The Freethought Equality Fund, a political action committee supporting non-theistic candidates, endorsed dozens of candidates this election cycle who were openly non-religious and advocated for church/state separation.
There were several impressive victories across the country and we should celebrate that, but did the endorsements themselves really make a difference? Or would the candidates have done just fine (or not) on their own?
I wanted to know, so I asked the American Humanist Association‘s Executive Director Roy Speckhardt. (The FEF is the “advocacy and political arm” of the AHA.) Our interview is below and I’ve added in links where I thought they might be helpful.
Did the FEF’s endorsements help any of the candidates? Did it hurt them? Or were they irrelevant?
Ron Millar, our PAC coordinator, was concerned that our endorsements might hurt candidates and discussed the possibility [with] each of them. A couple candidates did decide not to move forward with the endorsement because of this. However, we were surprised that we did not have any negative attacks based on our endorsement.
For example, Jennifer Goulet running in very conservative eastern Washington state against a very religious Republican incumbent, ran a very open campaign about being an atheist and founder of the local Tri-City Freethought group. Her opponent never made this an issue (at least in public). The endorsements helped, generating some funding and publicity for the candidates.
FEF made dozens of endorsements this election cycle, many of them to candidates who were openly non-theistic (not merely supporters of church/state separation). Did you anticipate how many open atheists would run for public office this year?
We were pleasantly surprised by the number of strong candidates we found this year. What it took to make this happen was simply asking them to identify themselves and they did! Going forward we’ll be sure to continue a vigorous campaign of asking as many candidates as possible.
As someone who follows politics, what did you learn this year about non-theists running for office that you didn’t know before?
Again, we were expecting more backlash against candidates and more resistance for candidates to identify with our community. The fact that, for the most part, we did not experience this, is very good news for future elections.
The only exception might be Jamie Raskin’s reticence to specifically and publicly discuss his position on theism and his (hopeless) Republican opponent’s accusation that he was an atheist.
What are the chances we’ll see more (or any) Republican candidates receive endorsements from FEF in the future?
There were no Republicans endorsed by FEF in 2016. This may change in the future, but for that to happen, we’ll have to discover a Republican who is a strong supporter of equality for non-theists, church-state separation, reproductive rights, LGBTQ rights, and Climate Change. It would also help if the Republican Party itself was more open to fielding non-theist candidates.
Are there openly non-theistic candidates who did not receive an FEF endorsement? If so, why not?
Yes. We only endorsed candidates who planned on running a professional campaign and had a reasonable chance of winning at least one election. The first election being the Democratic primary. Our candidates proved that they could run successful campaigns and the outcomes were similar to theist candidates. We want the Democratic Party to be confident that our candidates will run professional and successful campaigns.
With Jamie Raskin — someone who has received a lot of support from atheists — now in Congress, what are you hoping he can do? He’s only one voice, and he’s in the minority, but are there any realistic goals he can achieve to advance a non-theistic agenda?
Raskin was a political dynamo in Maryland, sponsoring and getting passed measures related to marriage equality, medical marijuana, countering racism and sexism, addressing climate change, and more. So we’re optimistic that he’ll be a force for humanistic change in the House of Representatives as well.
He’s already indicated an interest in being a sponsor of a bill addressing blasphemy laws, and will likely be involved in many other issues of importance to our community once he’s settled into his position in Congress. Our legislative director, Matt Bulger has already met with his incoming chief of staff and feels that we’ll be soon off to a good start — considering the political environment we’ll all be facing in January.
I have to say, I was also surprised by just how infrequently atheism was used as a point of attack by candidates seeking to demean their opponents. All the more reason for open atheists to continue running for local and statewide offices.