It was just over a year ago that Larry T. Decker, a self-described “unaffiliated Christian” at the time, became the new Executive Director for the Secular Coalition for America, a lobbying group representing atheists on Capitol Hill.
When he took over, the organization was going through a chaotic time with the dismissal of their previous leader, but he was eager to get to work. There was an election coming up and a lot of work to do to make sure our voices were heard.
I had a chance to ask him several questions (via email) about himself, the organization, and what lies ahead for atheists interested in having a seat at the table in politics. (The interview has been slightly edited for clarity.)
What are the biggest priorities for atheists under a Trump administration? Which ones are actually achievable?
Our top priority has to be ensuring that the hard won victories for LGBT persons, women, people of minority faiths and people of no faith are not hollowed out by the incoming Administration and the 115th Congress.
One of the greatest threats that is likely to reemerge in the next year is the deceptively titled First Amendment Defense Act (FADA), or what we call the First Amendment Destruction Act. This bill would allow taxpayer-funded discrimination against LGBT persons, unmarried couples, and even single mothers. Under FADA, federal contractors that provide important social services like homeless shelters or drug treatment programs could turn away LGBT persons or anyone who has an intimate relationship outside of a heterosexual marriage between one man and one woman. FADA would even legalize a “Kim Davis-style” discrimination by allowing federal government employees to refuse to file important paperwork, like a tax return or a visa application, on behalf of a citizen whose lifestyle doesn’t conform to the employee’s personal religious beliefs. On the campaign trail, Donald Trump pledged to sign FADA into law if it reached his desk and some lawmakers have already publicly announced their plans to reintroduce it.
FADA represents a grave threat to the separation of church and state but it also presents an opportunity for us to expose the Religious Right’s agenda for what it is. Every attempt by lawmakers to legalize religiously-based discrimination is justified as a defense of “religious freedom,” when, in fact, we know it is religious privilege. It is imperative that we disarm them of this narrative and reclaim true religious freedom as a secular value.
I believe this can be done, and when the American people see the damage FADA would do, the people it would hurt, they’ll understand that the Religious Right’s agenda is one of religious privilege, not religious liberty. If FADA is reintroduced in the 115th Congress, we have to do everything we can to educate voters about it and ensure that lawmakers pay a political price for sanctioning taxpayer-funded discrimination.
Another issue that is sure to be at the forefront of our work this year is ensuring that the Johnson Amendment is not repealed. Passed in 1954, the Johnson Amendment prohibits all nonprofits, including churches, from endorsing political candidates. The Johnson Amendment has long been in the crosshairs of the Religious Right, who recognize it as a crucial barrier preventing them from converting their tax-exempt houses of worship into partisan political actors. On day one of the 115th Congress, [Rep. Walter B. Jones, Jr. (R-NC)] introduced H.R. 172, which would repeal the Johnson Amendment in its entirety. If successful, [Jones’] bill would remove a crucial safeguard protecting the separation of church and state.
Similar to our fight against the passage of FADA, the Religious Right’s renewed assault on the Johnson Amendment offers us an opportunity to shine a spotlight on the privileges that churches enjoy. Religious nonprofits are uniquely exempt from filing the 990 tax form, a financial disclosure document that records an organization’s sources of income and expenditures.
If the Johnson Amendment were repealed, politicians could “donate” to churches in exchange for endorsements from priests and pastors. The abolition of the Johnson Amendment would effectively convert churches into the equivalent of Super PACS, political players exempt from transparency and accountability. We’re confident that most people of faith don’t want their churches abusing their charitable status to preach politics from the pulpit.
When the American people become aware of the extraordinary privileges that churches currently have, and the damage that could be done to the integrity of our political system if they were to repeal the Johnson amendment, churches would have a difficult time defending themselves to the public. It is up to us to educate Americans about the issue and expose the Religious Right’s true motives: to have a special privilege to play politics while being exempt from any accountability to their parishioners or American taxpayers.
Does your work become harder or easier under a Trump administration?
In some ways both. On the one hand, the Trump administration’s willingness to push through the Religious Right’s policies will put us on the defensive. We would have liked to proactively make progress toward a more secular government and pursue big ticket policy items like repealing the the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (or at least significant provisions of the Act). However, this is substantially more difficult under a Trump administration and attempts to do so would be a waste of resources, which means we will likely be spending the next few years fighting to halt the spread of religious privilege and working to prevent the erosion of our First Amendment.
With that said, I think the 2016 election reminded many in the secular community that progress isn’t guaranteed, it’s something we have to struggle for every day. In the aftermath of the election, we received a flood of support in the form of new donors, new volunteers, new Action Alert sign-ups, and emails encouraging us to “keep up the fight.” The challenges ahead may be great, but I’m optimistic that Secular Americans will rise to the occasion. Secular Americans remain the greatest untapped power in modern politics. When our potential is realized, it will fundamentally transform the American political landscape.
Does it matter that we will, once again, have a Congress with no open atheists?
Yes it does.
Article VI of the Constitution prohibits a religious test for public office, however so long as the stigma against non-theists persists, an unofficial religious test will achieve the same result. While there is certainly an all too real prejudice against non-theists, the degree to which politicians run away from the term is part of an outdated political playbook. Gallup has been polling on this topic for decades. The last survey conducted in 2015 showed that 58% of Americans would vote for an atheist presidential candidate (that’s up 40 points from when the question was first asked in 1958).
