WASHINGTON — One of the biggest growth areas in political activism around religion is coming from an unlikely source: the nonreligious. And it’s happening far from the marbled corridors of power in the nation’s capital.
The Secular Coalition for America, an umbrella organization that represents 11 nontheistic groups including American Atheists and the American Humanist Association, is looking to take its secular-based activism out of the nation’s capital and into the states.
Beginning in June, the Washington-based SCA will install directors in 18 states including Hawaii, Michigan, Pennsylvania and Alabama. State directors will meet with local politicians and train and mobilize local nontheists to lobby on behalf of secular issues and causes.
Why? Activists say the most important policies that affect nonbelievers don’t come from Washington.
“The majority of erosion to church-state separation is at the local level,” said Serah Blain, the SCA’s first state director, appointed in Arizona in January. “It’s in city councils and school boards and statehouses. And that’s where these things really affect people’s lives, with laws on bullying and abortion and access to health care. And they are passing without much opposition because it isn’t seen as glamorous to lobby locally.”
The announcement comes on the heels of SCA’s appointment of Edwina Rogers, a veteran Republic lobbyist, as its new executive director, a move the group has spun as a means to greater access on Capitol Hill. It is also the latest indication that nontheists — atheists, humanists, skeptics and others who hold no supernatural beliefs — are working to become a political force in their own right.
Amanda Knief, who recently joined American Atheists after working as the SCA’s government relations manager, said nontheists must “show elected officials that we are a political movement that needs to be recognized. That kind of recognition has been lacking because it is not politically savvy. So we need to show them that we are there and that we count.”
2012 already represents a high-water mark for political organization and activism among nontheists:
—The Reason Rally drew more than 10,000 people to Washington in March where speakers urged them to contact local and national representatives and ask them to support church-state separation, science education, marriage equality for gays and lesbians, and ending government support of faith-based organizations, among other causes.
— The SCA’s 2012 Lobby Day, an event that included training in lobbying techniques and meetings with congressional staff, attracted 280 people from almost all 50 states — up from 80 at the same event a year ago.
— Cecil Bothwell, a Democratic candidate for North Carolina’s 11th Congressional District is running as an atheist. If he wins, he will join Rep. Pete Stark, D-Calif., now the only openly atheist member of Congress.
— Enlighten the Vote, a nonprofit that supports atheist candidates and issues, is actively seeking atheists to run for public office and trains atheists to lobby their politicians.
— The National Atheist Party was established in March 2011 and now claims members in all 50 states.
Ryan Cragun, an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Tampa who studies American atheism, sees the growing political organization among nontheists as a sign of their maturation as a movement. Yet while Cragun says he personally supports the movement, he does not believe it is poised to have a major impact in this election year.
“They are reaching a level of maturity where organization is necessary to maintain structure and keep the movement going,” Cragun said. “But until you are talking about lots of money or lots of voters — and I don’t think they have either of those at this point — I don’t think they are going to be national players.”
That may be a long time coming, said Ellen Johnson, executive director of Enlighten the Vote and former president of American Atheists.
“It is hard to get atheists to agree on anything but their atheism,” she said. “We are mostly liberals, I will grant you that, but once you veer off into anything besides (church and state) separation issues, most atheists will argue.”
The hiring of Rogers to head the SCA is a case in point. Since the announcement of her appointment a week ago, reaction from members of the organizations it represents has been highly mixed.
P.Z. Myers, a University of Minnesota biologist and an influential atheist blogger, denounced her ties to President George W. Bush and former Sen. Trent Lott and her donations to Texas Gov. Rick Perry’s presidential campaign.
Jacques Berlinerblau, a Georgetown University professor and expert on faith and voting, has taken a more wait-and-see attitude.
“Ms. Rogers is confronted with a daunting task,” he wrote on May 4 on the Chronicle of Higher Education’s website. “For all of its chest-thumping and self-congratulatory praise, secularism’s standing in the judicial, legislative and executive branches is arguably at its lowest ebb since the 1950s. And don’t even get me started on its predicament in state houses across the country.”
Then Berlinerblau added, “Welcome, Ms. Rogers. Good luck. You have your work cut out for you.”
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