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.

About Adam Lee

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

  • Chris

    That would send a strong message, to politicians in general and President Obama specifically, that they can’t purchase our support for cheap.

    But they can. It would be sheer madness not to support any opponent of the Jesus Party that had a reasonable chance of defeating them, even if that person is a mixed bag of actual freedom of thought and theist appeasement.

    Atheists are in the same position vis-a-vis Obama as liberals are — there’s no realistic prospect of anything much closer to our position getting elected in the present American electorate, so we can either settle for what we can get or vote for another Nader, get another Bush.

    Those issues you mentioned would be nice to have some progress on, too. But when faced with a choice between “guy who neglects issues I care about” and “guy who opposes me on issues I care about, and also considers me not a citizen or a patriot and wants to take my tax money to support his beliefs”… it’s not much of a choice, even if I’m still grumbling about the first guy.

  • L.Long

    Well this is all just a smoke screen for religious support. the title says it all….
    Why “Interfaith and Community Service Campus Challenge”?
    What is wrong with “Community Service Campus Challenge”?
    “Community Service” involves the COMMUNITY which by definition is a mix of everyone there, there is no need to mention religion or sex or non-religion mixes. It says “INTERFAITH” so various non-believers can fool themselves for a while but I bet the “Community Services” that are helped will be limited to what the “Interfaith” want.

  • http://killedbyfish.blogspot.com feralboy12

    And then Epstein stood up and said, “You like me! You really like me!”

  • http://ggracchus.blogspot.com/ Gaius Sempronius Gracchus

    Couldn’t agree more.

  • Brian M

    Chris: What if the not-Bush retains Bush era senior staff, continues Bush-era policies, and even ramps up and expands Bush-era wars. What have you gained by supporting Not-Bush?

  • Jon Jermey

    There are much older terms for this kind of treatment than ‘veal pen’. Remember ‘Uncle Tom’?

  • http://www.daylightatheism.org Ebonmuse

    “Community Service” involves the COMMUNITY which by definition is a mix of everyone there, there is no need to mention religion or sex or non-religion mixes. It says “INTERFAITH” so various non-believers can fool themselves for a while but I bet the “Community Services” that are helped will be limited to what the “Interfaith” want.

    I couldn’t have said it better myself, L.Long (should I call you Lazarus?). “Community”, by definition, includes everyone. The only reason to add “interfaith” is as a sop to the religious to assure them that their views will be given special treatment.

    Those issues you mentioned would be nice to have some progress on, too. But when faced with a choice between “guy who neglects issues I care about” and “guy who opposes me on issues I care about, and also considers me not a citizen or a patriot and wants to take my tax money to support his beliefs”… it’s not much of a choice, even if I’m still grumbling about the first guy.

    At a basic self-interest level, I can’t disagree, Chris. The Republican party is a gang of raving maniacs – it’s all but declared itself as the party of preemptive torture, debtors’ prisons and womb inspections – and keeping them out of office is an imperative trumping all else. Still, we can’t end the analysis there.

    Unfortunately, this reasoning is an open invitation to Democrats to step on us. If he follows your logic, Obama doesn’t even have to be friendly to our interests; he just has to be less hostile to us than the theocrats, even if that means continuing some of their worst policies. Signaling that we’ll support him regardless is a loud and clear message that he can ignore us for the rest of his term and concentrate on pandering to the religious-right voters who might not already have decided to vote for him. This is likely to shift the already slanted American political landscape even further rightward.

    What can we do about it? I see only one course of action: vote for him, yes, and hold your nose if you have to – but afterward, make his life hell until he listens to us. Deluge him with protests, with complaint letters, with official snubs and boycotts; donate to real progressives and support primary opponents to those who aren’t; do everything you can to be unignorable until he’s forced to acknowledge our issues. The same applies to every other Democratic officeholder. By contrast, Epstein’s nod-and-smile strategy is a sure path to electoral irrelevance, whatever small PR benefits it may bring.

  • http://www.WorldOfPrime.com Yahzi

    Especially under a Democratic administration, we should expect more than token recognition of our existence.

    Why? Don’t Democrats want get elected?

    You need to face up to reality: you live in a country where atheism is a social liability. Until that changes, you can’t expect to be treated like equals.

    Of course, that’s a lot easier for me to say, since I don’t live in a country like that. :D

  • L.Long

    Ebonmuse: good guess. I do not use the ‘Lazarus’ cuz I do not think I’m a smart as one of my fictional hero’s.
    As a side issue…Remember April will be here soon…
    “Beware of strong drink, as it may cause you to shoot at tax collectors, & miss!”
    From the ‘Logbook of LL’ by RH

  • Jeff

    I know Greg casually, and although I wouldn’t presume to speak for him, I assume his thinking is along the line of “baby steps”.

    To call him an “Uncle Tom” or anything similar is, in my opinion, inaccurate and uncharitable.

  • http://kagerato.net kagerato

    What can we do about it? I see only one course of action: vote for him, yes, and hold your nose if you have to – but afterward, make his life hell until he listens to us.

    That doesn’t seem to be working.

    The repeated failures we’ve witnessed over the past 35 years or so have systemic causes; targeted approaches aren’t going to resolve them. Among the issues are these:

    (1) The Single Indivisible Unranked Vote. You can’t rank your vote, as in instant runoff systems. You can’t divide your vote among candidates proportionally. The method used essentially guarantees the emergence of a two-party system. Any party that actually gains enough ground to threaten a dominant party will simply replace it, rather than becoming a multi-party competitor. This is simply because, ultimately, you have to vote for one or the other if you will vote at all.

