Published by the Freedom From Religion Foundation, Inc. FFRF.org

Convention speech — Larry Decker: The time is now to reclaim our democracy

Vol. 36 No. 01 Jan/Feb 2019
Larry Decker pushes for secular Americans “to make the case for why a secular government is the best safeguard for civil rights and civil liberties.” (Photo by Ingrid Laas)

This is an edited version of the speech given by Larry Decker on Nov. 3, 2018, days before the 2018 midterm elections, at FFRF’s 41st annual convention in San Francisco. He was introduced by FFRF Board Chair Stephen Hirtle.

Larry Decker became executive director of Secular Coalition for America in December 2015. FFRF is a member organization of SCA.

A native of upstate New York, Decker has spent nearly two decades in Washington, D.C., as a government relations professional in the public, private and nonprofit sectors. 

Larry served as the director of public policy for Friends of the Global Fight Against AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria. He spent nearly eight years at the national headquarters of the American Red Cross. Larry worked at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, where he was instrumental in the launch of the chamber’s first nationwide efforts to provide resources to women and minority-owned businesses. During the second term of the Clinton administration, Decker was appointed special assistant in the Office of Legislative Affairs and Public Liaison at the U.S. Department of the Treasury. 

We’re pleased to have Larry Decker on hand at our 41st annual convention to report briefly on SCA’s actions and accomplishments.

By Larry Decker 

Good morning, people of reason! It’s really an honor to be here with an organization and its leaders who I admire so very much, and to be among such distinguished speakers and presenters. And speaking of distinguished speakers and presenters, thank you for not making me follow Sir Salman Rushdie. I mean, he took all of my best lines! 

I want to thank FFRF for the invitation to speak. And I want to thank Annie Laurie, Dan and the whole team at FFRF for the incredible work you do each and every day defending the wall of separation between state and church. The Freedom From Religion Foundation is a pillar of the secular movement and a valued member of the Secular Coalition for America. Many of our member organizations refer to themselves as watchdog groups, but — and I mean this in the most complimentary way — the FFRF has always been the attack dog of the secular movement. They are tireless and fearless advocates who have never shied away from a tough fight, and I personally sleep easier every single night knowing that FFRF is on our side. Thank you for what you do.

There are a few things going on in our nation today and I would like to talk to you about many of these. 

In just a few days, Americans will head to the polls to cast a vote in what may be the most important midterm election in living memory. Our country has reached a crossroad and this election is our chance to stop it from heading down a path that I’m not sure we could recover from. Over the past two years, the Trump administration has methodically and systematically used the power of the federal government to enact the Religious Right’s agenda. And there’s no sign on the horizon that it intends to slow down. In fact, all signs suggest that it intends to hasten its work and accomplish in a few years what the Religious Right has tried to do for decades. 

But this is what they’re doing. They’re distracting us with a whole bunch of noise. They’re obfuscating the issues at hand. They do whatever they can so that the American people can’t see clearly the ways in which they are destroying our democracy. This is the road that they want to take us down. But, to avoid this disaster, we need to contrast that toxic agenda with our own vision of a secular government, and it’s up to each one of us to make the case for why a secular government is the best safeguard for civil rights and civil liberties. 

Four values

Together with our partners, the Secular Coalition for America relaunched our Secular Values Voter campaign to reclaim the title of “values voter” from the Religious Right, which never deserved to have it in the first place. Our campaign is centered around four values: freedom, inclusion, equality and knowledge.

Freedom means that religion should be protected, but never imposed. When we look at modern day evangelicalism, what is the one characteristic that stands above the rest? It’s the hypocrisy. For decades, they have claimed to be the moral majority and the standard bearer of family values, but what have we seen from them over the last decade? We’ve watched them hound one side of the aisle for their shortcomings while turning the other cheek for those on their side. We have watched men twice and thrice divorced tell our LGBTQ brothers and sisters that their same-sex marriage would destroy the sanctity of marriage. We’ve watched them tell us that abstinence is the best way to avoid teen pregnancies, while watching the teen birth rate and STD transmissions in their districts rise. We’ve watched them complain about and legislate about the imposition of Sharia law on one hand, while, on the other hand, they are codifying into our justice system laws that are based on their own religions. Think abortion and anti-marriage equality and other laws that they have been trying to pass. Laws based on any faith will always leave someone out.

