It’s Time to Represent: Election Day for America’s Seculars and Skeptics

November 5, 2012

Until literally days ago, the political establishment had decided that you don’t matter.

By “you,” I refer to those most likely to be reading this right now: the nonreligious, the skeptical, those who, like CFI, want to build a world based on science, reason, and secular values.

Allow me, if you will, to relate an anecdote that I think is relevant to tomorrow’s electoral finish line.

I was attending the Religion Newswriters Conference in Bethesda, MD in early October, hawking CFI and its affiliates to the gathered journos whose beat is faith, values, and yes, those of us who are big on values while not so much with the faith. One particular session of this conference featured representatives of the two presidential campaigns’ “faith outreach” operations, a panel discussion featuring Mark DeMoss representing the Romney campaign, Broderick Johnson and Michael Wear from the Obama campaign, and moderated by CNN’s Dan Gilgoff. 

Most of the talk focused around selling the candidates to those of particular theological persuasions, naturally, but efforts were clearly being made to be as genial an unoffensive as possible. No feathers were ruffled, and all notions of “faith” were treated with fluffy cotton gloves.

At the end, Gilgoff opened the panel up to questions from the attendees, and I volunteered. I began by prefacing that I feared I already knew the answer to my question, and then asked the campaign representatives whether the nonreligious or the religiously unaffiliated ever entered into their discussions or outreach strategies, and if so, what might those discussions consist of? As I said, I felt I already knew the answer — that there were no such efforts or discussions — but I was curious as to how the campaign representatives would handle the question.

The Obama representatives both equally hemmed and hawed, and doled out some pleasant-sounding platitudes about voters not being seen through a religious prism, but simply as human beings with needs and concerns universal to people of every belief system (which confused me, since it seemed to negate the very purpose of their own positions within the campaign). They seemed to me to be a little annoyed at the question, and simply filling air with an acceptable amount of words to be allowed to move on.

The Romney campaign representative was decidedly less verbose, and more or less declined to answer, suddenly demoting himself from “adviser” to just a kind of ‘friend-of-the-campaign,’ not really part of the official campaign apparatus. I wasn’t satisfied by this demurral, and I asked, if he was unwilling to speak on behalf of the Romney campaign, would he at least share his own thoughts on the subject. Not surprisingly, he muttered a few sentiments similar to those of Obama’s folks, but was visibly uncomfortable and clearly hoping I would just go away.

It was clear this was not a question any of them wanted to answer, their reticence I assume fueled by the long-presumed political toxicity of the nonreligious. Afterward, Gilgoff told me he was hoping to get a chance to ask them the same question I had, perhaps because he knew what was in the air.

You see, the very next day, the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life unveiled a study that trumpeted the true and remarkable significance of the nonreligious and religiously unaffiliated demographic (the information was embargoed for release by the press until later that week), and suddenly, seemingly everyone was talking about how campaigns and politicians ought to be reaching out to the now-formidable “nones vote.” What a difference a day makes.

Of course, this data did not say that all of these “nones” were nonbelievers, but they did show that a rapidly-growing sector the electorate was rejecting traditional notions of religion, rejecting old dogmas, and opening themselves to questioning and exploring for themselves, and that’s close enough for me.

To my fellow seculars, skeptics, humanists, and nonbelievers, the political class did not see us coming. For decades, maybe centuries, they’ve been avoiding us, ignoring us, or outright reviling us. And then one day in October, they realized that they couldn’t do that anymore.

But now we have to prove it. We have to show ourselves in force a the polls tomorrow. Remember those “faith outreach” functionaries and how they were unable or unwilling to consider us in their discussions. Remember the years of polling showing the poor regard the nonreligious are held by so many of our neighbors. Remember even the fact that mere association with nonreligious Americans is considered by some to be disqualifying for public office.

Remember those things, and show them that we are not going to be considered a fringe any longer. Show it with your ballot. If you haven’t done it already, whether you’re in a swing state or not, make sure that tomorrow you get yourself to the polls and vote.