Making Progress Toward a Secular America

The Fourth of July should be a time for patriotic Americans to reflect on the progress our country has made and to rededicate ourselves to the cause of making it better where work still needs to be done. We can find material for both of those avenues in this article by Katrina van den Heuvel in the Nation, Rediscovering Secular America (HT: DC Secularism Examiner). It’s a heartening glimpse into the political progress that freethinkers are making, including at least two news items I didn’t know. First, the Secular Coalition for America was invited to the White House to meet with Obama administration officials, the first time an explicitly nontheistic group has ever been extended such an invitation:

After meetings with the Obama transition team in coalition with other groups interested in church-state issues, the Secular Coalition for America was invited to the White House for its own meeting with Associate Director of Public Engagement Paul Monteiro. Kaplan, Silverman, Legislative Director Sasha Bartolf, and Associate Director Ron Millar all attended.

Second, the Secular Coalition has also announced that it knows of twenty-two members of Congress who have admitted to being nonbelievers – although so far, only one has been willing to go on the record about it:

Indeed when the Coalition ran a contest to find the highest ranking official who identifies as a nontheist (or one of the terms within the nontheist nomenclature), 60 members of the House and Senate were nominated. The Coalition spoke to each of them, and 22 admitted it but refused to go public. Only Congressman Pete Stark was willing to be identified.

Both these items show the progress that freethinkers are making, as well as the obstacles that still remain to be overcome. Being invited to the White House is well and good, and being mentioned in presidential speeches is also encouraging. But President Obama has shown a bad habit of trying to placate his supporters with symbolic but largely meaningless gestures, rather than exerting his political muscle to make substantive progress on our behalf. One egregious example is the faith-based initiative, where Obama has failed to keep his campaign promise that federal money could not be used to discriminate in hiring or to proselytize.

His inaction on the issues of gay rights and religious discrimination in the military, as well as his embrace of some of the most corrosive and lawless aspects of Bush-Cheney claims about executive power and secrecy, are other examples. Progressive groups can’t take it for granted that our work is done now that Obama is in office – we need to criticize him where necessary and to apply strong, consistent pressure for him to bring about the change he promised his supporters and, so far, has failed to deliver on many fronts.

The revelation of 22 in-the-closet nonbelievers in Congress is also both heartening and discouraging. Even if all 22 of them went public, we still wouldn’t be represented proportionally to our numbers. The 15% of nonreligious Americans would imply a proportional 80 members in the House and Senate! We’re not there yet. And though it’s a good thing that they’re there, it’s an object lesson in American prejudice that they’re too afraid to go public:

“But we see at the very least there are 22 people who think that honestly admitting their worldview would cause them not to get reelected,” Kaplan says. “That’s an awful commentary on a pluralistic, liberal America.”

As much progress as nonbelievers have made, we have a long way left to go. We need to spend more time and money promoting the message of atheism as a positive, worthwhile philosophy, so that it becomes an acceptable option and candidates will not be ashamed to admit it. We need to work harder and to organize in order to put greater pressure on politicians to support our causes.

The steps we’ve already taken are small ones, and this may be frustrating to freethinkers who were hoping for faster, more sweeping change. But small as they are, they’re the vital prelude to greater and more important accomplishments. For now, we can take comfort in knowing that we are being heard. If we continue to stand and fight, our impact and our influence will only grow. The wheels of democracy always turn slowly at first, but the harder we push, the faster their spin will become, until all the world turns in the direction we want it to go.

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About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Arc of Fire, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.


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