Secular Coalition for America confronts Trump’s attacks against atheists

‘He has used nonreligious people as a punching bag, as he has with many other groups for many years,’ said the director of the coalition.

Former President Donald Trump speaks during the Faith & Freedom Coalition Policy Conference in Washington, June 24, 2023. (AP Photo/Jose Luis Magana)

(RNS) — The Secular Coalition for America, a nonpartisan organization that advocates for the separation of religion and government, has issued a letter in response to derogatory remarks about atheists made by former President Donald Trump last month at the Faith and Freedom Coalition gala in Washington.

Trump, the keynote speaker of the three-day Road to Majority conference, declared, “Together, we’re warriors in a righteous crusade to stop the arsonists, the atheists, globalists and the Marxists,” stirring up the estimated crowd of 2,000 conservative evangelical leaders. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and former Vice President Mike Pence also attended the conference’s 14th annual gathering.

In their letter, the 21 groups that form the Secular Coalition for America denied having any links with Marxism or promoting globalism. They also reasserted the coalition’s commitment to fighting hatred targeting religious minorities worldwide and called for more respect and tolerance regarding atheist citizens.

“Just because we don’t go to church, doesn’t mean we are unpatriotic,” read the statement.

The attack didn’t surprise Steven Emmert, the coalition’s executive director, but the affiliations the former president suggested are what struck him.

“He has used nonreligious people as a punching bag, as he has with many other groups for many years. This just seemed like an odd collection of people to go after. I mean, we are opposed to arsons as well,” Emmert said.

Trump has long enjoyed the support of conservative evangelical voters. In 2020, he won 76% of the white evangelical vote, 59% of whom said his administration had served evangelicals’ interest, according to a 2020 Pew Research Center poll.

The appearance at the gala, his eighth, signaled Trump’s eagerness to win over evangelical leaders again as he faces a crowded race for the 2024 Republican Party presidential nomination. In his 90-minute speech, the former president reminded his audience of all his efforts to serve the religious right, particularly his realization of a conservative majority on the Supreme Court.

Trump’s declaration goes alongside a growing disdain Republican politicians have shown toward nonreligious people over the past years, said Emmert. A longtime advocate for the separation of church and state, he noted that the coalition worked more easily with Republicans in Congress 25 years ago than today. But overlooking atheists as an electorate is a political mistake, Emmert said, as 17% of atheists consider themselves independent voters.

“Nonreligious people made up nearly 30% of the population. We are not exactly some fringe group,” he said.

Emmert said the atheist-Marxist affiliation is a common trope dating back to the 1950s, noting Sen. Joseph McCarthy’s 1950 Wheeling, West Virginia, speech, in which he called for an “all-out battle between communistic atheism and Christianity.” 

“I mean, I think that’s always been (Trump’s) goal, to bring us back to the 1950s, on several levels,” said the director, who hopes conservative leaders will become more aware of their nonreligious constituents.

The Washington-based organization comprises groups such as the Ex-Muslims of North America, the American Humanist Association and the Society for Humanistic Judaism. It counts over 100,000 members.

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