This week, three top staffers at the Democratic National Committee resigned in the wake of the hacking scandal that resulted in the release of 20,000 committee staff emails to WikiLeaks. One email was especially offensive to the nontheist community, in which former DNC chief financial officer Brad Marshall wrote, in regard to Bernie Sanders, that “it might make no difference, but for KY and WVA can we get someone to ask his belief? Does he believe in a God? He had skated on saying he has a Jewish heritage. I think I read he is an atheist. This could make several points difference with my peeps. My Southern Baptist peeps would draw a big difference between a Jew and an atheist.”
The idea that any political party would use the religious views of one of their presidential candidates as a weapon to harm their campaign is deplorable. But it also makes poor political sense. The number of Americans who would vote for an atheist candidate for president is steadily increasing, as is the overall number of the religiously unaffiliated in America, who now are the biggest “religious” voting bloc in the country. Party operatives and campaign officials who continue to slander atheists and other nontheists because of their personal prejudice or false impressions that such action would cause negative campaign impact need to wake up to what is the increasingly secular America.
But until party operatives recognize the reality of America’s changing religious demographics, the only true way to fix this pattern of discrimination is, as Lin-Manuel Miranda from the Broadway play Hamilton says, to be “in the room where it happens.”
It’s easy for the interests of a political demographic to be ignored or even ridiculed by those in power when discussions on political strategy occur without the open participation of that marginalized group. DNC officials likely would have been much more hesitant to even discuss using a candidate’s possible atheism as campaign dirt if even a single Democratic member of Congress was an open atheist. After all, no staff member wants to deal with an angry member of Congress calling them up to discuss why his or her religious views were denigrated by the organization that is supposed to support the work of those very same government officials.
And the days in which we may have an openly atheistic or humanistic representative or senator are not that far away. Candidates like Jamie Raskin, who is the Democratic nominee for Maryland’s 8th Congressional District and identifies as a humanist supported by the Freethought Equality Fund, have the chance to lead by example and show the American people that nontheists deserve a say in the political process. This leadership could also inspire the dozens of existing members of Congress who are in the closet about their nontheism to be open about their religious identity, which would go a long way in dispelling the prejudice against millions of nontheistic Americans in the political world and society as a whole.
It’s always disappointing to see party officials disparage the beliefs of American citizens, but instead of being discouraged by this scandal, nontheists should see the event as a much needed call to action. Atheists and humanists must realize that until nontheists have more than allies in Congress, but actual members of their own community serving as representatives and senators, both parties can continue to pay lip service to the interests of the nearly one quarter of Americans who don’t associate with a religious tradition, while denigrating that very same group behind closed doors. The challenge now for the nontheistic community is coming together in a bipartisan way and working to elect openly nontheistic candidates to Congress and state legislatures across the country so that our embrace of reality-based thinking can’t be used as political sabotage.