Activists, Beware the Veal Pen

Ophelia and Hemant have pointed out that the White House is creating an “Interfaith and Community Service Campus Challenge” to encourage college students and religious groups to work on community-service projects. What’s more, Greg Epstein, the humanist chaplain at Harvard, was invited to the kickoff meeting, and he’s overjoyed:

I can vouch for the fact that we have been included every step of the way; not only in big public moments like the inaugural speech shout-out to “nonbelievers”, but also behind the scenes. Last June, I was invited to visit the White House as part of a small gathering of University and college presidents, deans, chaplains, and interfaith student leaders to discuss the initial plans that led to this initiative. I’ll never forget the moment when Joshua Dubois, the convener of that gathering and Director of the White House Office of Faith Based and Neighborhood Partnerships, greeted us.

Dubois, a young African American Pentacostalist [sic], took the podium and talked about how the group gathered that day was one of the most diverse in the history of the White House. It included many different kinds of Christians, Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, and others – and, he emphasized, there were even secular activists in attendance… To emphasize that point, Dubois even mentioned me by name and title, had me raise my hand, and everyone in the room applauded at the idea that we were there.

Look: I’m not saying it’s a bad thing that nonbelievers are being acknowledged and invited to participate in political events. I’m glad to see representatives of secular groups at the White House – it’s a good sign and an indicator of our growing political influence. But does anyone else get the sense, from Epstein’s rapturous verbiage, that he’s far too easily pleased? Literally, all he got was the most perfunctory nod, and it seems to have sent him into paroxysms of joy. Especially under a Democratic administration, we should expect more than token recognition of our existence.

I’m glad to see atheists meeting with the White House, but only if we use that access as a means to push Obama on issues that matter to us: ending military proselytization, supporting same-sex marriage, protecting access to abortion, to name a few. (He’s made it clear that he’ll never take a stand on any of these issues unless he’s pushed.) Instead, I get the worrying impression that Epstein was happy just to be “included”, and that he would deem it discourteous to ask for anything more.

There’s an evocative term for this, coined by the blog Firedoglake: the veal pen. The veal pen is shorthand for the way that political leaders try to coopt and silence activists among their own base: bribing them with “insider access”, flattering them with empty rhetoric, and ultimately training them to accept meaningless symbolic gestures in lieu of actually doing something about the issues that matter to them. The analogy, of course, is to veal calves that are kept confined in darkness and fed occasionally to make them fat and soft. (The term was coined to describe the Obama administration’s behavior toward groups pressing them to take a more liberal stance on issues like health care and gay rights, but there are conservative equivalents as well. See also.)

In my opinion, atheists shouldn’t be participating in anything run by the “Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships” at all. This is the group that funnels money to churches of the president’s choice, with no statutory restrictions on who’s eligible or how they can spend it – a horrendous scheme that the Supreme Court blessed. What’s worse, President Obama promised to repeal the Bush executive order permitting charities that receive public money to discriminate on the basis of religion, a promise that he has not kept.

I have no objection to working together with religious groups in the right circumstance, but this isn’t it. By our presence at this event, we legitimize this group’s activities (which is doubtless part of the reason atheists were invited – to provide political cover for the next state-church lawsuit against it). A better option would have been for secular activists to boycott this meeting, accompanied by a clear statement that we refuse to support in any way, shape or form a political organization that exists in violation of the First Amendment. That would send a strong message, to politicians in general and President Obama specifically, that they can’t purchase our support for cheap.

Weekend Coffee: March 28
Why Atheism Is a Force for Good
Some Thoughts on Trigger Warnings
How Religious Bigotry Was Beaten Back in Indiana
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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