Scott Douglas Jacobsen: What’s your own story? How did you get into the Freethought Equality business? Was there much of a family background?
My family has no history in atheist and humanist politics. I was raised in a fundamentalist Christian church and enjoyed interacting with many of the people there, but their narrow view of reality and restrictive proscriptions on varying lifestyles distanced me from the church. I explored other forms of Christianity and non-Christian religious traditions in search of the “Truth.” The process was much like trying on various hats, and I found that nothing really fit (before ultimately realising that I didn’t like wearing hats – to continue a strained metaphor). In the last semester of my senior year in college, which was in the early 1980s, I came to Washington DC to intern at a Ralph Nader publication, Multinational Monitor, and I left religion and my childhood home behind.
You have done research and conducted interviews with political candidates, and elected officials, looking into the possibility for the endorsement from the Freethought Equality Fund. What is the general narrative there? How do things play out?
The U.S. Constitution prohibits any religious test for public office. However, being an atheist in the electoral arena has been a powerful political taboo in our nation.
The Freethought Equality Fund was founded in 2013 to change this. Our mission is to increase the number of open humanists and atheists in public office at all levels of government. The Freethought Equality Fund is affiliated with the Center for Freethought Equality which is the advocacy and political arm of the American Humanist Association.
When I started this position in February 2016, I was aware of only three open elected officials from our community at the state level (and no one at the federal level). Ernie Chambers, a state senator in Nebraska; Juan Mendez, a state representative in Arizona; and Jamie Raskin, a state representative in Maryland.
The 2016 election cycle was very productive for our community as we quintupled the number of open elected officials from our community. These wins are an important step in removing the negative stigma against atheist and humanist candidates, but since the secular community is nearly a quarter of the population, these wins represent less than 0.25% of state and federal elected offices. So, we need to obtain an additional 1,500-1,600 seat to obtain equal representation.
We have a lot of work to do!
The Center for Freethought Equality has a list of secular elected officials and you can view our endorsed 2016 candidates and their election outcomes on the Freethought Equality Fund’s endorsements page.
How many closet atheists, agnostics, and freethinkers do you think are currently in public office?
This number is hard to determine but there are a lot. As I said before, the negative stigma against atheists has a long tradition in American politics but fortunately, our efforts during this past election cycle shows the paradigm is shifting.
The reason for this change is simple demographics; the number of secular Americans is growing rapidly. The Pew Research Center uses the short hand of “nones” for the religiously unaffiliated, which includes people who identify as either atheist or agnostic and those who say their religion is “nothing in particular.” According to Pew research, “nones” have grown from 16% in 2007 to 23% in 2014, and are the largest “religious group” in the Democratic Party. With a third of Millennials in the “nones” category, the religiously unaffiliated community will continue to grow. If you just consider Americans who self-identify as atheists and agnostics, our community is as large as the Jewish, Muslim, Mormon, Orthodox Christian, Buddhist, Jehovah’s Witness, and Hindu communities combined!
Americans are also becoming more and more open to voting for atheist candidates. Since 1958, Gallop has asked Americans if they would vote for a well-qualified presidential candidate who was an atheist. In the first poll, only 18% of Americans said they would vote for an atheist. In 1999, for the first time, a slim majority said they would vote for an atheist candidate. In Gallop’s 2015 poll, 58% of Americans said they would vote for an atheist presidential candidate. The willingness to vote for an atheist presidential candidate varies greatly by generation: 75% of those 18 to 29 years of age, 63% of those 30 to 49, 50% of those 50 to 64, and 48% of those 65 and over; and by political party: 64% of Democrats, 61% of independents, and 45% of Republicans.
Because of the changes in demographics and the increasing acceptance of atheists by voters, the time has come for atheist, agnostic, humanist, and other nontheistic elected officials to serve openly as secular Americans and for more openly secular candidates to run for office. Our democracy is impoverished and the quality of our political candidates is diminished. If a quarter of the population is effectively removed from the electoral arena, the negative stigma that still exists will only be eliminated when Americans see respected and ethical secular leaders in public office.
You work with the Center for Freethought Equality. You’ve been in the Washington, District of Columbia area for 30 years or more. You’ve worked with nonprofit education, advocacy groups, and so on. How has this work bolstered your work through Center for Freethought Equality?
I’ve worked in a variety of advocacy and education nonprofits in DC, and learning from my prior experiences, both successful and unsuccessful, help me in managing this project. For example, in 1988, I was the campaign manager for an openly gay candidate running for the Council of the District of Columbia. We ran a professional campaign and increased the political visibility and involvement of the LGBTQ community in the electoral arena. We lost that election, but subsequent candidates were able to build on our successes in breaking down barriers against the LGBTQ community and win seats on the DC Council.
