Hillary Clinton needs to reach out to non-religious Americans

(RNS) The nonreligious are the future of the country, and we could contribute to a rapidly expanding Democratic base … if only Democrats were willing to include us in their conversations the same way Republicans court evangelicals.

A woman raises her hand at the Reason Rally in Washington, D.C., on June 4, 2016. On the stage is American Atheists President David Silverman. RNS photo by Adelle M. Banks

(RNS) With recent polls putting her in a dead heat with Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton is missing a golden opportunity to solidify and grow her base. All she has to do is reach out to the most controversial group of voters in the country: Americans with no religious affiliation.

The “unaffiliated” — atheists, agnostics, and those who don’t belong to any organized religion — are now the single largest voting bloc by faith in the country, according to a new survey by the Pew Research Center.

While we have no leaders and serious theological differences, we tend to hold similar political opinions. In fact, while the Pew survey found that nearly 80 percent of white evangelical Protestants support Trump (even higher than the support Mitt Romney received from the same group four years ago), 67 percent of nonreligious Americans support Clinton. We may not think alike in other ways, but we certainly have a political preference.

This isn’t a manipulation of statistics. There are 56 million Americans without religion and we’re roundly ignored by elected officials. Compare that to the approximately 55 million Hispanic Americans in the country who are routinely seen as key to the election and the focal point of many of our political debates.

Trump, to his credit, has gone out of his way to make sure evangelical Christians, who make up the Republican base, remain on his side. He held a private meeting with hundreds of Christian leaders, during which he assured the crowd, “We’re going to be saying ‘Merry Christmas’ again.” He has repeatedly said the Bible is the greatest book ever. He spoke at Liberty University and invited the school’s president, Jerry Falwell Jr., to speak at next week’s Republican National Convention. And his choice for vice president, Indiana Gov. Mike Pence, is a born-again Christian.

No wonder so many evangelicals are supporting him; he’s appeasing them. They’re on his side despite the fact that Trump can’t tell you his favorite Bible verse, doesn’t know whether he prefers the Old or New Testament, can’t properly pronounce 2 Corinthians, ridicules and insults his opponents, curses with regularity, picks fights with the pope, and doesn’t even ask for forgiveness.

Is he pandering to them? Absolutely. It’s like he has an evangelical political checklist and he’s just ticking off the items one by one.

But is it working? You bet.

There seems to be very little Trump can do to shake the conservative ties to the Republican Party. As a political strategy, it’s powerful, no matter how frustrating it may be to his critics.

How would that look on the other side of the religious spectrum? Thankfully, Clinton doesn’t have to play the same game with nonreligious Americans. We’re not asking her to change her views or enact radical policies. We’re not asking her to denounce her Methodist upbringing. All we’re asking, by and large, is for public assurances that faith will not trump reason in a Clinton administration.

That means reiterating her firm commitment to church-state separation. If the White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships continues after President Obama’s term ends, we want her to place humanists on the advisory council so we’re included in those discussions.

We want her to promise that faith groups that discriminate against LGBT individuals will not be allowed to do so with taxpayer money. We want someone who will fight for LGBT rights, comprehensive sex education in our schools, reproductive choice, environmental protection, scientific literacy, and increased funding for NASA and the National Institutes of Health — all of which have been eroded by conservatives over the years.

These are the issues that matter to so many of us who have watched the religious right hold on to power even as the nation’s demographics have gone in the other direction. More important, these are issues that Clinton already supports.

And yet she has done remarkably little to encourage unaffiliated Americans to vote for her. There’s been no outreach to our communities (and, yes, we have communities). There’s just an assumption that we’re already locked in, even though many nonreligious people still harbor an affinity for Bernie Sanders or third-party candidates; others are choosing not to vote at all.

It’s easy to understand why she might be hesitant. As recently as last year, Gallup found that 40 percent of Americans would never vote for a well-qualified presidential candidate from their own party if that person were an atheist. Atheists have been political poison for several decades and catering to us may hurt candidate’s prospects.

But it’s not the taboo it used to be, even in the realm of politics. While there’s not a single open atheist currently in Congress — and only one, Rep. Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, who uses the “unaffiliated” label — there are almost 20 openly nonreligious candidates for state or federal elections this year.

It’s also good strategy to reach out to us. Not just for this election, but for future ones as well. Pew found that an astonishing 36 percent of “younger millennials” (ages 18-24) were unaffiliated. And that percentage seems to grow larger every year.

This is the future of the country, and it could contribute to a rapidly expanding Democratic base … if only Democrats were willing to include us in their conversations the same way Republicans court evangelicals.

Even now, we make up a sizable proportion of several swing states. The “nones” make up 24 percent of Florida, 22 percent of Ohio, 21 percent of Pennsylvania, and 20 percent of North Carolina. Clinton needs to pick up a couple of those to assure electoral victory in November.

The worry isn’t that we’ll all vote for Trump, but that too many of us won’t be sufficiently motivated to vote at all.

There’s so much opportunity and so little risk. We’re not asking for special treatment; we just want to be heard.

For all the talk of reaching out to independents, it’s just as important to make sure the people who already tend to agree with you are motivated to vote and encourage others to do the same.

There are millions of us just waiting for Clinton to take us seriously. What a mistake it would be if she didn’t.

(Hemant Mehta is the editor of FriendlyAtheist.com)

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