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Make Room for Freethinkers on Capitol Hill

New congressional caucus promotes reason, science and secularism

Photo courtesy of Secular Coalition for America, used with permission.
Rep. Jared Huffman (D-CA) speaks to secular voters in Washington last week at the Secular Coalition for America's Lobby Day event.
Source: Photo courtesy of Secular Coalition for America, used with permission.

In politics and government, interest groups typically need some level of popularity and respectability in order to exert influence. As such, today's public announcement by Rep. Jared Huffman (D-CA) of the formation of the first-ever Congressional Freethought Caucus is particularly noteworthy.

That's right, a Freethought Caucus. Of all the constituencies known for wielding clout in Washington, freethinkers have never been among them. But with the percentage of Americans rejecting traditional religion growing steadily, that is now changing. The secular demographic is flexing political muscle—a result of unprecedented popularity and respectability—that is evidenced by the fact that sitting members of Congress are now caucusing under the freethought umbrella.

Huffman, who is openly nontheistic and a well-known advocate for science-based policy, said the mission of the Congressional Freethought Caucus will be fourfold:

  • Promoting public policy based on reason, science, and moral values.
  • Protecting the secular character of government.
  • Opposing discrimination against atheists, agnostics, humanists, seekers, and the nonreligious.
  • Providing a forum for members of Congress to discuss morals, values, and personal religious journeys.

Secular leaders are applauding this development. Roy Speckhardt, executive director of the American Humanist Association, called the caucus "a potential game-changer" for nontheists and nonreligious Americans, predicting that it will result in a significant increase in lawmakers at all levels being willing to openly identify as humanist, nonreligious, or another secular identity. Larry Decker, executive director of the Secular Coalition for America, said the caucus is "a powerful blow against the de facto religious test that keeps so many secular Americans from seeking public office."

The Freethought Caucus, with its emphasis on secularism and reason, can be contrasted with the with the well-established Congressional Prayer Caucus, which promotes the policy agenda of the Christian right. The Prayer Caucus has endorsed measures that would require "In God We Trust" signs in all public buildings, for example, and to eliminate federal court jurisdiction on church-state cases. It claims prayer plays a "vital role" in "uniting us as a people," apparently oblivious to the millions of Americans who do not pray or, at a minimum, don't want their government to be in the prayer business. As a counter to the Prayer Caucus sentiment of emphasizing religion in government, Huffman has put forward a resolution to declare May 3 (which is currently slated as the official National Day of Prayer) as a National Day of Reason.

The growing power of the religious right is one reason that many nonreligious Americans are so eager to see secularity more visible, especially in the realm of politics. The AHA's advocacy arm, the Center for Freethought Equality, which supports openly secular candidates and others who defend issues important to secular Americans, recognized that demand and supported Huffman, along with representatives Jamie Raskin (D-MD), Dan Kildee (D-MI), and Jerry McNerney (D-CA), in the effort to create the caucus. (Full disclosure: this writer serves as the AHA's legal director.)

The notion that atheists, agnostics, and freethinkers could point to a formal group of congressional representatives who are actually interested in protecting their interests, affirmatively opposing the religious agenda of well-funded Christian right groups, is unprecedented. Time will tell whether this new caucus helps freethinking to proliferate on Capitol Hill and beyond.

Follow David Niose on Twitter: @ahadave

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