Having access to reproductive health and the right to choose doesn’t force anyone to have an abortion. Having marriage equality doesn’t force someone to marry someone of the same gender or require clergy to perform the ceremony. And having the right to die with dignity doesn’t mean that everyone with a terminal illness has to take that pill. 

The Religious Right would say that those issues are immoral. Well, you know what I think is immoral? I think it’s immoral to force a woman to watch an ultrasound of her fetus before terminating a pregnancy. I think it is immoral to prevent love from flourishing. And I think it’s immoral to force a human being to suffer needlessly while facing the worst challenge one can possibly face, and one they know they will ultimately lose. 

But here is the thing. When the government favors any one group over another, we are divided by our differences and not united by what we share in common. It is our belief that in a secular government, patriotism has no religion.

Inclusion means including all faiths and none in legislating and honoring your fellow human beings. When it comes to the attacks on our democracy, the time is up. We’ve come to a roadblock. Have we been too cautious? Yes, perhaps we have. And the game plan of the last three years no longer applies. Just look at what we’re up against today. We’ve moved into the era of alternative facts, conspiracy theories and moving beyond simple dog whistles. The time for talk is over. The time for action is now.

The beauty of our constitutional democracy, which has survived for more than 230 years, is that when you hit a roadblock, our founders had the forethought to include a way around it. The courts may be blocked against us for the next generation, but we still have the ability to change Congress and state legislatures. Through those legislative bodies, we can write laws and policies that will remove religion from government. We can create laws and policies that will have a large impact on civil liberties across this country, in state to state and in Washington D.C. And, incidentally, we can change presidents and governors, too. We can vote locally to elect women and men who know and understand why freedom from religion is just as important as freedom of religion. We can give those local officials the ability to protect reproductive rights, to affect school curricula in ways that elevate science, reason and freethought, and dare I say it, common sense and common decency. 

When government skews scientific findings for ideological reasons or suppresses accurate information, it resists freedom of thought and halts scientific progress, and that has a perilous implication on our economic, medical and societal progress. Make no mistake about that. Here in the United States, where all citizens have access to the most accurate information, empowering every individual to get to their greatest potential should be our only and ultimate goal.

Equality is equal rights and equal responsibilities. Today, right this minute, our democracy is under attack. And because of the recent appointments to the Supreme Court, as well as to lower courts, it may be difficult to win battles that unbiased jurists would normally judge fairly. This is the greatest enemy to democracy in a lifetime. A theocratic minority has seized control of our government and it is hard at work remaking our nation in its image. It wants to hijack our institutions, rewrite our history and distort our values. And based on an evangelical Christian worldview, if we do nothing, we can expect more attacks on the rights of women, on the rights of our LGBTQ families, on voting rights, on immigration and asylum, on the environment, the contents of school curricula, and humane end of life choices. And all of this, at its core, is implicated by religiosity. Knowledge is important because information empowers us to be the best possible citizens.

Faith and patriotism

So, now I want to talk for just a second about faith and patriotism. I really feel I need to mention it because the Religious Right has spent much of the past decade equating faith with patriotism. We can see that most recently in the push to have “In God We Trust” emblazoned on the walls of our high schools in the Bible Belt because that, of course, is better than taking any kind of real action on the problems that we have out there. Many of you already know my disdain for this “motto” and my preference for “E Pluribus Unum” — “From many, one.” But to watch them get their knickers in a twist over a quarterback kneeling at a football game is just dumbfounding. It’s not like our nation was founded on protesting or anything. 

When did they get to choose who’s a patriotic American and who’s not? The basic definition for patriotism is having vigorous support for one’s country. Well, our country, our democracy is enshrined in our Constitution. I think that fidelity to our Constitution is the true test of patriotism. Fidelity to a religion that is in direct conflict with our Constitution is not patriotic.

