An incredible video went up on YouTube yesterday, in which a man named Jacob Kramer asks Representative Joe Walsh, who is running for re-election in Kramer’s district, the following simple question: “How will you represent your atheist voters?”
I watched all five minutes and thirty-eight seconds of this video, which was filmed at a town hall event that Rep. Walsh offered for his constituents, with my jaw firmly planted on the floor – but not for any of the reasons I usually drop my jaw. In this video, there is no yelling. There is no name-calling. There is no whining. There is no condescension. There is no wild-eyed terror. There is no weeping or gnashing of teeth. This video flows with milk and honey and dignity and respect and competence and maturity and reasonable, constructive dialogue.
That’s it. I’m officially converted – I’ve witnessed a bona fide miracle.
Jacob Kramer serves as the Vice President of Outreach for the newly formed National Atheist Party. (This happens to be the exact position that I hold on the board of the equally influential Harvard Secular Society. Coincidence? I think not!) The NAP, founded last March by Troy Boyle, stands for a firm separation of church and state.
And, contrary to what the Pope would have you believe about “radical secularists,” the NAP truly doesn’t want the government to favor any religious viewpoint – including non-religious ones. “We don’t want government to impose a religion,” Boyle explained in an interview, “and we don’t want government to impose no religion.”
Some, like Hemant Mehta of the Friendly Atheist blog, have been skeptical of the NAP’s usefulness. In addition to the unfortunately somnolent acronym, Mehta mentions the NAP’s positions on a whole host of non-theological issues – from gay marriage to gun control – as a downside. Not the positions themselves, that is, but the simple fact that the NAP has taken positions on issues other than the existence of god(s). Although Mehta happens to agree with all of NAP’s declared positions on these issues, he explains, “it’s crazy to imply that all atheists feel the same way. Or that we should feel the same way.” Even support for church-state separation, Mehta suggests, might be an unwarranted extrapolation from the simple belief in a godless universe.
However, Mehta is quick to (rightly) point out that simply showing the atheists of America that they’re not alone is “a big freaking deal,” and he commends the NAP for at least partly uniting an often fragmented group. He also remarks – playfully highlighting a painfully real problem – that perhaps the best thing the NAP can do to create a more atheist-friendly country is to publicly endorse an atheist-unfriendly candidate (Mehta suggests Rick Santorum), thereby ending that unlucky person’s political career by branding them with the unelectable scarlet A.
But I think the NAP can do more than ironically humiliate evangelical politicians and remind people that atheists exist. The video of Jacob Kramer and Joe Walsh demonstrates the power that we can have if we organize. Free Inquiry editor Tom Flynn demanded years ago that atheists “start punching our weight.” But, as this video reveals, our true power lies not in our fists, but in what we can accomplish when we unclench them.
I obviously disagree strongly with the majority of Rep. Walsh’s response to Kramer’s question, but I’m incredibly impressed with the tone of this conversation, on both sides. Rep. Walsh may be a poor constitutional interpreter, but he should be commended for his sincere attempt to honestly and fairly engage all of his constituents in reasonable discussion. And Kramer clearly deserves props for bringing these issues up publicly, and for doing so in a manner that encourages constructive dialogue instead of starting yet another futile shouting match.
These are the types of conversations we need to be having with all our elected officials, because these are the conversations that will actually get us somewhere. If all the NAP did was record and publicize five-minute discussions like this one with every congressperson, they would immediately advance the public discourse on religion and government far more than any other party has in years.
As for the NAP’s actual platform, I’m not sure it’s as much of an extrapolation as Mehta argues. Inasmuch as a whole lot of hot political issues stem from people’s religious beliefs, it’s entirely reasonable to believe that certain positions on such issues could follow from non-religious beliefs as well. Although I agree that the NAP might be straying into unorthodox territory with some of their policies (I’m unclear on what godlessness tells us about the economy, for example), and while I’m well aware that there are always exceptions to the rules (my friend Kelly, who held my Harvard Secular Society board position before me, is pro-life), I think you’ll be hard-pressed to find an atheist who wants the state to apply different marriage rules to different couples based on their gender composition. Of course atheists will differ on whether to provide equal marriage rights or abolish marriage altogether as a government institution and stick with civil unions, but that’s the same kind of diversity you will see within any political party. The take-home message here is that the NAP isn’t necessarily overstepping its bounds by taking positions on religiously-influenced political issues.
Finally, I think the NAP possesses significant potential in another realm that has not yet been recognized by either the media or the NAP itself. Although they may be the strangest of bedfellows, the NAP could be the next great ally of the interfaith movement. Of course this is where the ostensibly extraneous parts of their platform could get in the way, but if the NAP is serious about sticking to its core purpose of firmly separating church from state, its goals and methods should significantly overlap with those of interfaith organizations like the Interfaith Youth Core. And the respectful conversation between Kramer and Rep. Walsh is like an interfaith organizer’s wet dream. I’m skeptical that this cooperative potential will be harnessed, but stranger things have happened.
Small parties like the NAP frequently pop up for a few years and then die out, much like the vast majority of organisms in the history of Earth. But I believe the NAP has the potential to truly “evolve our politics,” just as they promise.
Chelsea Link is a senior at Harvard University, studying History and Science with a focus in the history of medicine. She is a panelist for NonProphet Status, and is documenting her attempt to read the Bible in a year at Blogging Biblically. She is also the Vice President of Outreach of the Harvard Secular Society, the former President of the Harvard College Interfaith Council, and a Volunteer Ambassador for the Be the Match bone marrow donor registry. She likes to cook while pretending she’s on Top Chef (hasty breakfast? more like Quickfire Challenge!), adores word games of all kinds (and was once the President of the illustrious Harvard College Crossword Society), and tends to kill the mood at parties by unnecessarily reciting Shakespeare. Last summer, she interned at the Humanist Chaplaincy at Harvard. You can ask her what she’s doing after graduation, but she’ll give you a different answer every time.