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Facing Stigma, Atheists Seek Political Clout

Facing Stigma, Atheists Seek Political Clout

By Adam O'Neal - September 23, 2013

Not religious but still in need of political representation?

Well, there's a PAC for that.

As the number of Americans unaffiliated with any religion grows, different nonbeliever groups are increasing their political clout on Capitol Hill and in the White House, but say the stigma surrounding atheism makes electoral gains difficult to achieve.

“Nonbelievers are now a higher percentage of the population [than in previous years], and we’re more organized and politicians are starting to realize that,” said Jesse Galef, communications director for the Secular Student Alliance.

Last week, the Center for Humanist Activism, a lobbying group for secular Americans, announced the launch of the Freethought Equality Fund PAC. The group described its new political action committee as the first of its kind to have a full-time paid staff.

The PAC’s goals include electing more nonbelievers to Congress; endorsing any lawmakers -- personally religious or not -- who strongly support separation of church and state; and, perhaps most importantly, trying to undo the stigma attached to nonbelief.

The ironically named Bishop McNeill, coordinator of the new action committee, told Real Clear Politics that the group received around $5,000 in contributions in the first 24 hours after announcing its launch. McNeill said that the organizers had also heard from “a handful” of candidates “in city council and state senate races across the country” seeking endorsements.

The PAC is considering endorsing several Democratic politicians: Rep. Rush Holt of New Jersey, Rep. Bobby Scott of Virginia, and Rep. Judy Chu of California. It is also interested in backing congressional candidates Lee Rogers of California and state Sen. Will Brownsberger of Massachusetts. A Freethought PAC official said that although the group is nonpartisan, it has yet to find any Republicans with views it could endorse.

Michael Cromartie, vice president of the Ethics and Public Policy Center, is not concerned about the new political action committee’s attempts to strengthen nonbelievers’ electoral position: “The only problem that atheists have is a lack of numbers. While atheism has grown in the last 10 years, this is still a very religious country. I’m not sure whether either party ought to be intimidated by such a PAC.”

The United States is indeed a relatively religious country. A worldwide Gallup survey conducted in 2012 showed that only 5 percent of Americans consider themselves atheists, the same proportion as in religiously conservative Saudi Arabia. But more Americans are distancing themselves from any formal religion: Nearly 20 percent now self-identify as “unaffiliated,” according to a 2012 Pew survey, up from 7 percent in 1972 and 15 percent in 2007.

Electoral politics have yet to reflect the demographic changes. Former Rep. Pete Stark, a Democrat from California, was the first and only openly atheistic member of Congress, coming out in his nonbelief after more than three decades on Capitol Hill. In a 2007 announcement, Stark described himself as “a Unitarian who does not believe in a supreme being.”

One current member of Congress, Rep. Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, believes in “a secular approach” to legislating but rejects application of any nonreligious labels. In a press release, her office said that the terms “non-theist, atheist or non-believer are not befitting of her life’s work or personal character.”

Rep. Sinema’s office did not respond to a request for comment for this story.

Although electoral gains have been hard to come by, nonbelievers say they have made inroads, particularly with the executive branch and in the Democratic Party, where they maintain the most influence.

Representatives for the Secular Student Alliance, a nonprofit focused on organizing nonreligious students, will be attending an interfaith community service planning session hosted by the Department of Education at the White House later this week. The meeting is in support of a 2010 initiative started by President Obama to encourage faith-based groups to engage in community service.

“It seems a little bit crazy to me,” said Gary Marx, executive director of the Faith and Freedom Coalition, “but they have every right to play a role.”

Galef said that the Obama administration has reached out to his organization several times in the last few years, most recently for advice on how to engage the “nonreligious demographic.” He said such outreach never occurred during the George Bush era. In light of that, he said, “it’s absolutely clear that atheists have more political clout” now.

Lauren Youngblood, communications manager for the Secular Coalition of America, said that her organization has also noticed an uptick in support from various politicians, particularly Democrats.

“When I first started, it was difficult to get meetings with elected officials,” she said, adding that if they were able to meet, officials and staff often pressured them to not publicly discuss that a meeting had taken place. That has since changed, with some Democrats openly embracing this burgeoning constituency.

“I don’t know if power is the right word, but they certainly have more of a seat at the table,” said Marx.

Youngblood said a high point for the group came when House Democrats introduced an amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act that would allow nonreligious chaplains to counsel nonreligious service members.

“Some representatives gave impassioned speeches for atheists. It’s something we never heard before,” she said.

Impassioned speeches aside, the amendment failed to pass the House, receiving only 150 votes, with 44 Democrats joining the Republican majority to vote against the language.

Although relations between nonbelievers and the Democratic Party have improved, the bipartisan dearth of openly atheistic elected officials persists. Several secular-rights organizations told RCP that at least two dozen members of Congress have privately acknowledged being atheists or non-believers.

“They choose to keep that private because there is still a huge stigma attached to a lack of belief in God in this society,” said Youngblood.

Freethought PAC’s McNeil echoed the sentiment.

“America is still one of the most religious countries in the world, and politically, it’s difficult to win elections if you come out as an atheist,” he said.

Religious political activists disagreed, however, with using “stigma” to describe the cause of nonbeliever’s political weaknesses.

“I think there is overwhelming polling that shows that the average American believes in God. I don’t think it’s a stigma. It’s a reflection of what the American people are saying,” said Marx, adding that atheists often have “dangerous” political views.

Cromartie agreed, saying, “There’s not a stigma. There’s a majority of people who, for whatever reason, have a faith in God.”

Despite their best efforts, it’s still unclear whether the nonbeliever community will have much success in making electoral gains.

Although the 20 percent of Americans who identify as unaffiliated is a record number, the fact that 80 percent of the public still associates with some form of organized religion cannot be ignored. And since the rise of Ronald Reagan, publicly invoking God has become almost a prerequisite for success in national politics.

“Patriotism is often conflated with a belief in God,” said Youngblood. “There’s this sense out there that if you don’t have a belief in God, you can’t be patriotic.”

Several atheistic activists pointed out that Barney Frank, who came out as gay more than 25 years ago, waited until he retired from public office to acknowledge his apparently long-held religious beliefs -- or lack thereof.

“He has been an out, openly gay man for years but did not come out as an atheist until this year,” said Youngblood. “I think that gives you an idea of just how big the stigma is.” 

Adam O'Neal is a political reporter for RealClearPolitics. He can be reached at aoneal@realclearpolitics.com. Follow him on Twitter @RealClearAdam.

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