Ayn’t You Glad?

A brief comment on this morning’s (er, last night’s) events: I’d really like to thank Mitt Romney for selecting a politician who identifies with a religious minority to run alongside him in November. Objectivists have been heartlessly maligned by our industrio-capitalist society ever since the Messiah Ayn Rand left us mortals with only Peter (Alan Greenspan) and Paul (Leonard Peikoff) to propagate her legacy.

Actually, GOP VP-nominee (that’s painfully catchy) Paul Ryan does in fact belong to a minority religious affiliation, albeit one that isn’t without pretty significant influence and trust in today’s America: like Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum before him, he’s Roman Catholic. He actually represents an interesting alternative to Newt and Rick, though, as his speeches are far more often peppered with reverence for the Atlas Shrugged author and how she inspires his “fiscal responisibility” platform than they are with appeals to Pope Benedict or condemnations of abortion.

Nevertheless, Ryan is rated a 0% both by NARAL on women’s reproductive rights and by the Human Rights Campaign on LGBT advocacy.

Almost certain he tried to sell me insurance once.

Again, naturally, this is an election year where the economy is the issue de force. Which makes Romney’s selection, a fellow whose faithful devotion to his fiscal philosophy even led him to require his staffers to read Rand’s holy magnum opus, even more unsettling for those of us who support socioeconomic equality and class restructuring. Oddly, the only time Ryan falls back on his Catholic faith is when challenged as a Randroid, where essentially he dismisses the notion that his economic philosophy is centered in cold, hard isolationism (painted with the bright colors of “responsibility”) and holds that he derives his values from Thomas Aquinas.

Fair enough. Although, Aquinas asked that we “beware of the person of one book.” And, of course, that we worship capital-R Reason, and the individual will is the path to salvation, and that a just price is dependent on the costs of production and not the collective needs of society. Perhaps our “future VP” is just afraid of aligning himself with the “A”-word?

Keep pedaling, James Taggart. Er, I mean, Bruce Wayne. Er, I mean, Paul.

Walker Bristol grew up in southeastern North Carolina, in a town somewhat known for being the principal filming location of Dawson’s Creek (his parents, and reality, insist that his brother Dawson was born and named prior to the show’s pilot). He escaped to Boston when he was 17, and now serves Italian food and studies religion and linguistics at Tufts University. He wrestled in high school, but now mostly ballroom dances and jams on the piano with the rest of the Tufts Freethought Society. For the first decade of his life, Walker believed “incorrectly” that he was living in the Star Wars universe. Having never been to space, he remains agnostic on that question.


Newsreel 2/11

  • Rick Santorum gained momentum this week by taking three caucus states in one fell swoop. While many still take Romney as the inevitable Republican nominee, this shows that race is far from over. Especially when Gingrich, who at this point has only won one state, has promised to not drop until the bitter end
  • In spite of the beating that Romney took earlier in the week, today it looks like he might be regaining some momentum after pulling out a win in Maine. Ron Paul, though, the only potential GOP candidate still in the race to not yet win a state, won 36% of the vote putting him just 3% behind Romney’s 39%. It seems that Paul isn’t going down without a fight.  
  • On top of his win in Maine today, Romney also won the CPAC straw poll. My gut tells me, though, this has less to do with the party actually liking him, but more as a pragmatic step that the GOP is making to make sure that they actually have a fighting chance against Obama. Mitt just can’t seem to catch a break.  
  • In other news, Obama has come to a compromise on the issue of the government mandate for all employers to cover contraception for their employees. This comes loud opposition by Catholics (and, later, the backing of many Evangelicals), who claimed that this trampled their religious freedoms.
  • Obama also has signed an executive order for the expansion of government collaboration with faith-based organizations by building upon the Office of Faith Based and NeighborhoodPartnerships started under the Bush administration. It’s still unclear, though, whether or not he is going to keep his promise to attach strings to that money that require that any organization taking government dollars to not discriminate grounds in their hiring practices against those of a different faith or no faith at all. Bush allowed it and Obama at least claimed on the campaign trail that he wouldn’t. He’s yet to act on that promise, though.
  • This last one is completely and totally off topic but there was an awesome piece for the New York Times written by a philosopher out of Notre Dame named Gary Getting entitled “How to Argue About Politics” that came out a couple weeks ago. I know on the internet if it’s more than 5 hours old it’s old news, but it’s a fantastic piece none that everyone should take to heart when discussing politics. Seriously. I’m pretty sure most of the problems we have today in this country could be solved by taking the lessons of this piece to heart. 

