a censored movie that my amazing in-laws tracked and found for me in Mexico a few years back but that you can watch in Youtube now. The second is the pathetic pro-Catholic propaganda film For Greater Glory. I also have in my to-read queue El Epistolario de Benito Juárez (the letters of Benito Juarez) to better understand his thinking on Churc-State separation. Finally, I have started re-reading a favorite author from my (Catholic) high school days Nemesio R. Canales, a Puerto Rican freethinker, lawyer, satirist, and politician.

Feature Friday: Congress gets a None (Repost)

Note: With the victory of Freethought Equality Fund-endorsed candidate Jamie Raskin, it is time to unearth this article from the last time a “none” was elected. This piece was originally published in Religion in the News (November 2013).

Conventional wisdom, backed up by survey data, says that no one is less likely to be elected president of the United States than a professed atheist. Yet voters are beginning to send to Washington politicians who claim no religion identity—a sign of the growing acceptance of “Nones” in American society.

The rise of the Nones has been widely recognized since the release of the 2008 Trinity-American Religious Identification Survey (ARIS), which found that 15 percent of Americans answer “none” when asked, “What is your religion, if any.” In the intervening years, the percentage of Nones has continued to rise, at a rate comparable to the 1990s, when they increased their share of the population from eight to 14 percent.

According to the 2013 Economic Values Survey of the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI), Nones now constitute 21 percent of all American adults, and 35 percent of those under 30.

To be sure, Nones are not easy to pin down. As the Trinity-ARIS report,  American Nones: The Profile of the No-religion Population, points out, “‘None’ is not a movement, but a label for a diverse group of people who do not identify with any of the myriad of religious options in the American religious marketplace.”

Nones are defined by what they are not—not religious. Many of them believe in God, as either a personal deity or as some kind of “higher power.” Others are outright atheists and agnostics. Still others are simply indifferent to religion and/or divinity.

Nevertheless, they embrace similar positions on many social and political issues, and are beginning to identify themselves as Nones. They have, willy-nilly, become a significant part of America’s religious and cultural scene.

When Barack Obama won reelection in 2012 the media focused on the lopsided margins that the President received from racial and ethnic minorities, particularly Hispanic-Americans (71 percent to 27 percent) and Asian-Americans (73-26 percent). But the president received a comparable 70-26 percent margin from the Nones.

A few reporters did take note. Nones have become “to the Democratic Party what evangelicals are to Republicans,” wrote the Orlando Sentinel’s Jeff Kunerth on November 13, 2012. Liz Halloran made the same point a month later on National Public Radio.

Yet despite becoming a significant part of the Democratic coalition, the Nones have only a handful of senators and members of Congress to call their own. Only one, Kyrsten Sinema (D-AZ), openly identifies as a None. An additional 10 (all Democrats) simply decline to give a religious identity, according to the latest CQ compilation of congressional demographic data.

Sinema was first elected to Congress last year, winning a close race in a newly created 9th district that comprises south Phoenix and all of Tempe, home of Arizona State University. A social worker turned lawyer, she grew up in Tucson in a conservative Mormon family.

While serving in the Arizona state legislature she spoke to the Humanist Society of Greater Pheonix and received an “Award for the Advancement of Science and Reason in Public Policy” from the Center for Inquiry, one of the country’s leading secularist organizations.

On election eve, Hemant Mehta, author of the popular Friendly Atheist blog on the Patheos website, lamented the defeat of Rep. Pete Stark (D-CA), a Unitarian who came out as Congress’ only “non-theist” (as he called himself) in 2007. Stark’s loss to fellow Democrat Eric Swalwell after 40 years in the House of Representatives was “especially bittersweet,” Mehta wrote, because Swalwell had used Stark’s opposition to reaffirming “In God We Trust” as the national motto against him.

But Mehta took heart at the apparent victory of Sinema, who was “believed to be both an atheist and bisexual, though she hasn’t spoken about either in her capacity as a politician.” After her election was confirmed, both Politico’s Patrick Gavin and Kimberly Winston of RNS described Sinema as the sole atheist in Congress and the atheist blogosphere rejoiced.

