The Secular Movement Can Reshape Public Policy

Despite diverse views, seculars will change the political landscape.

Posted Oct 14, 2012

With a new survey from Pew showing that about one in five Americans are now religiously unaffiliated, it would be reasonable to ask what impact, if any, the rapidly growing secular movement will have on public policy. (Among those under 30, the percentage is even higher: one in three.) This enormous demographic, silent for so long, is finding its voice, and the fallout could be significant.

Mistakenly, some have suggested that seculars are too diverse to convey a cohesive political message. Because nonbelievers are independent-minded and cover the entire political spectrum, some pundits say the movement will never gain political traction. "The very notion of uniting nonbelievers behind a common cause is pretty much an oxymoron," writes Dana Milbank of the Washington Post, reflecting the predictable cynicism of a seasoned D.C. journalist, but also a surprising level of naivety.

Consider, for example, that this expectation of political unity seems to apply only to seculars. Surely few would dismiss the women’s movement so quickly, even though the women’s vote is usually split more or less evenly among candidates (48 percent of women voted for George W. Bush in 2004, for example). The LGBT movement, meanwhile, has seen much progress even as “conservative” gays fill the ranks of Log Cabin Republicans. And similar political differences are common within most racial and ethnic groups, despite common generalizations to the contrary.

All these minorities have seen effective identity-based movements even as their members have disagreed on political specifics, because each movement has carried a central message that resonates despite those differences. And the same can be said for the secular movement, driven by an increasingly identity-conscious demographic that is demanding long-overdue recognition. The eleven groups comprising the Secular Coalition for America, for example, include members that run the gamut from left to right, but all share a common vision of an America that embraces reason-based values.

So how might the secular movement play out in public policy? Here are a few areas where the effects of the rising tide of seculars will likely be seen:

Electoral Politics: Texas Governor Rick Perry launched his presidential campaign last year with a prayer rally, an event that was striking evidence of how the religious right has changed the political calculus. A decade or two ago, it would have been suicidal – even in the GOP – to initiate a presidential campaign with a fundamentalist prayer rally filling a football stadium. But this tactic proved to be smart for Perry, who was soon thereafter on top of the GOP polls. (He subsequently proved to be an inept candidate, but the fact remains, sadly, that the prayer rally was politically effective.)

In the realm of politics, the rise of the religious right has resulted in increasing numbers of candidates who proudly profess anti-intellectual, fundamentalist Christian views. Candidates who vocally reject evolution, for example, are now routinely elected to Congress, and we even see them touted as presidential prospects – Michele Bachmann, Mike Huckabee, Rick Perry, and Sarah Palin, for example.

Thus, one outcome of a successful secular movement would be an influx of reason and sanity into the realm of electoral politics. The emergence of the secular demographic would necessarily diminish the political appeal of biblical literalism and brazen anti-intellectualism.

Education: The religious right’s impact on public education in America has been disastrous. Whereas most of the developed world strives for accurate science education and critical thinking, American school boards and administrations, so often under the influence of religious activists, will instead focus on obstructing evolution education, inserting creationism into science curricula, rewriting history to conform to fundamentalist views, and inserting prayer into schools.

Religious conservative leaders have unabashedly declared that their goal is to dismantle public education in America, because the pluralistic, tolerant values taught in public schools too often contradict their harsh biblical worldview. As such, we shouldn’t be surprised that the quality of public education has eroded after three decades of religious right ascendance.

Thus, with a more influential secular demographic, America can expect to see progress in the area of education. As secular voices are heard more often, education and critical thinking can become true American values.

The Environment: Many Americans correctly assume that the primary opposition to environmental regulation often comes from major industries, but what most don’t know is that grassroots opposition to rational environmental policy often originates in the religious right. Fundamentalist Christians, citing the Bible, often insist that God has given humans dominion over the earth, and that public policy aimed at limiting exploitation of resources, addressing global warming, or otherwise encouraging sustainability, is unnecessary, probably a liberal conspiracy. This is why, as I explain in my book Nonbeliever Nation, major corporate interests that oppose environmentalism have often found fundamentalist religious groups to be valuable political allies.

Thus, a successful secular movement should provide a more effective counterweight to religion-based opposition to environmentalism.

Social policy: Years ago it seemed that abortion was the hot-button social issue, but in recent years the agenda of the religious right has gotten much more ambitious. Now they want to talk about birth control. It’s hard to believe that safe and affordable birth control – surely one of the most revolutionary and potentially beneficial technologies of all time – would become controversial in this day and age, but that’s exactly what is happening in modern America. Rick Santorum, a conservative Catholic who stands a realistic chance of someday being his party’s presidential candidate, calls birth control an evil, parroting the official Vatican position. This is just one example of how the religious right tries to shape public policy not according to reason and science, but theological preferences. (Of course, LGBT rights is another, and abstinence-only sex education yet another).

Thus, the secular emergence will result in social policies emphasizing health, accurate science, and personal freedom – not theology.

This list could easily go on. Corporate power, economic policy, war and peace – all of these are issues that, at some level at least, have felt the negative influence of the religious right. As the secular movement gains momentum, even without internal unanimity, we can expect these policy areas to reflect its influence.


Nonbeliever Nation: The Rise of Secular Americans, is available here.

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