During a rally in Iowa City last night, Democratic presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren was asked by an audience member, “What is your plan for protecting the rights of atheists and other non-believers?”
Warren gave a roundabout answer that didn’t really answer the question. Instead, she spoke about the importance of religious freedom. Actual religious freedom. Where there’s no government discrimination against anybody based what faith they belong to, even if they choose not to have any at all.
Thank you, Anne. So it starts with the Constitution of the United States, right? It protects anyone to worship the way they want, or not to worship at all, and I think that is powerfully important.
You know, the way I see this is, I am a person of faith. I grew up in the Methodist church. It’s part of who I am. I was a Sunday School teacher. But I see it as a fundamental question about what it means to be an American. And I think what it means to be an American is that, at core, we recognize the worth of every single human being. That’s part one. And part two, we’re called to act on that. That we are responsible for our actions consistent with that. That we don’t take advantage of people, we don’t cheat people, we don’t hurt other people. And we do what we can to support other people, and to build opportunity for other people.
If those are the core values, right down at the heart, that make us Americans, I think that leaves us all the room in the world for worshiping differently or for not worshiping at all.
And that’s the kind of America I want us to be. Does that work? Good. Thank you.
Maybe the most important part of her answer was the recognition of the kind of question this was — the “Ahhhh” at the beginning — which suggests she’s given this some thought. She very well may have. In October, she was specifically asked if she’d consider hiring a Secular Outreach Director.
Her answer last night wasn’t controversial. It wasn’t even all that newsworthy or, frankly, interesting. But at a time when conservative Christians have so much power, it’s nice to see a serious presidential candidate address the topic of atheism without any sort of dismissiveness or revulsion.
A little more substance would be helpful. I’d love to know how she’d integrate non-religious voices into her government, or if she’d allow faith-based groups to discriminate using taxpayer money, or if she’d include atheists in any kind of religious advisory board. (Neither President Obama or Donald Trump did that.) I’d also like some acknowledgment from her as to the sorts of issues atheists actually have to deal with right now, whether we’re talking about government endorsement of a specific brand of Christianity or younger atheists being pressured to say the Pledge of Allegiance or pray with their coaches.
It’s not that I disliked her answer. I just know that was politician-speak for “Let me give you an answer that won’t ruffle any feathers.” But still. It could’ve been worse. Maybe the bigger question is how the Religious Right will frame her innocuous response as “proof” she’s a godless liberal hell-bent on destroying Christianity.
***Update***: The woman who asked the question, Anne, tells me she wasn’t happy with Warren’s response:
I was disappointed in Warren’s answer, however. I didn’t hear a plan, and I didn’t hear recognition of how difficult it can be for nonbelievers in this country. What I heard was an answer that was socially and politically palatable.
(Thanks to Justin for the link)