Just days after he got Sen. Elizabeth Warren to say she’d consider hiring a Secular Outreach Director for her presidential campaign, Justin Scott, the Iowa State Director for American Atheists, had a chance to speak to former Obama Cabinet member and current presidential candidate Julián Castro during a meeting at the University of Northern Iowa.
He asked Castro what he would say to Hispanic Americans who are atheists, how he might bring atheists into his administration, and how he planned to work with or against the Religious Right. As with any politician, Castro was careful not to alienate potential voters, but he made it clear that atheism wasn’t going to be taboo in his White House.
SCOTT: … I am a homegrown Iowan and I’m also an atheist. I love that when you announced that you’re running, you shared that your Catholic faith is very important to you. I think there is a stereotype, though, that all Latinos are Catholic, or all Latinos are religious.
SCOTT: I am curious if you can speak to the Latinos around the country, and around the world, that are giving up on religion, that identify as non-religious, or even the scary word “atheist.” I’m curious how you would bring those in under your administration — and also, if you don’t mind, how do you plan on working with or against the Religious Right as they continue their assault on basically everything, especially science?
CASTRO: Yeah, no, thank you for the question. I mean, I would begin by saying that I don’t consider atheism a scary word. You know, I respect people’s right to choose to believe or not to believe, and maybe more importantly, I believe that our Constitution sets out that right, and that it’s important that we recognize that. You know, you’re correct that I grew up Catholic. My mother went to 16 straight years of Catholic school! i went to one, and that was enough. [Laughter]
… My faith shaped, I think, my values. And the things that I’ve always liked about the Catholic faith center around social justice, especially. The things that have concerned me about faith, especially faith in politics over the years, is that I believe that too often, it’s been used as a wedge, to teach some people that you should hate this group over here or that this group over here is the other. And I wish, oftentimes, that we would use our faith to embrace humanity, embrace people who are different from us, and also to preach about the freedom of people to believe what they should — or, you know, what they choose.
And so, you know, the commitment that I make is respecting everybody’s rights in the country, and being inclusive and thinking about people who choose not to believe, and that they are citizens in our democracy, participants in our democracy, like anybody else.
I also will say that that I would not hold that against somebody when considering them for appointments, involving them in the administration or, you know, crafting policy or anything like that… That is the perspective and that’s one of the reasons that our country is a great country that it is, is because people can choose to not believe as well.
SCOTT: Absolutely. Any thoughts about the Religious Right? And the reason I ask that is if we’re going to bring more people in, especially atheistic and non-religious Hispanics and Latinos, they’re going to be the majority in our country, which I think we can celebrate. If 1 in 5, according to Pew Research… says that 1 in 5 Latinos is non-religious, that number’s going to explode in the next couple of decades…
CASTRO: Yeah, no, I mean, I think that there are a lot of Latinos that feel like this administration has put a target on their back. And the fact is, unfortunately, although I had hoped otherwise, at least some of the leadership in the Religious Right is abetting this president as he does that — as he otherizes the Latino community, and especially immigrants.
For those Latinos, what I see up there in the Latino community, I mean, I do see… obviously, you have a lot of Catholics that are Latino. You also have a lot that are moving to non-denominational or Pentecostal services. And then you do have some that are choosing not to believe — like everybody, you know. Like any community. So my message to folks is that we are great enough to be a nation where everybody is part of this family and should participate actively in our democracy, as we shape policy, as we move forward as a country, and that we can’t afford to leave anybody out. We have to not only respect their decisions but also embrace them and what they stand for.
You know, I choose to believe, you know, my faith guides me and the decisions I make. But I also respect others who don’t. Thank you for the question.
It’s the sort of answer I could’ve scripted for Castro in advance, having watched his career over the years, but still, it’s encouraging to watch these Democrats not shy away from the “atheist” word. It would’ve been easy to act like Republicans and spread the lie about how we live in a “Christian nation.” They could’ve said everyone has a right to believe whatever they want, but Christianity has a special place in our culture and government.
Instead, they’re welcoming a more diverse spectrum of religious belief without knocking disbelief. I don’t need Castro to be an atheist. I need him to not exclude atheists — and the views most of us hold — from his administration and not give Christians special treatment like Republicans do. That would undoubtedly be the case.
For those who don’t follow these campaigns, Castro hasn’t been in the top tier of candidates, though he’s made all the debates, but he’s been widely regarded as a strong vice presidential selection for whomever eventually gets the nod.