Also, you were the associate director of the Secular Coalition for America (2005-2009). What was fulfilling about the work there?
I was the second staff member to be hired by the Secular Coalition for America, where I worked under the wonderful Lori Lipman Brown, our community’s first full-time lobbyist on Capitol Hill. I was not involved in the secular movement prior to this position but was thrilled at the opportunity to promote this cause. During my tenure there, we were able to help Congressman Pete Stark make his announcement that he did not “hold a god belief” – the first member of Congress to ever identify with our community.
I understand you earned a PhD specifically looking at the organisation learning in groups that are litigating church-state cases in the Supreme Court—no less. What was the main research question? What was the main finding?
Earlier research had concluded that organisations litigating cases before the Supreme Court did not change their legal arguments when faced with a change in legal precedent. My finding was that when faced with legal change, litigant groups did analyse the new precedent and the opinion(s) that supported the decision to modify or craft new legal arguments in seeking to win future cases. Looking at church-state education cases was ideal because Agular v. Felton (1985) and Agostini v. Felton (1997) offered essentially the same litigants and same case facts, separated by twelve years of a changing Court. This allowed me to explore the arguments used prior, during, and after these cases to map the evolution of the legal arguments used by church-state separation advocates and why.
Now, back to the Center for Freethought Equality. You are the PAC coordinator for the Center for Freethought Equality. What is PAC? How are you coordinating it? What are the hopes for it?
The Freethought Equality Fund has both a traditional political action committee (PAC) that makes donations directly to candidates and a SuperPAC that makes independent expenditures to promote candidates and campaigns.
In the 2016 election cycle, the Freethought Equal Fund PAC, the traditional PAC, endorsed 61 candidates from 22 states and the District of Columbia. Of the 61 candidates, 32 were running for Congress (6 from our community and 26 allies), 26 were running for state legislatures (23 from our community and 3 allies), and 3 were running for local seats (all from our community).
All but one of our 26 Congressional allies won their seats and one member of our community won his Congressional seat, Jamie Raskin from Maryland. All three allies won re-election to their state legislative seats and 14 members of our community won their state races (6 re-elected and 8 new – two of the new held seats in the House and are now in the Senate). One of the three local candidates won their elections.
The 2016 endorsements were the result of sending questionnaires to over 900 candidates in 38 states in open seats or interesting races. We also sent an additional 700 questionnaires to incumbents in legislatures of the 13 least religious states and the District of Columbia. From these USPO and email solicitations we received over 180 completed candidate questionnaires.
Our efforts were also made possible by local activists. For example, in Arizona, Serah Blain and Evan Clark helped us connect with a great cohort of candidates. Their efforts are a model for the Freethought community in recruiting and campaigning for secular candidates.
My hope is that our successes in 2016 will encourage other members of our community to get involved in the electoral arena and run for office, and for current elected officials who identify with our community to publicly announce their affiliation.
How can people get involved with the PAC or the Center for Freethought Equality, even donate to them?
First, become a member of the Center for Freethought Equality – it’s free! As a member, you will get our emails about our candidates and activities. Only members of the Center for Freethought Equality can donate to the PAC. Also, follow us on Facebook and Twitter.
Most importantly, I want to stress that elections don’t just happen every four years. Obviously, presidential elections are important, but state and local officials have more control over what happens in your neighbourhood and daily lives than the President does. Be an informed voter and participate in every election. Get to know your state and local elected officials. If they are not working for you, help replace them, and perhaps be the person who replaces them.
Last, and this is very important, since many of the Freethought Equality Fund endorsed candidates and secular elected officials are new to our community, they need to get to know us better. If you are a member of an atheist or humanist group, invite these candidates to speak at one of your events. Also, nonprofit groups can be politically active while retaining their tax exempt status – see our resource page for what nonprofits can and cannot do in the electoral arena.
Any closing thoughts or feelings based on the discussion today?
I urge members of our community to use their time and talents to become politically engaged. Be visible as a secular American in the electoral area and build a political network of friends and allies. Then select an elected or appointed office that seems attainable — and run for that office. You can also run, even if the seat is unattainable, to promote issues that are important to you and to build the visibility for our community. Please be active and visible – this is the only way we can make our Constitutional protection that no religious test (Article VI, Clause 3) can be imposed for public office a reality.
Thank you for your time, Ron.
Thank you for doing the interview.