    (2) Gradual Decay of Useful Institutions. Labor union membership has dropped off to all-time lows and is set to become essentially irrelevant. The education system has splintered into a set of private, charter, magnet, and public schools — all with their own various sources of funding. Regulatory agencies like the FCC, SEC, and others are less and less interested in actually fulfilling their mandates and more likely to simply side with whatever is most popular among the various parties to be regulated.

    (3) Crystallization of Monetary Power into Political Influence. The wealthy have always had a stronger say in politics. However, the last time they had this much influence was the period 1880-1930. Former restrictions on campaign financing (including McCain-Feingold and others) collapsed with the Citizen’s United decision. What’s worse, the rich have figured out where the rules of the game come from. The only way to accumulate ever more money is to strike out any and all restrictions on doing so at the source. And by investing more and more into political lobbying at every new election cycle, a snowball effect forms.

    (4) Severe Disengagement and Ignorance. The number of citizens who vote is typically a minority of the eligible population in the election for any given candidate. Clearly voters do not think their vote makes a difference. Vast similarities between two predominant parties surely has something to do with that. Others don’t care what the law or policy is and don’t think it has any effect on them. Many do not even seem to know what certain offices exist for, when you ask. The most intriguing and informative part, however, is that among actual voters there are clear trend patterns whereby it is possible to predict the vote ahead of time for a specific voter demographic. The number of “independent” voters who actually evaluate every candidate at every election cycle based on research and critical thought is vanishingly small.

    By all means, lobby the Congress and the President for whatever you think is right. Do not, however, assume this is the only means — or the most effective means — of accomplishing a political goal.

  • Demonhype

    He does seem too easily pleased. It’s definitely encouraging, but he almost sounds like he’s ready to rest his oars on this, which you can’t do–particularly when you’re swimming upriver.

    It’s kind of like how the suffragists laid off during the Civil War, thinking that if they backed off and instead supported the war effort, the menfolk would certainly see their way clear to giving them the vote. Instead, they found that even as the war raged on, with them out of the fight the traditionalists immediately started rolling back every one of their hard-won advancements. Their enemies didn’t take any patriotic breaks, and used their good intentions to foil the cause of women’s rights. So when WWI rolled around, they didn’t make that mistake again! (It’s not identical, but the lesson is the same–the lesson being that if you’re fighting an uphill battle, you can’t afford to take a break for anything or let anything distract you, because your much better funded and empowered enemies will pounce on that.)

    On top of that, it’s like how one female historian thought that, had Susan B. Anthony been alive for the 19th amendment’s passing, she would have been thrilled for a minute, then leaned forward and said “what shall we do next?” By all means, be encouraged at the changing atmosphere toward unbelievers, be happy that we are finally getting to sit at the table and be seen, but don’t let it stop you there!

  • Katie

    Right on! I (as a leader of an atheist student group at Wellesley College) participated in an interfaith conference at the White House this fall. I was very disillusioned and even a little unsettled by it. I wrote an article documenting my impressions here:

    http://www.americanhumanist.org/HNN/details/2010-11-outerfaith-or-interfaithless

  • RipleyP

    Difficult situation damned if you do and damned if you don’t (of course there being no actual place of damnation doesn’t help here.).

    I have to suggest that maybe it helps to be inside rather than outside. Yet at what cost do we step inside?

    This instance is one where the initiative should not be supported as it is fundamentally flawed and by being inside the power to attack it based on the flaws is watered down. It also suggests support or at least validates the initiative.

    The costs are too high to be inside. Stay outside and tell them all to stop enabling religion with government money.

    On a side note, religious organizations can discriminate based on religion. Imagine a believer applying to an atheist organization for employment and being knocked back based on having belief. I think I might hear the cries of persecution in the middle of Antarctica.

  • http://kagerato.net kagerato

    Stay outside and tell them all to stop enabling religion with government money.

    On a side note, religious organizations can discriminate based on religion. Imagine a believer applying to an atheist organization for employment and being knocked back based on having belief. I think I might hear the cries of persecution in the middle of Antarctica.

    Good point, Ripley. A huge part of how religions sustain themselves is through this prejudicial policy of selective access. Churches are one of a few legal safe harbors of this sort of discrimination.

    The way they use it is fairly subtle, though. Direct discrimination, say denying atheists a job, is illegal and has been since the 1964 Civil Rights act. However, there are no restrictions that I’m aware of which prevent implicit agreement or adherence to particular beliefs as a condition of joining an organization. Volunteers do not get the same protections as employees, either.

    Churches essentially use a clever (though very old) bait-and-switch technique to lure people in and keep them in the fold. We’ll give you X and Y and help you with Z, and meanwhile you’d better start studying B and believing G.

    Addressing this sort of behavior on the legal front is difficult, as there is a huge degree of leeway given to implicit agreements and also formal contracts (so long as not signed under duress).

    I’m pessimistic, since we can’t prevent even far more unpopular groups like neo-nazis from forming. It’s a rough issue to deal with without impacting people’s right to free association.

  • Suzu

    excellent points by Kagerato, in both posts.

    The political, economic, and cultural situation in the US is profoundly troubled, and pointed interventions are not going to change things on a macro scale. Furthermore our token inclusion in an “interfaith” community legitimizes the use of government funds by religious orginisations and undermines our (often unheard) cries for speration of church and state.

    we are not another religion, this fallacious characterization of atheists is persistent, and persistently false (google “is atheism a religion”). I feel strongly that this must be emphasized for our position to be understood, for any chance of true inclusion to be possible.

    furthermore, while neo-natzis are free to organize, they do not receive the subsidies (except when they call themselves a religion: http://preview.tinyurl.com/4f946ca) given to religious organizations. This is the problem, their privilege, not our lack of privilege.