(RNS) For the last decade, atheists, humanists and others secularists have worked hard to organize a “secular vote” that would counter the political clout of the religious right.
President-elect Donald J. Trump’s victory dealt that movement a body blow when he garnered 81 percent of the white evangelical vote and 60 percent of the white Catholic vote. Mormons, too, voted overwhelmingly for Trump.
Despite Trump’s not being a particularly religious person, his platform was seen as anti-secular in many atheist and humanist circles. He said he would appoint religiously conservative Supreme Court justices, ban Muslim immigrants, favor Christianity and repeal the Johnson Amendment, which prohibits certain tax-exempt organizations from endorsing political candidates — issues antithetical to organized atheism and humanism.
Political rallies on the Washington Mall, conventions in religious states such as Utah and Texas, and the creation of scores of local chapters of national secular advocacy groups like the Secular Coalition for America did not help the secular vote — sometimes called the “atheist vote” — coalesce into a voting bloc for Hillary Clinton, generally seen as the more secular-friendly candidate.
That has left atheist, humanist and secular organizations re-examining their political strategies and thinking about how to interact with a Trump administration, something most of them had not considered before election night.
“With the steady, numeric rise of freethinkers, people of color, supporters of the LGBTQ community, seculars and other progressive people declared victory far in advance of realizing it,” Roy Speckhardt, executive director of the American Humanist Association, said in an essay for The Huffington Post on Wednesday (Nov. 9). ” … Those who went to sleep last night hoping for the best, they awakened to a very different reality.”
Some awoke depressed and angry; some woke with a glimmer of optimism. Others woke and said they were ready to roll up their sleeves and get to work. All made a to-do list to get out the secular vote on issues important to them.
“Our eyes are now on the midterm elections,” said Sarah Levin, senior legislative representative for the Secular Coalition for America, a lobby that represents 19 atheist, humanist and freethought groups in Washington, D.C. “We are going to double-down. We really have to.”
Levin said the coalition will act as a sort of watchdog to the Trump administration, alerting members when the coalition believes administration policies trample on separation of church and state. The group will keep a sharp eye on his promise to repeal the Johnson Amendment.
“It is important to recognize the religious right’s agenda doesn’t represent the majority of Americans or even the majority of the faith community,” Levin said. “They won the battle but they didn’t win the war. The shifting demographics are still in our favor. That’s going to be a challenge for them and it is going to be incumbent for us to increase our turnout.”
Indeed, the news was not all bad for secularists on the state level. Two self-declared atheists won seats in the Arizona Legislature, an atheist and an agnostic recaptured their seats in Nebraska and Wisconsin, and a humanist won in Maryland. Other non-believing candidates lost in Texas, Arizona and Pennsylvania.
And in Oklahoma, a measure that would have stripped the state constitution of its wall between church and state was defeated.
Paul Fidalgo, director of communications for the Center for Inquiry, said the election of Trump will send the organization back to its roots — the promotion of evidence-based reasoning and provable facts.
“It is time for the secular community to gear up big-time because we should expect, once again, the basic tenets of secularism are going to be challenged very, very hard,” Fidalgo said. “That is the reality.”
But another reality gives Fidalgo hope. The secular movement, which surged during the George W. Bush administration, considered overly friendly with the religious right by many secularists, is now stronger and better-organized.
“A real movement has been built around this identity (secularism) that is now in a much better place to meet that challenge,” he said. “We are going to fight the battle of religion’s incursion into government and we are ready for that.”
David Silverman, president of American Atheists, which has twice held a “Reason Rally” on the National Mall in an attempt to fire up nonbelievers to vote as a bloc, is also recalibrating.
“We didn’t take the religious right seriously and we got complacent with a friendly president,” he said. “So we redouble our get out the vote effort and this time, we have to realize we have a fight on our hands.”