Earlier this week I posted an article here about how difficult it has proved organizing secular Americans — atheists, humanists, so-called “nones” and the religiously apathetic— to increase their collective political effectiveness.
A day later, Ron Millar, political and PAC coordinator of the Center for Freethought Equality (CFE), emailed me to explain that a number of U.S. secular activist groups, including his, have in fact been very busy — with some encouraging success — doing just that.
The CFE is the advocacy and political arm of the American Humanist Association (AHA).
“When I first started working for the Center for Freethought Equality five years ago we knew of just five state legislators who identified with our community and now we have over 60,” Millar emphasized in his email to me, “We were also instrumental in having Congressman Jared Huffman identify as a humanist and agnostic and in the creation of the Congressional Freethought Caucus. We have a lot of work to do, but we are making significant progress.”
Although the atheist and humanist community’s current political clout is somewhat muted compared to that of the Christian Right, of which evangelicals are dominant, it’s sharply improved from a few years ago. The lag is unsurprising, in that the Christian Right began organizing way back in the 1980s into what became a potent political force in the U.S. — remember the Moral Majority? Starting with Ronald Reagan, Republican presidents have been in thrall to the Religious Right’s avid voter base, and the Trump administration represented the complete co-opting of presidential power to advance their ominous political agenda.
Relatively speaking, American “nones” and their fellow travelers are just getting started in amassing political influence.
But the trendline is encouraging. The percentage of Americans overall who identify as “nones,” meaning “religiously unaffiliated,” jumped from 16 percent in 2006 to 24 percent by 2016, according to a 2018 CFE article on its website referencing a survey by the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI).
“The Pew Research Center found that the change in the Democratic Party is even more dramatic with the percentage of the ‘religiously unaffiliated’ increasing from 9% in 1997 to 33% in 2017,” the CFE article continued.
That’s a more than a three-fold surge, which bodes well for the secular demographic in future elections as well as potentially eroding long-time and irrational public apprehension of atheists, agnostics and “nones” in American culture. It’s harder to dismiss and denigrate as dangerous and extremist a demographic that represents a quarter to a third of the populace.
In addition to supporting the election of secular political leaders for state and local office, the CFE is working hard to establish a secular presence in Congress. In 2018, the organization was a core participant in the formation of the Congressional Freethought Caucus as a congressional member organization, such as Congressional Prayer Caucus, Congressional LGBT Equality Caucus, and Congressional Hispanic Caucus. The freethought caucus was formally founded by U.S. Representatives Jared Huffman (D-CA), Jamie Raskin (D-MD), Jerry McNerney (D-CA), and Dan Kildee (D-MI).
“The very existence of this Congressional caucus for freethinkers and humanists is a marker of how far the movement for secular and nontheist equality has come. This significant step is also a new beginning for our country as both religious and non-religious leaders work to better the nation,” then AHA Executive Director Roy Speckhardt said in statement at the time.
Millar added: “Establishing the Congressional Freethought Caucus is an historic step in normalizing the participation of atheists and humanists within American politics.”
The Freethought Equality Fund PAC website explains, “When people see respected ethical humanists and atheists serve in public office, this will begin to dispel many myths about nonbelievers. The FEF PAC will also support a number of candidates who identify as religious but who are leaders in supporting the rights of nonbelievers.”
Another U.S. organization trying hard to increase the political effectuality of “nones” and other secular Americans is Secular Democrats of America (SDA), which describes itself as “a federal political action committee that represents secular Democratic individuals and organizations. We advocate for secular governance, promote respect and inclusion of nonreligious Americans, and mobilize nonreligious voters. We support and empower our members with the resources, training, and support network they need to make an impact.”
The SDA network also works to protect America’s secular democracy, to protect religious freedom and “to defend the constitutional separation of religion and government.”
Although Democratic candidate Joe Biden handily won the presidency in the 2020 vote, with some 70 percent of religiously unaffiliated and secular Americans voting for him, it wasn’t necessarily an occasion for high-fives among the secular citizens. More than 80 percent of evangelicals voted for Trump, according to Religion in Public.
“This election was not a clear repudiation of the dangerous agenda of Christian nationalists that we hoped for and anticipated,” AHA’s Speckhardt, who was also executive director of CFE, wrote after the vote. “Fortunately, the continued growth of the atheist and humanist community, and our increased engagement in the political process, provides hope that the outcome of future elections will create a safer, saner, stronger America.”
So, secular political clout in America is still a work in progress, but the outlines of a likely strong future with the electorate are taking shape.