Secular Americans, long ignored in the realm of politics, are finally starting to be seen as a group to be reckoned with. In a sign of the nonreligious sector's growing numbers and political muscle, a resolution validating the group was enthusiastically passed by the influential LGBT Caucus at the Democratic National Convention in July. The resolution recognizes the “value, ethical soundness, and importance of the religiously unaffiliated demographic” and states that the nonreligious “are a group that, as much as any other, advocates for rational public policy based on sound science and universal humanistic values.” The full resolution can be seen here.
No major party or caucus has ever so expressly acknowledged the importance of the nonreligious sector (sometimes referred to as the "Nones," for answering "none" on surveys asking for religious affiliation). Put forward by Massachusetts Democratic activist Stephen Driscoll, the resolution calls the Nones “important partners with the LGBT community in the fight against religious privilege and religion-based discrimination, which represents the next great civil rights battle.”
Those last words are key. With claims of “religious freedom” increasingly being used by religious conservatives to deny equality to the LGBT community, the value of the nonreligious demographic, which tends to be highly skeptical of religion as a tool for discrimination, becomes apparent. As Larry Decker of the Secular Coalition for America explains, “Now that the same-sex marriage issue is resolved, the next big battle for the gay rights movement is the issue of religious privilege.”
The issue has become a top priority for Decker and the SCA (full disclosure: I sit on the SCA board) and, as the resolution shows, LGBT activists are now starting to see that the growing secular demographic helps to push back against religious conservatives who oppose LGBT equality. A weaker religious right is a natural outcome of an expanding, increasingly visible and engaged nonreligious sector. An America where being openly nonreligious is considered as ethically valid as being deeply religious, where candidates need not claim religious affiliation to impress voters, is the Christian right's worst nightmare.
The LGBT Democrats' resolution is especially significant when one considers that few areas of society have traditionally been more unwelcoming to nonreligious Americans than the sphere of politics. Even as demographics are trending secular—the nonreligious sector has tripled in the last two decades to almost one in four Americans, and is even higher among younger people—the political realm has remained encircled by what might be called a fence of piety, where all who enter must accept the strange role that religion plays in matters electoral and governmental.
This fence of piety has long baffled and frustrated secular activists. Ordinary Americans who rarely go to church, who roll with laughter watching Monty Python or George Carlin skewer organized religion and regularly enjoy music and films that would be considered blasphemous by the standards of most major religions, are nevertheless conditioned to accept that their politicians will bow to the importance of religion. Even many among the nonreligious hardly notice anymore as conservative Christian politicians insist that the United States is a "Christian nation," and of course we all expect that politicians will end virtually every speech with “God bless America.”
Despite efforts by groups such as the Secular Coalition for America and the Center for Freethought Equality to chip away at the fence of piety, few politicians are willing to wear religious skepticism on their sleeve. Exhibit one in this regard is the recently revealed scheme of certain Democratic Party leaders to discredit Bernie Sanders by casting allegations of atheism against him. Sanders, whom many believe would identify openly as a secular humanist if doing so wasn't a political liability, was careful to call religion “a guiding principle in my life” during the presidential campaign.
Giving religion an exalted place in politics is problematic in other ways as well, one being that to some it will reinforce the idea that claims of "religious freedom" might actually have some validity, even when raised for the purpose of discrimination.
All of this explains why more political activists are starting to see the relevance of the emerging secular demographic. "I believe that this was a first and significant step toward open and welcome participation by secular Americans in the Democratic Party," Driscoll said after the resolution passed. "I was surprised and delighted by all the thumbs up and encouragement my secular signs received from delegates on the convention floor."
If all Americans are frequently reminded that religion is not even needed for morality, that nonbelievers are important contributors to society, then it becomes much harder to justify discrimination—such as, for example, refusing to serve customers because they are gay—on the basis of it being rooted in religious belief. The religious can have their various theologies, but they must play by the rules and treat everyone else with dignity. It's encouraging that many are starting to see that an open, respected secular demographic helps provide reinforcement for that idea.