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.