You’d never guess, from the public face the Democratic party presents, that atheists are a loyal and increasingly important constituency. At the Democratic National Convention last week, God and religion were front and center. Clergy members gave fiery addresses. Hillary Clinton avowed her Methodist faith, while her running mate, Tim Kaine, spoke about his work as a Catholic missionary in Honduras. Almost every speaker ended with the rote and obligatory “God bless America”.
The official 2016 Democratic party platform isn’t any more encouraging. Arguably the most inclusive in the party’s history, it prominently mentions racial minorities, the LGBT community, the disabled and many other marginalized groups. But in spite of all this inclusion, it somehow couldn’t find the space to nod to the millions of Americans who hold no religious faith. Instead, it singles out “people of faith and religious organizations” for praise, and emphasizes helping people to achieve their “God-given” potential.
Several atheist groups voiced frustration that nonbelievers weren’t acknowledged at the DNC. Most dispiriting of all, we saw in hacked emails that a DNC official suggested attacking Bernie Sanders as an atheist, although that suggestion never went anywhere and the party later repudiated it.
Atheists could be forgiven for feeling snubbed this election season. This, even though there are as many secular Americans as there are white evangelical Americans, and “no religion” is now the most common affiliation of registered voters, surpassing Catholics, evangelicals and mainline Protestants.
And we vote Democratic by huge margins. In 2012, the nonreligious vote put Barack Obama over the top in swing states like Ohio, Virginia and Florida. You would think that basic political tactics and electoral self-interest, if nothing else, would lead Democratic officials to do more to speak up for and celebrate this major and important part of their coalition.
That doesn’t seem likely to happen anytime soon, but we atheist Democrats still have reason to be optimistic about our party. Even if we are neglected in official rhetoric in favor of ostentatious piety, there’s little sign that religious conservatism has had any influence on the substance of the party’s principles. Much to the contrary, the 2016 Democratic platform is boldly, unapologetically liberal.
It’s unambiguously supportive of marriage equality and LGBT rights and opposes the freedom-to-discriminate laws passed by some red states. It’s fiercely pro-women’s-rights and pro-choice, with none of the “religious liberty” loopholes that the Christian right has loudly demanded. It’s a welcome change to see a major party stake out a truly progressive stance on these issues, without all the hedging and equivocation that used to typify the party rhetoric in a misguided attempt to appease religious conservatives.
Plus, when all the other candidates or parties are spreading vaccine misinformation or sowing doubts about climate change, the Democrats alone are declaring that they “believe in science” and calling for “ambitious” public support for research and clean energy. All these are priorities that nonbelievers support by huge majorities. Groups like the Secular Coalition for America have even gotten state parties to adopt their policy language.
It would be nice if the Democrats’ rhetoric would catch up with the reality, but we can’t expect change to come overnight. Both parties, and Americans in general, have a long tradition of equating patriotism with religious faith – whether it’s adding “In God We Trust” to money or appending “under God” to the originally secular Pledge of Allegiance – and politicians are clearly reluctant to break with this precedent. We can and should press for more inclusive language and more fearless secularism, but that would be a huge change and, realistically, will only happen gradually.
Even so, we atheists would appreciate it if the party would acknowledge nonbelievers a little more often. It would be nice if they’d recognize us as patriotic Americans who contribute to this country and deserve equal rights. However, I care more about whether the party represents my interests in concrete ways and fights for principles I value. On that score, I’m encouraged to see the Democratsmaking strides, even if their word choice from the lectern lags behind.