Of course, a lawmaker does not have to be an atheist to defend atheists. Secularism is and always will be the only way to guarantee religious freedom for people of all faiths and none.
There are many members of Congress, some of whom are devout people of faith, who recognize this fact. Just one example is Senator Chris Coons (D-DE), who at our 2015 Lobby Day said: “When I think about this country’s founding, the central tenet of secular governance, I also think about the importance of doubt and of humility. As a person of faith, I think it’s foundational to our country that if we allow people to choose their path of faith, they must of course be also free, welcomed, celebrated, to choose not to have faith in a supreme being.”
I look forward to the day that an openly atheist politician is sworn into Congress; it will signal a milestone in American politics and a huge step forward for our visibility. The best thing we can do to bring that day closer is to continue engaging with the political system and advocating for a positive, values-based vision of a secular government.
I would also point out that during the 2016 election cycle, we had many openly non-theistic candidates run for office, and several won. While we should support and work with allies of faith who represent our values in public office, non-religious Americans remain extraordinarily underrepresented in government and it is important that our representatives reflect the diversity of the American people. I’m confident that as our numbers grow, we’ll see more non-theists decide to run for public office.
Do we have any numbers on how many atheists are running for local/state/federal office? How about now compared to 4 years ago?
Our friends at the Freethought Equality Fund PAC do fantastic work endorsing and raising the profiles of non-religious candidates, some of whom are atheists. Using the information compiled by them, we also highlighted these candidates on our website and in weekly emails to our supporters leading up to the election.
Unfortunately, we don’t have any data on the openly atheist candidates who ran in 2012. However in 2016, we had thirty-five candidates run for office at the state and federal level who openly identified as atheist, Agnostic, Secular Humanist, or another non-theistic label.
What have you learned in the year since you took over this position?
More than I would have ever imagined.
One of the best lessons I’ve taken away is that people are hungry for the work we’re doing. I’ve travelled across the country this past year and everywhere I’ve gone, people have expressed how grateful they are for the work we’re doing. I’ve noticed this particularly in the [southern] and midwestern states, where people are fed up with a state political culture that presupposes religion must play some role in shaping policy. We saw this at our Secular Caucus at the Texas Democratic Convention, when hundreds of attendees came out to hear about our work. Or in Utah, where in December, the Utah Democratic party approved the creation of the state’s first Secular Caucus.
Another example I saw firsthand was last year when I attended the protest and rally at the Ark Encounter in Kentucky. Tens of millions of taxpayer dollars were spent to subsidize the park, which stands as a clear violation of separation of church and state. It was at the Ark Encounter that I realized, thanks in part to the counter-protesters, that we are the side defending the ideal that all people are born equal, with an equal claim to the American dream. We are not the ones who call LGBT Americans an “abomination.” We are not the ones who shame women for exercising their right to make choices about their reproductive health. We are not the ones who judge and demean people because they look differently than we do, or they live their lives differently, or they believe things that perhaps we do not. I’m confident that as the American electorate hear secular values articulated, they’ll choose our message over theirs.
Finally, I learned a lot about myself over the past year. One of the greatest things about this job has been getting to meet a lot of other leaders in the movement, and as you well know, a lot of those leaders have written books. And they’ve given me copies of their books! This past year has been very personal to me, not just in understanding more firmly the role that we play in protecting American values and liberties, but also in my own personal journey. In July, I came out as an atheist. And while I still would never attack anyone’s personal faith in their god, I have concluded that for me, faith is an entirely different thing. I do have faith — faith in humanity, faith in myself, faith in nature, but I no longer am compelled to have faith in a deity.
Oh and Google Docs. I learned how to use Google docs.
What is the SCA doing to give atheists a bigger voice at the local and state levels?
We are working directly with volunteers and training them to become effective constituent advocates. One thing we are increasingly doing is notifying our volunteers when their member of Congress is hosting a town hall in their area. We then give them talking points and questions they can use to get their legislator on the record at the event and guide them through the process of following up and cultivating a relationship with that legislator and his or her staff. This not only empowers the individual advocate, it is a crucial part of our work because we are in a better position to lobby a member of Congress who is regularly hearing from his or her secular constituents.
Another way we are giving atheists a voice is by forming Secular Caucuses in the state political parties. In June, we held a Secular Caucus at the Texas Democratic Convention and our policy proposals were incorporated into the party’s official platform. In December, the Utah Democratic Party approved the creation of the first ever Secular Caucus. We are also working with secular members of the Green, Libertarian, and Republican parties to carve out a space for atheists, Agnostics, Humanists, and other non-theists to have a voice. These caucuses will empower them to organize, submit positions to the party platforms, and promote secular values. These are spaces not just for atheists, but also for our faith allies and anyone who supports the separation of church and state as the best guarantee of freedom for all.
What are the most active SCA state chapters doing right, that the rest of us should be copying?
Our most active state chapters are drafting policy positions and recommendations specific to their state, tracking legislation and working with us to send out Action Alerts, organizing advocacy days at their state capitals, and speaking at local secular groups to educate the community about the issues in their state.
During the election they sent questionnaires to candidates during the election and published voter guides. Most importantly, our most active chapters are building relationships with key decision makers.
For example, the Secular Coalition for Connecticut is scheduling a meeting with the Governor and a delegation of local secular leaders across the state to brief the Governor on issues important to our community and to bring visibility to their respective atheist and humanist organizations as constituencies.