Earlier, I said that the playbook from three years ago is now obsolete. Well it is, and I want to tell you why. We need more than just nontheists and the Nones. We need to do more than just call our lawmakers. We need to change the hearts and minds of all Americans to believe in their country and in their Constitution again. If we want to make America great again, let’s start there. And we can only do that if we talk to more people than just those who agree with this. We need to include our communities, our neighbors, our families, our co-workers. And this means we need to include the religious, too. Why? Because there are a good number of religious Americans who have fidelity to our Constitution over their religion, who believe that their beliefs should not be imposed on others and who, throughout the course of their lives, haven’t seen the need to be concerned about religious freedom. 

So, it’s up to us to tell them why they need to be concerned about religious freedom — real religious freedom. And to make sure that every single American knows what real religious freedom is, not this fabricated definition of religious freedom espoused by the Religious Right. 

Think about this: Every single major issue affecting our country today is somehow rooted in religiosity. If you are pro-choice, which many religious Americans are, you care about real religious freedom. 

If you are in favor of equality, then you care about real religious freedom. If you believe that climate change is real and is a threat to our country and to our world, then you care about real religious freedom. If you believe that human beings have a right to die with dignity, you believe in real religious freedom. If you believe in science, you believe in religious freedom.

On the other hand, if you think that, based on your religion, abortion is wrong and should therefore be outlawed, you don’t care about religious freedom, you care about religious privilege. If you think that being gay is wrong and that as a business owner you shouldn’t have to provide services to gay and lesbian couples, well, then, you’re a bigot. But you’re a bigot who doesn’t care about religious freedom; you care that your religion is privileged over their civil rights. 

Let’s get our definitions correct, America. Maybe we need to start there. I believe in an America that is not a theocracy. I believe in an America where facts matter and science is used smartly to determine the course of action against climate change. I believe in an America where every woman has the right to choose the path of her own health care, whether it’s about birth control and abortion or any other medical procedure. And I believe in an America where you get to marry the person you choose, not who the government wants you to spend your life with, and not because of someone else’s religion. I believe in an America where we have the right to choose to die with dignity. 

If you believe these things, regardless of your religion or lack of one, you are part of this movement, and we need to be able to count on you. 

Playing the long game

Now, here’s something that I might get booed for saying. But the sad fact is that the Religious Right has beaten us on every organizational front. They’ve out-strategized and out-performed us. Mostly because they have out-fundraised us. When you look at the budgets of our entire movement, the largest organizations in our movement, they pale in comparison. They’re a small percentage to just one — the Alliance Defending Freedom, whose name has absolutely nothing to do with defending freedom. It’s about imposing and privileging religion in this country with an annual budget of $150 million dollars a year. 

They’ve been playing the long game, and, I have to say, I admire them for that. If we’re going to win this fight, which we can, we need to take a page from their playbook and play an even longer game. While their numbers dwindle, our numbers grow. Now is the time to take advantage of that. The opportunity to become an even more powerful constituency is there for us to take. 

We need to band together. We need to vote. We need to call our members of Congress and demand they stop using the bible as the basis for making laws in this nation, and we need to include our friends, our family, our colleagues, our neighbors in this fight. This is a fight for our values: freedom, inclusion, equality, knowledge. Our values are worth fighting for because our values are American values.

You know, we’ve watched as the Religious Right frames patriotism — from the so-called angry mobs to kneeling NFL players being bad patriots — but we need to define the conversation of what is American and what is not. 

There’s a reason that the freedom of religion, speech, press and assembly are all part of the First Amendment. 

It’s because our forefathers knew how important it was for us to be a part of this democracy. And the only way we can be a part of this democracy today is if we stand up and demand that our democracy matters, our civil rights, our civil liberties, our freedom from and our freedom of religion matters. And that’s where you come in.

Thank you, FFRF, for all that you do. And may reason prevail in America!