Newsreel 01/28

  • This week’s South Carolina Primary saw New Gingrich emerge in a landslide victory over Mitt Romney and the rest of the runners in the race-to-race-against-Obama. Pew Forum released an exit report on the religious breakdown of the voters, noting that Gingrich took both the evangelical vote and that of those who consider it important that a candidate shares their religious views (curious, as Gingrich is a former-evangelical now-Catholic).
  • Writing on the South Carolina primary, president of the Secular Coalition for America Dr. Herb Silverman contributed a piece to the HuffPo citizens coverage of the 2012 race on Stephen Colbert’s endorsement of Herman Cain.
  • Mitt released his tax returns this week, revealing that he gives $20 million dollars annually to the Mormon church. WaPo columnist Lisa Miller points to this and a number of (ahem…biased) sources to suggest that religious people are, on the whole, more generous. Barring a simple correlation-causation mistake, I think it’s beyond silly to say, as she does, that someone might be “nicer” simply because they ascribe to specific faith tradition. Do you think she’s onto something?
  • On the topic of the Romulan family, a piece in Gawker looks at the conversion of Mitt’s father-in-law from “staunch atheism” to Mormonism.
  • In the 18,431,235th Republican presidential debate of this election cycle, GOP candidates discussed how their religious beliefs will or should affect their roles as president.
  • Turning our attention briefly away from the fiery-topic GOP race, the Obama administration, in addition to delivering this year’s State of the Union address, upheld a health care mandate requiring almost all employers’ insurance plans– including many Catholic organizations, which met criticism– to provide contraceptive services to women at no cost. Analysts worry that this might pose an obstacle to the Catholic votership as the incumbent president seeks reelection. Small price for women’s reproductive freedom, if you ask me.
  • And finally, a bit off-topic: Seemingly in an effort to garner support for the forthcoming Florida primary, Newt Gingrich, in all his scientific credibility, revived a Bush II promise that, if elected, he’d annex a new state by the end of 2020: on the moon. Without increasing NASA’s budget. In a time of financial austerity. A number of astrophysicists weighed in on the economic near-impossibility of the idea, but here’s everyone’s favorite, Neil DeGrasse Tyson, who notes that, if possible, “the world” ought to have a moon base, to “push civilization as a whole forward in a way we never imagined before.”

Who cares about religious minority candidates?

Short answer: I do, and I think maybe you should too!

Hi and welcome back to Unelectables! I’m super pumped and grateful at the opportunity to join my friend Chelsea and our other awesome collaborators here to talk about the roles and fates of religious minorities in the 2012 elections. With this campaign season really just starting to heat up, I think I can afford to take a few minutes and devote my first post to a Big Question: just why do we care whether religious minorities (that is, people who aren’t mainstream Christians) get elected to public office? To some of us it seems pretty much self-evident that candidates’ electability should have very little to do with their religious affiliations. But let’s just say that others may disagree. I know this post won’t resolve that disagreement, but it should at least let you know just where I’m coming from when I write about religious minorities in politics. It should also lay the groundwork for my future discussions of the legal challenges, policy considerations, and electoral dynamics at the riotous intersection of faith and American politics.

To date, most of my thinking on electability has focused on racial minority candidates (with Matthew Platt‘s guidance, I wrote my undergrad thesis on racialized campaign messaging and legislative activity among black House members). This post will lean heavily on ideas from that branch of political science scholarship. A lot of the minority representation literature talks about “descriptive representation,” where a group defined by some characteristic (e.g. transgender identity, Korean ancestry, Team Jacob tattoos) is represented in the public decision-making process by someone who shares that characteristic. The benefits of this type of arrangement can generally be divided into two categories: policy benefits and non-policy benefits.

Let’s start with the policy benefits of descriptive representation. The idea that you can make good legislative or executive decisions for an identity group if you’re a member of that group makes some intuitive sense…but, perhaps unsurprisingly, applying that idea to any particular group quickly gets tricky. First, it can be hard to define what’s in a group’s interest: does it make sense to try and determine Exactly What’s Good For Black People or Exactly What’s Good For Women? Certainly not in an exclusive sense, because both those categories include very diverse people. Indeed, even those of us who like to think of ourselves as crazy-progressive, it can take a lot of careful attention to think about women’s policy interests or black policy interests without relying on a reductive notion of what it means to be a black person or a woman. It’s not impossible to come up with a rationale for unified group interests; for example, I think Tommie Shelby‘s done a terrific job of laying out why it might be in most any black American politician’s rational self-interest to try and address the lingering effects of historical injustices that harm some black people (even if the politicians in question have in large part managed to transcend those effects themselves) instead of focusing solely on continued institutional racism. But, clearly, it can be tough to define group interests in every case. And if you can get a good sense of what’s good for ____ people, then do you have to have a ____ person in office to put those ideas into practice? I wouldn’t necessarily assume so, at least not in every case. I would say that if you have a group with fairly well-defined interests, then it seems like a representative member of that group is as good a person as any to give voice to those interests, since that member can use their own self-interest as a guide.

