The R/evolution Will Be Televised…on YouTube.

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. 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.


Newsreel 01/22

Newsreel 01/07

In the news this week…

  • The big news item of the week is, of course, the Iowa Caucus, where Romney squeezed out Santorum (I’m sorry, I couldn’t resist) by just eight votes.
  • …Or did he? Some statisticians have rightly pointed out that eight votes is well within the margin of error for an election of this magnitude, especially one counted by hand, so it would probably be more accurate to say that Romney and Santorum tied.
  • After finishing in sixth place, Michele Bachmann dropped out. Jena McGregor writes, for the Washington Post On Leadership blog, that Iowa Republicans weren’t ready to elect a woman, so “it was Rick Santorum who walked away with the evangelical vote.”
  • Ralph Reed at CNN’s Belief Blog disagrees, arguing that “Iowa caucus results puncture myth of ‘evangelical vote,’” revealing evangelical voters to be more complex, sophisticated, and diverse than they’ve been made out to be – and therefore, perhaps, less influential of a voting bloc.
  • Despite his (sort of) win in Iowa, Romney still faces anti-Mormon rhetoric from within his party. Judy Manning, a Republican George State Representative, said outright this week that although Romney is “a nice man,” she is “afraid of his Mormon faith” – but, of course, “It’s better than a Muslim.” In the same article, she is also quoted using the word “pluralism” to mean “polygamy.” It’s definitely worth a read for that gem alone.
  • In another article, Georgia’s crazy-lady-in-residence also claimed (incorrectly) that Mitt Romney had performed over a hundred same-sex marriages while governing Massachusetts.
  • Speaking of polygamy and sex-sex marriages, Rick Santorum can’t tell the difference and thinks both are terrible.
  • During a radio interview with Santorum, the interviewer commented that “we don’t need a Jesus candidate; we need an economic candidate.” Santorum responded defiantly, “We always need a Jesus candidate.
  • And the Jesus candidate we need is, of course, Rick Santorum – who, as Dean Obeidallah compellingly argues in a CNN opinion piece, essentially wants to impose a Judeo-Christian version of Sharia law. Oh, the irony.
  • And speaking of irony, we’ll wrap up with this piece of candy: a Florida Republican man recently ran for his local Republican Party Executive Committee and was shut out for being Muslim and, therefore, a terrorist.

Did you spot a story we missed? Share it in the comments!

Genesis blog started with a shower.

I like showering. I like it a lot. Firstly, because cleanliness is next to godliness, and I have to compensate somehow. Secondly, I do most of my real thinking in the shower. I spend the majority of my day reacting to stimuli with minimal intermediate processing. But every morning, there’s this brief, magical interlude – though not as brief as my roommates would like – when I outline all my papers in my head, scrub away yesterday’s congealed curl products, and occasionally have a decent idea or two.

During one such steamy meditation a couple of months ago, I was reflecting on the big scary future that I’m told lies beyond graduation. This mythical land was far from my thoughts when I declared my major in that most marketable of fields, the History of Science. For most of my senior year, I’ve been floating from one nebulous career idea to the next. I usually rotate, in 24-to-48-hour cycles, through a variety of jobs which either don’t exist anymore (landed gentry, journalist), probably never existed at all (who are the elusive “usage commentators” constantly alluded to in etymological dictionaries, and how do I become one?), are completely different from my television-inspired ideas about them (FBI profiler, Top Chef), or are entirely beyond my qualifications and experience (epidemiologist, fromagier, trophy wife).

My boyfriend hasn’t quite given up on my law career (“But you love telling people why they’re wrong”), but he does his best to assist in my career musings. “Why not public health policy?” he suggested once. “You could do research and then tell lawmakers what to do. You love telling people what to do.”

It was this idea that seeded my contemplations on the morning in question. I do love telling people what to do, but it’s frustrating when they don’t listen to my brilliant ideas. Since I have all the answers anyway, I might as well be the decider. In my shower fantasy, I would be a down-to-earth, no-nonsense Congressperson. I would fix healthcare. And I would run the Congressional Party Planning Committee.

I know I would hate to actually be involved in politics. Politics is frustrating in all the same ways as a traffic jam. It would be like a nightmare where you’re just commuting all the time. Still, even in the unrealistic fantasy world in which politics is intellectually stimulating instead of maddening, I felt deflated when I realized that I am fundamentally, undeniably, irrevocably unelectable. My whiteness probably makes up for my vagina, but nothing can make up for the fact that I do not believe in God.

This doesn’t inconvenience me too much since I would never attempt a political career in real life anyway. But it struck me, while sudsing up my loofah, just how unfair my situation was. I shouldn’t have to hold specific beliefs about the supernatural – or to lie about them – in order to participate in my country’s elected government. I started wondering how many atheists have run for office, how many have succeeded, and what the role of atheism would be in the 2012 election. And since the atheist blogosphere has taught me that any thought an atheist ever has is blog-worthy, I decided to go public with this idea. (Did you know that blogosphere is accepted by Word as a correctly spelled word? I didn’t.)

Before my hair had even dried, I was furiously Googling and contacting non-religious organizations such as the American Humanist Association and the Secular Coalition for America, asking for tips on non-religious politicians. The responses I received mentioned only the two I already knew: Pete Stark, a California Democrat in the House of Representatives and the only open atheist in Congress, and Cecil Bothwell, a member of the City Council of Asheville, North Carolina. All I learned was that the AHA claims to know of over twenty non-religious Congresspeople who keep their heterodoxy in the closet for fear of ending their political careers.

Due in part to this shortage of openly atheist politicians (and my unwillingness to ferret out the closeted ones), and in part to the similar political positions of atheists and other religious minorities, my friend Walker suggested expanding the blog concept to include other “unelectable” candidates. Although I look forward to the day when there are enough atheists in politics to sustain a blog of their own, I yield to Walker’s wisdom.

And so, I present you with The Unelectables, an exploration of the role of religion in United States politics, viewed through the lens of the 2012 election and the candidates whose religious and non-religious beliefs place them in the often unelectable minority.

I am honored that three of my coolest friends have signed on to my random shower idea as co-authors. Walker Bristol, who had the vision to tell a bigger story, is a sophomore at Tufts University, a leader of the Tufts Freethought Society, a panelist for NonProphet Status, and a student intern at the Humanist Chaplaincy at Harvard. Chelsey Faloona, who has a fantastic first name even if it is spelled wrong, is a student at George Washington University (she’s smart enough to graduate in three years, so I don’t know whether to call her a sophomore or a junior), and knows more about U.S. political history than I have ever known about anything. Adam Garner is a senior at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, a leader of Interfaith in Action at UIUC, my fellow Better Together Campaign coach with the Interfaith Youth Core, and a vegetarian who hates vegetables.

Welcome to The Unelectables, where we dream of a world in which nobody has to lie about their beliefs in order to hold office. We hope you enjoy your stay!

Chelsea Link is a senior at Harvard University, studying History and Science with a focus in the history of medicine, and minoring in Mind/Brain/Behavior. She is the Vice President of Outreach of the Harvard Secular Society, and the former President of the Harvard College Interfaith Council. She also writes for the Harvard Brain and volunteers with 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. This 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.