Isabelle Porter: In U.S., atheist groups battle nationalism
This article appeared in Le Devoir (from Quebec, Canada) on Sept. 26 and is reprinted with permission. Special thanks to FFRF Board Member Steve Salemson and Member Joan Wallace for translating the text from French.
By Isabelle Porter
In the United States, atheism is the subject of passionate activism, which the current president has only fired up. This portrait is of a phenomenon unique to the United States, the complete opposite of the situation in Quebec.
“I don’t need God to be a good person,” wrote Marjory C. in a publication of the Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF), one of the largest atheist lobbies in the United States. Marjory took part in the “Atheists Out of the Closet” campaign, because, in America, coming out as an atheist is sometimes more difficult than coming out as gay, many say.
“In the minds of many people, believing in God is a kind of guarantee that you are a good, righteous or moral person,” says Mandisa Thomas of Black Nonbelievers.
Conversely, nonbelievers are the object of persistent distrust. As proof, according to a Gallup poll, two out of five Americans say they would not trust a nonreligious presidential candidate. One indication that atheism is the ultimate taboo is that fewer respondents would refuse to vote for an openly homosexual or Muslim candidate than for an atheist.
As the United States election approaches, defenders of secularism in the United States are on the alert. “We have reached a critical point,” explains Annie Laurie Gaylor, co-president of the FFRF. “We’re on the verge of losing Roe v. Wade. With Trump, we are currently witnessing a takeover of the Supreme Court.”
Founded in 1976, FFRF has more than 33,000 members. Gaylor initially espoused atheism as a way to defend the rights of women. “We realized that the only organized opposition to the right to abortion came from religious groups and that, in order to protect women’s rights, we could not accept having religion involved in government,” she recalls.
A few months ago, FFRF ran an advertisement in the New York Times denouncing “theocracy,” which they believe is at risk of inundating the country like a tidal wave.
Gaylor develops the ideas for the newspaper ads herself, and not without humor. In recent months, one of them praised the merits of “the social distancing of state and church.” While we in Quebec have seen the nationalists become ardent defenders of secularism, among Americans, the defenders of secularism are in an open struggle against the nationalists.
“We are fighting Christian nationalism, this idea that the United States was founded as a Christian nation, built on Christian principles, and that we’ve strayed from that foundation,” explains Andrew Seidel, constitutional attorney and FFRF’s Director of Strategic Response. “Christian Nationalism conflicts with the secular principles of our Constitution.”
“Donald Trump,” he continues, “heavily exploits this Christian Nationalism. According to some researchers, Christian Nationalism was the best predictor of those who voted for him in 2016.”
What role do atheist lobbies play in the electoral campaign? A limited one, since the law prohibits nonprofit organizations from openly supporting a candidate, financially or otherwise. However, the rule also applies to religious groups. Subsequently, FFRF sometimes intervenes indirectly in the campaign by filing complaints against religious groups that break the law. It happened in July, when it filed a complaint with the Internal Revenue Service against Texas pastor Robert Jeffress, who had invited Vice President Mike Pence to deliver a speech to hundreds of worshipers in Dallas.
While some atheist groups file complaints, others write letters. The Secular Coalition for America encourages its members to write to their elected officials in Congress to let them know that they are atheist voters. “With your help, our elected officials are going to take note of the size of our community and consider it in their policies,” the organization argues.
Atheist groups are also an important presence on college campuses. On Sept. 8, the Secular Student Alliance organized a web conference titled, “How to go about supporting atheist candidates.” Essentially, students were advised to set up booths at universities to encourage as many young people as possible to vote. In any case, it is practically impossible to support openly atheist candidates because there are so few.
But that is starting to change. Two years ago, members of the House of Representatives in Congress created the Congressional Freethought Caucus to “promote science and rational solutions, and to defend the secular nature of government.” California Rep. Jared Huffman is one of its founders. “We have a problem in the United States. We’re moving slowly toward a theocratic regime, and our group thinks that the separation between church and state is threatened,” he summarized.
The term “theocracy” refers to regimes in which the government is seen as the representative of God, and where priests play an important political role, which is the case, for example, in Iran.
Isn’t the formula a bit exaggerated when it comes to the United States?
“No,” Huffman retorted, “Have you listened to Attorney General Bill Barr lately? He gives speeches that seem straight out of a Margaret Atwood novel. . . . He regularly describes us as a Christian nation founded on Christian values and principles that we need to strengthen. It’s very worrisome, because we are a pluralistic country with a diversity of ideas and people.”
Today, the Congressional Freethought Caucus has 13 members, including representatives of religious minorities (Buddhist, Jewish, Muslim, etc.). All are Democrats.