Susan Jacoby published an op-ed in the New York Times on Sunday titled “Sick and Tired of ‘God Bless America’” where she bemoans the fact that despite being a fast-growing demographic, we the secular still get no respect from politicians. In the piece she asks a question that, well, she doesn’t answer:
The question is not why nonreligious Americans vote for these candidates [who pay lip service to religion] — there is no one on the ballot who full-throatedly endorses nonreligious humanism — but why candidates themselves ignore the growing group of secular voters.
I think I have three answers to the question why candidates ignore secular voters. The first one deals with the strength of secular identity, the second with the intersectional identities of many in the movement, the third is the lack of sophisticated political thinking in the secular community and its organizations.
Although the secular population keeps growing, as Jacoby rightly points out, it seems that most nonreligious Americans do not care much about religion. In other words, among those who identify as nonreligious, being secular is not a very important aspect of their lives. A bit of public opinion polling can help illustrate this point.
In 2012 Public Religion Research Institute, my former employer, released its annual American Values Survey. The 2012 AVS focused on religious change, with an emphasis on Catholics and the unaffiliated (or nones). One of the questions, which is more or less standard in religion studies, is asking the importance of one’s religious identity in our life. The AVS found three different types of religious nones: atheists/agnostics, secular, and a category called “unattached believers.” The latter tend to give more importance to being religious in their life, as 57 percent report that their religious identity is “the most” or “very” important. Among those who identified as secular only 12 percent said this identity is very important.
Self-identified atheists and agnostics are supposed to be the most active in terms of secular identity politics. These are the ones more likely to belong to secular organizations but only 13 percent say that this identity is very important. It is possible that many of these people are very active politically, but their secularism (as an identity) is not political. It is more of a personal choice, like being vegetarian.
It could also be the case, that many secular Americans have intersectional politics. This may be the case with younger cohorts, particularly women and people of color. I participated in the Secular Social Justice Conference earlier this month where I met many secular activists of color who are doing the tough balancing act of being openly secular and working for social justice on issues that are way beyond the sphere of church-state relations. These are people changing what we think of secularism and politics: moving beyond policing Ten Commandments monuments and opening prayers into making the world a better place. In other words, they are practicing their humanism.
But many secular people do not feel they have to bring their secular identity to the fore when doing social justice work. Many are working in political or social justice causes but their secular identity is superseded politically by other identity or identities. They are active politically, they have candidates listening to them, but they are focusing on other issues like when I was working on campaigns with Latino voters.
Finally, the secular movement is in its political infancy. The Religious Right has a 4-decade head start on us. They became a force in American politics not waiting for politicians to listen to them and whining when they don’t. They organized and used the power of their organizations to build an amazing infrastructure of think tanks, political training, and legal work.
They made politicians realize they matter. They didn’t sit around waiting for them to show up. If you do that, you will be irrelevant regardless of how large your presumed constituency is. Politicians don’t do outreach, they look for votes, sure-fire votes. The organizing is ours to do. So far our secular organizations have failed us in that regard. They have not shown the leadership required in the political arena.
There are some exceptions. Jacoby mentions the work of the Center for Inquiry’s Office of Public Policy, especially Michael De Dora. He is a great ambassador for politics, but the OPP’s work is primarily lobbying. Also, she calls CFI a think tank, and as much as I like the organization, I don’t think we have real think tanks in the secular world. I know think tanks, having worked for some or other sort for a decade and a half, the secular world is not even close to have the sort of think tank we need. Something like the Heritage Foundation…without the crazy stuff…is more akin to what we need.
There may be other reasons why we are not as strong politically as we should be. These are my three cents. But one thing is clear to me: it is ironic that a movement built on science and reason is waiting for miracles to happen.