The Pew Research Center published their biennial report on the religious makeup of the incoming Congress yesterday, and it was hardly surprising to learn that, once again, there wasn’t a single open atheist on the list. Only one Congress member, Rep. Kyrsten Sinema, is “unaffiliated,” and even her staff has said she feels the label of “atheist” is “not befitting of her life’s work.”
A common reaction to the news was that atheists are underrepresented in Congress. Strictly looking at the numbers, this is true. Americans without organized religion make up about 23% of the country, according to Pew, but have only 0.2% representation on Capitol Hill, more than a hundred-fold difference. (This ignores the 10 politicians who chose not to answer the religion question.) Christians, on the other hand, are 71% of the country but 90.7% of Congress.
Damn, it feels good to be persecuted…
So why does this continue to happen? Why aren’t there more — or should I say any — atheists in Congress? Let me offer a few theories…
1) We don’t vote
As Emma Green points out at The Atlantic, the “Nones” were approximately a quarter of the population over the past several years, but we made up only 12% of the electorate in both 2012 and 2014. We’re not electing people like us because we’re not electing people, period.
(The Atlantic article’s headline unfairly calls out atheists/Agnostics for not voting, but as Green notes in the piece, the data we have refers to the “Nones.” Those two groups are not at all synonymous. More on that in a moment.)
Despite our percentage gains as a group over the past decade, our voter turnout has remained frustratingly steady. And while the Religious Right is growing smaller, they remain as engaged as ever. It’s that sort of apathy on our side that gives them so much power.
2) We don’t vote as a bloc
While 78% of white evangelical Protestants said in July that they planned to support Donald Trump, only 67% of non-religious Americans said they would be voting for Hillary Clinton. (And that was before Trump’s tax return problems escalated and the tape of him bragging about sexual assault came to light.)
When Republicans have a candidate, the Christian Right gets in line and does the strategically smart thing, no matter how much they might dislike their candidate. This past election put that theory to the ultimate test. Trump was about as far from being a model evangelical as a Republican candidate could be, and yet they supported him in overwhelming fashion.
When Democrats have a candidate, Secular Americans debate how progressive that person truly is. We vote for third party candidates who have no chance of winning a national election because they’re further to the left on our pet issues. We stay at home because the Democrat isn’t perfect. We’re too damn stupid to see the bigger picture.
I should note, though, that there’s an obvious reason we don’t vote as a bloc: There’s no “We.”
While different denominations of Christianity are still bound together in their beliefs about Jesus, the “Nones” are a weird mixture of atheists, Agnostics, and religious people who don’t belong to an organized group. While the “Nones” are a quarter of the population, the percentage of atheists is in the single digits. That means, as a group, the “Nones” include a lot of people who believe in God, Heaven, Hell, miracles, ghosts, and other forms of nonsense. I suspect if you separated the atheists from everyone else, you’d see very different results.
3) We would never listen to someone telling us how to vote
If Richard Dawkins told atheists to vote for Hillary Clinton — and he undoubtedly supported her in 2016 — the reaction from atheists would be obvious: “You don’t tell me what to do. Since when are you the atheist Pope? Go to non-existent Hell.”
We don’t like authority. Many of us left religion because we were sick and tired of being told to respect people who didn’t always deserve it. We’re not about to start now.
This idea that atheists should vote a certain way also reeks of the dogmatic thinking we abhor. We’ll think for ourselves, thank you very much, and if our desires match up with what prominent atheists want, so be it. Even if that sort of independent thinking means the Religious Right will get everything it wants.
4) We don’t have atheist candidates to choose from
I could count on one hand the number of openly atheist candidates who ran for national office this year. They all lost. Hell, they probably only came out as atheists because they knew they had virtually no chance of winning. Even at the state level, the number of openly atheist candidates was so small, I was able to track every single one of them on this site. We can’t elect atheist candidates who aren’t there.
And why aren’t they there? Because being an open atheist is still political poison. Only 58% of Americans say they would vote for an otherwise preferable candidate if that person didn’t believe in a god — and that’s an improvement from the past!
Given how hard it is to win an election, it’s no wonder candidates might choose to keep their atheism under wraps. Why give people a reason not to vote for you?
So even if we could be motivated to support one of “our own,” the cost of a candidate coming out as an atheist (before getting elected) continues to be high.
5) Atheist candidates wouldn’t necessarily have a “pro-atheism” platform
What would an open atheist do in Congress? Demand that we put “In God We Don’t Trust” on the money? Remove “Under God” from the Pledge of Allegiance? Change the law to give atheist groups special tax breaks? Of course not.
The battles most atheist groups have fought over the past several years have been about maintaining neutrality, not calling for unique privilege. We’re not asking for any special treatment from the government. For the most part, we just want to maintain a separation between church and state.
That means that an atheist candidate would likely be running on a typical progressive platform… which a lot of religious Democrats do already. We have no need for an atheist in office when others can fight our battles for us.
Meanwhile, there are countless politicians who act like their devout religious faith is precisely why you should elect them. They campaign on a platform of promoting Christianity through the government — turning our nation into as close to a theocracy as it can be within the law.
Trump is already heading in that direction, promising to eliminate the Johnson Amendment, funnel taxpayer money to religious schools, discriminate on the basis of religion, roll back the clock on LGBT rights and abortion rights, and appoint conservative Christians to the Supreme Court. These are issues that conservative Christians would say are direct extensions of their religious beliefs.
When it comes down to it, we don’t necessarily need atheists in Congress. But we’re not doing ourselves any favors by not voting for candidates who support our issues. Society is also far from accepting of openly atheist politicians.
I’ve said this many times over the past year: atheists had all sorts of reasons to vote in 2016 — and to vote for Clinton specifically. Given the small margins in a few swing states, if we had been more politically active and smart about it, we could have swayed the election. So could a lot of groups whose members are currently kicking themselves.
The one thing to be optimistic about is that the demographic trends in America continue to be in our favor. But having a higher percentage of non-religious Americans means nothing if it doesn’t translate into more non-religious voters supporting church/state separation. It’s something we have to get better at if we want more political clout.
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