Three Ways Presidential Candidates Can Win Over Nontheists

Last week, likely Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump visited Capitol Hill to meet with GOP congressional leadership hoping to bring the party together around his campaign. These meetings were held in the wake of comments made by House Speaker Paul Ryan, who earlier stated that he wasn't yet ready to endorse Trump for the presidency. Although the meeting appears to have placated most of GOP leadership on the Hill, including Ryan, Trump and his Democratic rival, either Clinton or Sanders, will both still need large coalitions of support to win the White House.

With nearly a quarter of all Americans religiously unaffiliated and a large section of this group explicitly nontheist, candidates would be well-served by appealing to this community. But how can they attract the support of this large and growing demographic?

Each candidate should speak about how they will strengthen the separation between religion and government. While humanists, and other atheists and agnostics, have numerous policy priorities, there's at least one issue that unites all nontheists: support of Jefferson's Wall of church-state separation. Candidates could show their support for secularism by opposing the religious exemption to the individual care mandate in the Affordable Care Act or religious exemptions to anti-discrimination laws, among other exemptions granted only to religious organizations. Candidates could also refuse to participate in unambiguously religious events that are either tacitly or explicitly supported by government, such as the National Day of Prayer or the numerous prayer breakfasts that occur throughout the year. And they could proactively support efforts that advance religious liberty for believers and nonbelievers alike, such as H. Res. 290, which calls for the global repeal of blasphemy laws.

Candidates' serious about courting humanists should also commit to protecting public education and aiding medical and scientific research. By fully supporting public education and opposing attempts to push vouchers (which often lead to government funding of private religious schools), candidates would show the nontheist community that they are committed to educating the next generation. And by pledging not to withdraw government support of the research industry, as it did several years ago under sequestration, the candidates will not only help to increase our understanding of the world and our place within it, they will reinforce the value of science and reason.

At the very least, candidates should do something that politicians have been historically reticent to do: mention nontheists positively during the campaign. Too often, members of federal, state, and local governments acknowledge and speak to the plight and value of religious Americans while completely neglecting the struggles and accomplishments of the nontheist community. President Obama broke this silence during his first inaugural address when he said, "We are a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus, and nonbelievers." Obama acknowledged nontheists in future statements as well. By simply mentioning nontheists during public addresses, candidates would be taking this progress a step further by opening the national conversation to include nontheists. Such inclusion is sadly lacking in today's political scene, which is often a rush to religious one-upmanship.

Those candidates who've been following the trends of religiosity in America and understand the importance of this new demographic will take the bonus step by connecting with leading nontheist organizations and responding to questionnaires circulated by the Freethought Equality Fund, the nontheist community's political action committee.

The political approach to religion is changing. Candidates like Bernie Sanders can experience success while explaining their beliefs in terms that are essentially pantheistic: "I think everyone believes in God in their own ways... To me, it means that all of us are connected, all of life is connected, and that we are all tied together." For the first time in many elections, the leading Republican presidential candidate isn't doused in religion but simply makes generic references like, "I think religion is a wonderful thing." Most encouragingly, Jamie Raskin of Maryland is likely to become the first member of Congress who had run for (and won) an open seat as an open humanist. The time is coming when a record of acting on humanistic values will be a determinative factor in a politician's potential to win, so the current batch of candidates would do well to get ahead of the curve.