For Seculars, Challenges Ahead

Tom Flynn

As I write, it’s about three weeks after Election Day. Barring some hugely unlikely event (say, unprecedentedly successful recounts or equally unprecedented multiple defections in the Electoral College), Donald J. Trump will soon be president of the United States. Free Inquiry reader surveys suggest that secular humanists skew strongly left, but we are not politically homogeneous (see box on page 5). Still, I think it fair to say that Trump’s unexpected victory—and what follows from it—will make life far more challenging for American secularists than most of us expected when we went to the polls. (You did vote, didn’t you?)

After all, Trump is the candidate who promised—oh, never mind. Candidate Trump promised no end of things, many of them mutually contradictory. In the weeks since the election, Trump has been the “box of chocolates” president-elect: you never know what you’re going to get. Trump has reversed himself or gone silent on some of his most vivid campaign promises, including the border wall, prosecuting Hillary Clinton over those private e-mails, climate change as a Chinese hoax, how many illegal immigrants he means to deport, and even the value of torture in interrogating suspected terrorists. That’s not to say that Trump might not waffle again, retrieving some of the platform planks he recently cast under the bus. But it is to say that left-leaning seculars who found much of Trump’s agenda repellent can take some limited consolation in the possibility that President Trump might jettison some of the priorities for which Candidate Trump blustered most raucously.

That said, it seems clear that under Trump, American life will be far more challenging for seculars than the past eight years have been. Here are some areas in which clear signals have been sent that the Trump White House probably will live up—or down, as the case may be—to the candidate’s campaign rhetoric.

The Supreme Court. Candidate Trump was consistent in promising to appoint socially and religiously conservative jurists to the U.S. Supreme Court. So far, there is no indication that his plans in this area have changed. Fortunately, his first High Court appointment will be limited in its impact: he’ll be replacing the late, archconservative Associate Justice Antonin Scalia. Even an ideologically extreme replacement will produce little net change to the Court’s direction. From there, however, matters grow more ominous. The next Supreme Court justices Trump may get to replace could include some of the current Court’s more liberal voices. Given “actuarial realities,” in New York Times Supreme Court reporter Adam Liptak’s mordant phrase, perpetual swing vote Anthony Kennedy (age eighty) and liberal justices Stephen Breyer (seventy-eight) and Ruth Bader Ginsburg (eighty-three) are likely to need replacement during Trump’s term. “Should Mr. Trump also name a replacement for any of those three,” Liptak writes, “the conservative legal movement will have captured the Supreme Court.” Such a majority would likely shift Supreme Court verdicts on abortion, religion in public life, and many other topics important to secular people for decades to come.

School choice. Trump promised a $20 billion program to funnel public-education money to the states for programs to help families pay for private (most likely, sectarian religious) schools. On November 23, he announced his intention to appoint as secretary of education Betsy DeVos, a Michigan billionaire with a long record of activism seeking to steer education dollars away from public schools and to schemes ranging from privatization to vouchers to charter schools. The DeVos appointment must be confirmed by the Senate; still, this action seems to signal that Trump means to press ahead with his promised anti–public education agenda.

Secularism generally. Though Trump himself seems largely indifferent toward religion, he owes much to Christian Right voters who embraced him despite his multiple marriages, hedonistic lifestyle, and crass pronouncements. It’s reasonable to expect an anti-secularist agenda from his administration. Trump has not yet reversed himself on wanting to scuttle the Johnson Amendment, a provision of the tax code that bars nonprofit organizations, including churches, from endorsing political candidates. His choice for attorney general, Senator Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.), is an evangelical Protestant so extreme that, during the recent Republican National Convention, he suggested that Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor (who is Roman Catholic) did not “believe in a higher being” or “believe that there is any truth”—all because she said that different jurists would bring varying perspectives to the cases they judged. Some Trump supporters have called for a concerted campaign to overturn provisions in more than thirty state constitutions that bar transfers of public funding to religious institutions.1 Disturbing as this is, little of it is unique to Trump—had Ted Cruz been elected instead, that would have augured even worse from a church-state standpoint. On the other hand, one doubts Cruz would have appointed as his chief strategist Breitbart News CEO Stephen Bannon, a man who in addition to his disturbing ties to the so-called Alt-Right once declared in a speech that “secularism has sapped the strength of the Judeo-Christian West to defend its ideals.”

The “Secular Vote.” In the 2016 elec- tion, many observers expected secular Americans to emerge as an important voting bloc—both in their own right and as one of the largest categories among Democratic Party voters. Obviously, it didn’t happen, not in this election cycle. Still, despite all the negative prospects the next four years present, there is every expectation that the number of nonreligious Americans will continue to grow. Nones—persons who claim no religious affiliation or identity—made up 25 percent of the national population. By the next election cycle, that figure should be even higher. While only some Nones are atheist, humanist, or explicitly secular, it still seems reasonable to hope that the “secular vote” will have a telling influence in the next national election cycle—or if not, the one after that.


In compiling this list, I’ve striven to stick to the areas where Trump’s apparent agenda conflicts most directly with the core aspirations of secular Americans in their identities as secular Americans. There are broader implications of the Trump phenomenon, from its echoes of racism and ethnocentrism to his views on world affairs and military policy, the impacts of his likely science policies, and his authoritarian style. (Greta Christina addresses some of these concerns in her heartfelt op-ed, “This Is Not a Drill,” next.)

Seculars will face daunting challenges in the years ahead. (So will most Americans, I expect.) The times will call for secular humanists to stay involved and be ready to mount a vigorous defense of the principles they hold dear.

Where Do Seculars
Stand Politically?

In 2015, Free Inquiry conducted its second professional survey of its readers. The survey asked respondents to identify their political views:

Political View Percent of total
Liberal 34
Progressive 32
Moderate 12
Centrist 3
Conservative 3
Libertarian 6
Socialist 8
Radical/Anarchist 1
Free Marketer 1


These figures—which changed only modestly since we ran the same survey in 2010—show that FI readership skews considerably farther left than America as a whole: 72 percent of respondents self-identified as either progressive, liberal, or socialist, while 15 percent identified as moderate or centrist and 10 percent as conservative, libertarian, or free marketer. (For more detail and a comparison of 2015 results with 2010’s, see my “Politically Speaking,” Secular Humanist Bulletin, Summer 2016.)

We edit Free Inquiry with that distribution in mind, ever conscious that while our readership has a large left-leaning majority, it also includes significant minorities who are moderate or conservative. We try to be respectful to all; please write and correct us if we’re not.


  1. Though it’s worth noting that even as 65.3 percent of Oklahoma voters chose Trump, 57.12 percent of those same voters rejected a ballot initiative to repeal the Sooner State’s constitutional provision barring spending of public money for religious purposes.

Tom Flynn

Tom Flynn is editor of Free Inquiry, executive director of the Council for Secular Humanism, director of the Robert Green Ingersoll Birthplace Museum, and editor of The New Encyclopedia of Unbelief (2007).