The political landscape after the 2018 midterm elections presents us with opportunities and challenges. The fact that the House of Representatives is under new management will hopefully put an end to some of the worst attacks on our secular democracy. In this more favorable climate, we can reasonably expect to see some movement on legislation we’ve long championed, such as the Do No Harm Act, a bill that would amend the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) to ensure that it cannot be used as a license to discriminate. Unfortunately, the president’s party gained seats in the Senate, which only emboldens it to advance a Christian nationalist agenda while continuing to rubber-stamp the president’s judicial nominees.
Since the election of President Trump, the religious Right has been successful in its quest to stack our courts with ideologues who rule in its favor and leave an indelible mark on America’s legal system. In addition to the confirmations of Justices Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh, two judges who share the religious Right’s twisted definition of religious liberty, President Trump has appointed more than sixty judges to lower federal courts across the country. Currently, one out of every seven circuit court judges is a Trump appointee. All these judges enjoy lifetime appointments, and there is no reason to doubt that each of them has been carefully vetted and handpicked by the religious Right.
What this means is that we can no longer count on the courts to defend the wall of separation between church and state. We cannot count on others to fight our battles for us. And we most definitely cannot sit on the sidelines praying that progress is inevitable. We all have a duty—to ourselves, future generations, and each other—to stand up for what is right. We must impact legislatures by voting for lawmakers dedicated to promoting public policy based on reason and science, opposing discrimination against nontheists, and protecting the secular character of our government.
How Do We Engage the Nones? We Must Give Them a Reason to Care.
Far too many Americans are unaware of how the entanglement of religion and government influences public policy. This may be especially true for younger Nones who are, to some extent, less likely to have experienced personal rejection or blatant discrimination because of their nontheism. They may even consider being nonreligious a non-issue, due in part to the fact that they are surrounded by less religious peers.
To engage Nones more fully in the political process, it is important to effectively communicate how their rights are threatened by the unchecked influence of religious fundamentalists. They may not necessarily associate secularism with issues they care about, such as accurate and effective science education, repealing nonmedical vaccine exemptions, access to evidence-based recovery programs such as SOS, SMART Recovery and LifeRing, or LGBTQ rights.
We should be careful to not assume we know what issues matter to younger Nones. We must listen, become better informed ourselves about the changing nature of our movement, and offer younger Nones the resources they need to understand and combat the inappropriate intrusion of religion into their lives.
We Must Change Our Messaging around Issues to Consider Shared Secular Values.
Perhaps it is time to move beyond the persistent, and seemingly impossible, challenge of uniting a diverse range of nontheistic identities—atheists, humanists, skeptics, freethinkers, agnostics, nonbelievers, and more—and rally around secular values that appeal not only to nontheists but to our allies in the faith community as well.
In 2018, together with our nineteen coalition partners, the Secular Coalition for America launched our Secular Values Voter campaign to reclaim the title of “values voters” from the religious Right (who never deserved it in the first place). This movement-wide campaign is centered on four values: freedom, inclusion, equality, and knowledge.
Freedom: Beliefs protected, not imposed. A society that truly respects the freedom of the individual must strike a balance between protecting freedom of thought and belief and protecting citizens from being forced to conform to the beliefs of others.
Inclusion: All faiths and none. In the American melting pot, people come from all walks of life yet can feel connected to each other through shared pride of our national heritage. Every American, no matter who one is or what one believes, should feel included in our national symbols and traditions.
Equality: Unbiased governance. Protecting the rights of all its citizens equally, while also holding everyone equally responsible for abiding by laws that serve to benefit our society, is a fundamental tenet of America’s constitutional democracy. Our laws must be unbiased and religiously neutral. When the government favors one group and its belief system over another, it relegates all others to second-class citizenship.
Knowledge: Information empowers. We are constantly in awe of the scientific and technological accomplishments human beings have made, particularly how these advances have improved and saved so many lives. Continued progress depends on society valuing science and fostering free inquiry. When the government skews scientific findings for ideological reasons or suppresses accurate information, it restricts freedom of thought and halts scientific progress.
These values help us wrestle with difficult dilemmas and help to inform our political discourse. Clarifying our values also helps us to communicate with elected officials who may balk at our atheism but can find common ground in shared values. Secular values are, after all, American values.
Our Progressive, Humanist Ideals May Appeal to the Nones, But We Must Create Pathways to Action.
The Secular America Votes campaign—led by the Secular Coalition for America Education Fund, American Atheists, American Humanist Association, the Center for Inquiry, Freedom From Religion Foundation, and the Secular Student Alliance—is building the foundation for a long-term voter registration operation that will demonstrate to the political establishment, candidates, and elected officials that secular voters are a united political force and voting bloc that is an essential element of their election strategy.
Local groups are encouraged to organize activities that motivate and inspire engagement in the political process. They should emulate the best practices of the numerous nonprofits dedicated to getting out the vote and take advantage of the local resources they offer.
They can encourage political conversations at local meetings, register voters, organize demonstrations, submit opinions to media outlets, and educate their local lawmakers about the issues that secular Americans care about.
Outside of money, the two greatest influencers on elected officials are the press and voters. Given that we are outspent by the religious Right by a huge margin, what can give us influence is the number of constituents in their home districts who identify as secular, nontheistic Americans. Those who sign up for Action Alerts with the Secular Coalition are counted when they take action, and it gives our lobbyists great satisfaction to report this information during our visits to Capitol Hill. Our goal is to have advocates in all 435 Congressional districts in the country to wield influence over members of Congress, able to respond at a moment’s notice to action alerts, thereby showing lawmakers that our constituency is a force to be reckoned with.
Along with our coalition partners, the Secular Coalition for America can offer education on select issues relevant to the separation of religion and government, along with advice and training to effectively lobby at the local, state, and national levels. Doing our part to encourage local participation in elections will accelerate the movement’s growth and allow us to start competing with the religious Right on a more even playing field in political clout, visibility, and overall influence on American culture.
The demographic and cultural shifts are in our favor, and the religious Right’s base is shrinking. We can, and we must, help Nones of all identities and organizational loyalties mobilize as a distinct, secular voting bloc. Perhaps if they realize how much their vote counts, we can count on their votes in the next election.