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Nonbelievers Seek Political Power to Match Their Growing Numbers

Posted by hkarner - 10. September 2018

Date: 09-09-2018
Source: The Wall Street Journal

A coalition has kicked off a national voter-registration drive for ‘nones’ ahead of the midterms

Future voters stopped by a voter-registration table staffed by representatives of the Secular Coalition for America last month during the first day of classes at the University of Houston-Downtown.

HOUSTON—As November’s midterm election approaches, nonbelievers in the U.S. are trying to build something that has long eluded them: political power.

The portion of U.S. adults who don’t identify with any religious group rose to 24% of the population in 2016 from 14% in 2000, according to the Public Religion Research Institute. But their political influence has lagged behind: Just 15% of voters in 2016 identified as not belonging to a religious group, according to exit polls.

A coalition of secular organizations is now determined to close that gap. This summer, they kicked off a nationwide voter registration drive, which will culminate with a get-out-the-secular-vote campaign in the fall. Their goal is also to politically galvanize nonbelievers around issues like separation of church and state and access to abortion.There’s just one catch: How to unite a group of people whose common denominator is what they don’t believe? And even on that point, they are heterogeneous: 16% of religiously unaffiliated Americans still describe themselves as a “religious person,” according to PRRI.

“We don’t meet every week. That’s an issue,” said Ron Millar, PAC coordinator for the Center for Freethought Equality, a nonprofit group dedicated to boosting secularists’ political power.

Source: Pew Research telephone polls, most recent of 35,071 adults conducted June 4-Sept. 30, 2014; margin of error: +/-0.6 percentage point (share); Pew Research telephone poll of 7,556 adults conducted in 2014; margin of error: +/-1.5 percentage points (preference)

An affiliated PAC has put roughly $20,000 toward supporting secular candidates this year, Mr. Millar said. By contrast, Concerned Women for America, one of many conservative Christian groups, has spent $80,000 this election cycle, according to federal filings.

Candidates from both parties have long turned houses of worship into hubs of political activism, with Republicans typically visiting white evangelical churches and Democrats rallying the faithful at predominantly African-American churches.

“Nones,” as nonbelievers are sometimes called, are looking for the same type of respect. “We want the political establishment to see us as a group they need to make pit stops for,” said Sarah Levin, director of grass roots and community programs at the Secular Coalition for America.

To reach that goal, groups involved in the Secular America Votes campaign are searching for nonbelievers in areas where they may be likely to gather.

The Secular Coalition for America late last month held one of the first voter registration drives of the campaign at the University of Houston-Downtown.

A few students were eager to get involved. “What they’re doing is the answer to many of our problems—being inclusive to everybody,” said Jeff Cayax, a 19-year-old biology student.

But others were left confused about what the group stood for, illustrating a problem secular groups often confront.

“I forgot,” Ashley Amaya, 18, said just moments after registering. “It’s like everyone gets a voice?”

Suzanne Stavinoha, 59, a freelance writer who was registering students, tried to explain: “We advocate for the separation of church and state in Washington. It’s just making sure that everybody, no matter what religion, or no religion, is represented.”

Ms. Stavinoha rarely uttered the words atheist, agnostic or skeptic, part of a deliberate shift in messaging secular groups have made to focus on their political values.

One factor holding back “Nones” from building a political identity is the reluctance of candidates and elected officials to openly call themselves nonbelievers.

“There is still a notion that to be atheist is immoral,” said Philip Zuckerman, a professor of secular studies at Pitzer College.

Since 2016, the number of non-theists in public office at the state or federal level has grown to 26 from 5, according to the Center for Freethought Equality.

Last year, Rep. Jared Huffman, a California Democrat, became just the second member of Congress in modern times to publicly call himself a nonbeliever. The first, Pete Stark, another California Democrat, retired in 2013.

Mr. Huffman this year co-founded the Congressional Freethought Caucus, along with three other Democrats, because he said he had grown frustrated by the way some politicians on the right were using the Bible to justify their agenda.

In his comfortably Democratic district, he said he has faced little pushback since disclosing his lack of faith.

Although not explicitly partisan, the organizing efforts will likely benefit Democrats. Sixty-seven percent voted for Hillary Clinton in 2016, compared to 25% for President Trump, according to national exit polls.

“The fact that there’s an awful lot of overlap between those who are not religiously affiliated and the political left makes them ripe for mobilization,” said David Campbell, a political science professor at the University of Notre Dame.

He compared the nonbelievers to evangelical Christians four decades ago, when groups like the Moral Majority, which advocated for socially conservative issues and candidates in the 1970s and 1980s, were forming.

Unlike many religious groups, however, many nonbelievers have an aversion to proselytizing, which makes it harder for them to bring new members into the fold. Elizabeth Rose, a member of the Inland Northwest Freethought Society, was part of an Idaho voter registration drive in June. She had materials about her group on hand, but didn’t hand them out unless someone asked.

“We’re not recruiting,” she said. “We’ve never done that.”

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