To bring it back to our particular brand of unelectables, those in the religious minority: Identifying the policy benefits for non-mainstream-Christian citizens of electing non-mainstream-Christian officials seems like it should be relatively easy. If the defining characteristic of an identity group is a set of ideas about history and morality, you’d think it’d be pretty easy to work out that group’s policy preferences. Of course it’s not that simple; not every religious text takes a crystal-clear stance on the constitutionality of Obamacare’s individual mandate. And even on issues that have come to be defined in large part by the religion-intensive debates around them, two practitioners of the same faith won’t always come to the same conclusion. There is something to be said for the idea that a member of a religious minority might have a bit of extra incentive to defend what he or she sees as free practice and freedom from establishment of religion, but beyond that it’s hard to generalize too much.

So maybe it’d be a good idea to move on to a discussion of the non-policy benefits of having religious minority officials around. Aside from having someone who generally agrees with you calling the shots, why might you want somebody who believes or unbelieves what you believe or unbelieve in office? To some extent, it depends on the societal status of your religious or non-religious group. In general, it seems like having a government whose demographic makeup roughly matches that of the governed is a good sign that the electoral system is functioning properly; if certain significant groups of people are dramatically underrepresented in the ranks of the ruling class, it suggests pretty strongly that the group’s political opportunities and/or aspirations are somehow systematically limited. That can create or intensify social resentment and political withdrawal among members of the underrepresented group. Descriptive representation, on the other hand, helps combat that alienation; it’s been shown to promote feelings of political efficacy and satisfaction with policy outcomes, motivate people to get informed about their representatives, and even increase voter turnout.

Although the effect undoubtedly varies for members of different groups, there are certainly religious minority citizens who could benefit from a boost in feelings of political security. I don’t think it’s too much of an exaggeration for Chelsea to describe atheist politicians as practically “unelectable” considering the representation gap at the federal level: the roughly 6% of Americans who believe that there is no God or other universal higher power are represented by about 0.002% of Congress (his name is Pete Stark). And then there are American Muslims, who get slightly better representation (two MCs!) but also have to put up with rampant distrust from such diverse parties as presidential hopefuls, home improvement empires and, well, about half of everybody else. I for one would be very happy to see the political fortunes of Muslim candidates and other religious minorities match the majority’s a little more closely.

So. There’s a not-so-brief outline of what all I’m doing here. I recognize that it’s by no means a complete account of the benefits of religious minority politics, but if you think I’ve made any particularly egregious omissions or errors, please please comment away! If you’ve made it this far, Happy MLK Day, and see you next time.

[Housekeeping: In my dreams I blog like a cross between Nate Silver (with fewer numbers) and Ari Ezra Waldman (with fewer law degrees), plus a bit of Ryan North thrown in for color. But my blog muscles are a little rusty (see? that chatty little metaphor was all kinds of mixed). It’s been a while since my LiveJournal days, after all, and most of that while has found me writing college papers or reading legal memos. So I hope you’ll bear with me (and let me know in the comments!) if I get too wonky or otherwise underentertaining every once in a while. In the meantime, I’m just looking forward to spending from now till November in fun and exciting conversations with my collaborators and, if I’m lucky, even a few readers.]

Sean Cuddihy is a real estate practice assistant living in Washington, DC. He spends his days helping attorneys help companies manage their affordable housing investments, and his nights mentally preparing himself to apply to law school (a.k.a. watching Netflix with his partner) or exploring his new city (a.k.a. trying to figure out where to buy a grocery cart). Before that, he was a student at Harvard College, where he wrote a thesis on race in Congressional campaign advertising, argued with fellow members of The Crimson’s editorial board, and played baritone horn with his friends in the (undefeated!) Harvard University Band. Before that, he was an Eagle Scout from a big public high school in Orlando, and in some ways he probably always will be.


http://wikimommy.net/wp-content/uploads/2011/03/shower.jpgThis 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.