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!

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.

 

Secularism and the Vanishing Latino Republicans

Are Latino Republicans an “endangered species”? That’s the question Prof. Stephen Nuño tries to answer in NBC Latino. Personally, I think that is the case. And obviously, I think growing secularism is a major contributor.

Although Prof. Nuño points out the past admiration of many Latinos for Ronald Reagan and the growing community of Latino small business owners were once a booming Republican constituency. Those factors, coupled with a grwoing anti-Comunist Cuban-American voting contingent (I may add) made the GOP attractive to many Latinos.

[I]t may surprise people to know that the GOP was once a party of promise for aspiring Latino businesspersons, parents who sought choice in education for their children, and Latino churchgoers where Catholicism still has a strong influence on Hispanic culture.

Dr. Stephen Nuño

I may also add that later on the growth of Latino evangelicals who shared the social conservatism (and some even shared the economic conservatism) of white evangelical Protestants made some scholars, like my mentors Barry Kosmin and Ariela Keysar, to hypothesize that the GOP had a Latino future with this growing constituency.

This is no longer the case. Young Latinos, like other young Americans, are abandoning organized religion. Like other secular Americans, secular Latinos are more liberal in their issue preferences than the rest of the population. Thus, as more Latinos become secular, the proportion of Latinos who are liberal also increases.

The percent of Latinos voting for Republican candidates has declined since 2004. In 2012 Latinos registered a record support for Barack Obama’s reelection. Many factors have been cited as a source for this left turn such as the blatant racism of the GOP base on immigration and the GOP’s disdain of the working poor in the aftermath of the Great Recession, constituencies that many Latinos are part of. One that is seldom mentioned is the growing secularism of Latinos, particularly young ones. Increasing secularism adds an additional layer of complexity to Republican outreach efforts for two reasons: policy and outreach.In this post I am addressing the policy differences.

Secularism and the Vanishing Latino RepublicansIn terms of policy, secular Latinos don’t agree with Republicans on issues of social (economic) or cultural (culture war issues) policy. An analysis of the 2014 Pew Religious Landscape Survey shows that Latinos are well to the left of Republicans in most issues. Secular Latinos are even farther from Republicans on most issues, too.

Increasing secularism adds an additional layer of complexity to Republican outreach efforts for two reasons: policy and outreach.

In terms of social policy Latinos consider that government aid to the poor  does more good than harm and that environmental regulations are worth their economic cost. This is consistent with the view of nearly two-thirds of Latinos who say they prefer a larger government with fewer services. Secular Latinos are even more liberal on matters of environmental policy and similar to all Latinos regarding aid to the poor. They are slightly less liberal on the size of the government. In all three questions they are well to the left of Republicans.

Latinos are more conservative on cultural issues like same-sex marriage and abortion and religion is probably the culprit. Unsurprisingly, on these two issues is where secular Latinos distinguish themselves from the Latino population in their liberalism. Needless to say, they are well to the left of Republicans.

A party that shows no concern for the poor, the environment, women, or LGBT Americans will have a hard time attracting secular voters. The Latino secularization makes sure that whatever inroads the GOP made with Latinos will become undone with this growing constituency.

The Nones are an Important Super Tuesday Bloc

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Last week Public Religion Research Institute published a short report on the religious affiliation of self-identified Democrats and Republicans in states with contests on Super Tuesday (tomorrow).

It is not surprising that the nonreligious comprise a larger portion of the Democratic Party coalition than the Republican’s. According to the data collected for the American Values Atlas, more than 1-in-5 (22 percent) Democrats are nones, but only 1-in-10 Republicans are.

In three states the nones comprise at least 3-in-10 Democrats: Colorado (34 percent), Massachusetts (31 percent), and Minnesota (30 percent). Among Republicans, Alaska has the highest rate of nones in their coalition. One-in-five (20 percent) of Alaska Republicans are nonreligious.

Considering that the PRRI analysis divides the party coalitions in large racial and religious groupings, it is fair to assume that in most of these states the nones represent the largest segment of the Democratic Party.

Unfortunately, contrary to most of those racial/ethnic/religious groups, the nones are not as well organized politically. We do not have a well-organized secular left even though the nones have been consistent supporters of Democratic candidates for nearly 4 decades and were an important part of Barack Obama’s coalition. But until we take party politics seriously, we will not be more than a vote taken for granted but not actively mobilized. The time is due for a powerful and strong Secular Left to serve as an antidote to the damage the Religious Right has done to this country.

Photo Credit: Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton facing off in the Democratic debate at St. Anselm College, December 19 2015; Ida Mae Astute ABC News via Flickr.

Political Secularism Moves Forward (Slowly)

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Secular Americans want to be taken seriously in the political arena. And for good reason, the nones now rival Catholics as the single largest “religious” group in the country. Our numbers keep growing and we have little to show for it.

Two online pieces last week may me think that the tide may be finally turning. First, a press release by the Wisconsin-based Freedom from Religion Foundation announces the (re)launch of their “I’m secular and I Vote” campaign. From the release:

The campaign will include outreach to voters across the nation through FFRF chapters, a national TV ad buy this month focusing on the separation of church and state, paid digital media ads, efforts to mobilize students on college campuses, and coordination with the nation’s other major freethought associations as part of the June 4, 2016 Reason Rally in Washington, D.C.

This sounds like a beginning of an organizing strategy. However, the final quote by Annie Laurie Gaylor “[m]any [secular voters] appear to be waiting for a candidate who acknowledges them as a group and speaks forcefully about keeping religion out of government,” makes me think that FFRF may be free from religious affiliation but not free from religious thinking. The quote indicates that secular Americans are waiting for a messiah, a “chosen one” politician who will finally pay attention to us.

Luckily, better news come from the American Humanist Association. An article in the Houston Chronicle there’s a brief description of the work done by the Center for Freethought Equality.

[T]he political action arm of [Roy] Speckhardt’s organization [the American Humanist Association], maintains an Internet report card, rating lawmakers’ voting records on humanist issues. Texas congressmen generally rate F’s. It lobbies secret nonbelievers in Congress to “come out of the closet” and, in coming months will make public its endorsements for November’s election.

We need to do more of this elite-level type of politics. And our organizations need to take steps like endorsing candidates and contributing to campaigns. But if we want politicians to listen to us we need to produce our own political class. The secular leadership needs to come up with a game plan to develop candidates. Not just for Congress, but for lower local and state offices, places where future secular members of the national government can be trained in the art of governing. We cannot keep just relying on individual candidates outing themselves as secular and running fringe campaigns (as Libertarians or Greens), then complaining that “we are the most hated group” and that is why we cannot get elected.

Photo credits: “Reason Rally – Science, Reason & Secular Values” by Marty Stone (Flickr)

Why Candidates Ignore Secular Voters

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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.

Photo: President Obama at the National Prayer Breakfast (Wikimedia Commons)