Chris Lombardi of the Secular Coalition for America wrote that, despite Stark’s loss, the SCA was “feeling emboldened by [Sinema’s] apparent victory” because “her nonbelief was not a factor in her election.”

Bisexuality was one thing, but atheist? Soon after her election a spokesman for the Sinema campaign responded to Winston’s story in an email: “Kyrsten believes the terms ‘nontheist,’ ‘atheist’ or ‘nonbeliever’ are not befitting of her life’s work or personal character. Though Sinema was raised in a religious household, she draws her policy-making decisions from her experience as a social worker who worked with diverse communities and as a lawmaker who represented hundreds of thousands.”

The atheist community was not happy. “In an election with so many historic firsts,” wrote Mehta, “the one group that seems to be taking a step backward are atheists.”

Chris Stedman, assistant Humanist chaplain at Harvard University, posted on the CNN Belief Blog that he was “disheartened that the only member of Congress who openly identifies as nonreligious has forcefully distanced herself from atheism in a way that puts down those of us who do not believe in God.” Atheists, he added, “are Americans of good character, too.”

Stark, by contrast, thanked them for their support in an open letter in Friendly Atheist.

Yet Sinema seemed a more natural fit for the None community with which she identified, for just 18 percent of Nones identify as atheist, according to the 2013 Economic Values Survey.

In March, PRRI and the Brookings Institution’s Religion, Values, and Immigration Reform Survey asked whether particular groups were changing America for the better or for the worse. Atheists and people with no religion were considered twice as likely to be changing America for the worse than for the better, the ratio growing to four-to-one when it came to atheists alone. (To be sure, in both cases, nearly half the respondents thought that they had no impact at all.)

Sinema’s election does appear to signal the political mainstreaming of the Nones. But whether a professed atheist can win a seat in Congress, much less the presidency, remains an open question.

Building Secular Political Capital

The Freethought Equality Fund sent me a nice button.

On Tuesday, the growing secular population reached a milestone. Jamie Raskin, a state senator from Maryland, won the Democratic Party primary to succeed Rep. Chris Van Hollen in Maryland’s 8th Congressional District. Van Hollen won his own primary to become the party’s candidate for U.S. Senate and replace the retiring incumbent Barbara Mikulski. Raskin is an open humanist who was endorsed by the American Humanist Association’s Freethought Equality Fund. The district is a safe Democratic seat, making it almost a certainty that he will become the first openly atheist candidate to win Congressional seat.

Coincidentally, Maryland’s 8th Congressional District is where I have resided for the last 4 years and my part of the district belongs to Raskin’s state senate district. Given this history it was natural for me to vote for him. However he wasn’t the only qualified candidate in the race, which was crowded, and my decision to support him wasn’t an instantaneous one.

People place their hand on the Bible and swear to uphold the Constitution; they don’t put their hand on the Constitution and swear to uphold the Bible.

Jamie Raskin

What made a major difference in my decision to vote for Sen. Raskin was the endorsement and excellent outreach of the Freethought Equality Fund. In a race that broke spending records and where three candidates had a decent chance of winning, every vote counted.

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The Freethought Equality Fund sent me a nice button.

In a weird turn of events the district that apparently was bombarded by mail ads, but I never received ads from any candidate despite being fairly reliable Democratic voter in Connecticut and Maryland. It wasn’t until the Freethought Equality Fund reached out to me with letters and ads on behalf of Raskin that I was officially mobilized.

Of course, I didn’t vote for Raskin just because he’s a fellow atheist. He’s also a progressive who stands for many of the same things that I do because of my humanism. In this sense, the AHA and the Freethought Equality Fund found an excellent high-profile candidate to endorse. He shares humanist values and identifies as one, but he’s also an experienced lawmaker (and the only leading candidate in that race with experience in elective office).

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The button now graces our “Wall of Separation” at home (aka “the fridge door”)

Raskin’s victory in the primary shows how that applying the muscle of the secular movement as a collective entity can lead to political victories. More importantly, he’s not some candidate trying to get money out of us but a fellow member of our movement. Our movement just demonstrated it can play in the big leagues, that it can deliver, and that one of us can win a high-profile campaign (our “hometown” media market is Washington, DC) without having to hide his identity. Kudos to the AHA for a job well done in building our movement’s political capital.