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

Words are Important or; Why Everyone you Disagree With isn’t a Terrorist

While my next couple posts will focus on the different ways that Muslims have been actively involved in politics both at the state and national level, this week I wanted to comment on a controversial claim that Rick Perry made during the GOP primary debate on Monday night in South Carolina. During the section on foreign policy, Perry was asked the following question:

“Since the Islamist-oriented party took over in Turkey, the murder rate of women has increased 1,400 percent there. Press freedom has declined to the level of Russia. The prime minister of Turkey has embraced Hamas and Turkey has threatened military force against both Israel and Cypress. Given Turkey’s turn, do you believe Turkey still belongs in NATO?”

Perry responded by saying:

“Well, obviously when you have a country that is being ruled by, what many would perceive to be Islamic terrorists, when you start seeing that type of activity against their own citizens, then yes. Not only is it time for us to have a conversation about whether or not they belong to be in NATO, but it’s time for the United States, when we look at their foreign aid, to go to zero with it.”

Turkey is run by “Islamic terrorists”, eh? To quote a childhood hero of mine:

To claim even indirectly (which he does here by using the infamous “some would say” card which allows you to place a controversial view out there, use it as a premise in an argument and all the while not explicitly endorse it) that Islamic terrorists rule Turkey is simply baseless and irresponsible. But after you take a step back and pay careful attention of how he words his response what’s going on becomes clearer. This is the key part:

“…what many would perceive to be Islamic terrorists…” (emphasis added)

We can’t contest the fact that Perry and others look at, say, the ruling party of Turkey and see “Islamic terrorists” in the same way that we can’t deny the fact that many who look at atheists and see nothing but amoral, potential sociopaths who are one Richard Dawkins book away from seeking a legal ban all religion. They’re, of course wrong, but that does not change the fact that that’s what they see when they look out at the world. This is, of course, in and of itself the issue. When we can no longer tell the difference between the rulers of secular country with a democratically elected government and people who trick children into becoming suicide bombers, we have a problem.

It all comes back to a fundamental truth that politicians on both sides of the aisle should internalize: words are important. Just like when you call someone a “Nazi” or a “fascist”, when say somebody is a “terrorist”, that’s supposed to mean something. These words that describes the darkest parts of civilization are not and should not be used as catchall terms for everything we don’t like. It’s through semantic abuse that terms like terrorist become useless and nothing more than a wide brush used to paint political targets with negative connotations in order to discredit and dehumanize without debate. From what I can tell, this is exactly what Governor Perry was attempting to do here. Riding the high tides of Islamophobia, he wanted to make it look as if he was taking a stand against a common enemy. Either that or he really does believe that terrorists run Turkey. I can’t tell which option is better.

Here’s the worst part of all of this: when it comes to Turkey, there are plenty of things to criticize. There is plenty to take issue with. Turkey’s recent rash of journalist arrests, their use of terrorism laws as a means to squash political protest, and whether or not the government is doing enough to stem the tide of honor killings (warning: pdf) that have been on the rise in the past 10 years are all important issues that need to be addressed. But instead of having a conversation about some worrying recent political and social trends in what is a close ally, we get this…from a man who was at one point seen to be a viable candidate for President of the United States. Hopefully with Perry suspending his presidential campaign today, some of the hyperbolic Islamophobic rhetoric, pandering to the far fringes of the American political spectrum and poor reasoning that has dogged this political cycle will leave with him.

But who am I kidding? It’s only January. We’ll be lucky if we get to next week without something equally as absurd being said. ‘Tis the season after all.

Adam Garner is a senior at the University of Illinois – Urbana-Champaign studying philosophy and religion with a focus on epistemology, applied ethics, and British Empiricism. He is the Vice-President of Campus Outreach for the UIUC group Interfaith in Action, a Better Together Coach for the Interfaith Youth Core’s 2012 Better Together Campaign, and is the head of the Education Committee for the Illinois Interfaith Service Challenge. Raised Mormon, Adam is now an atheist that has one goal in life: to leave the world a little bit better than he found it through the power of rational discourse and interfaith cooperation. When not interfaithing or philosophizing, he enjoys watching cat videos on the internet, finding new Sci-fi shows to become addicted to, and teaching other people how to do handstands

Wearing the Bible Belt

Louis C.K.’s fictionally autobiographical series Louie once ran an episode where, on a trip to Birmingham for a stand-up gig, he discovers that, despite believing that “everyone’s basically the same no matter where you go”, the South is an altogether different culture. I almost wish he’d stayed down for longer than the one (albeit, again, fictional) night he spent there, to experience what face a political campaign takes in a region where hecklers demand that you “say some shit about Mobile”.

Unfortunately, you don’t have to go as far below the Mason-Dixon line as Alabama to find stereotype-fulfilling homophobia and isolationism. Although I go to school in Massachusetts, I remain a registered voter in my home state of North Carolina for a number of reasons– primarily among them coming this May, where we’ll be voting whether to amend the state constitution to only recognize marriage between “one man and one woman”. While back home last summer, myself and a handful of others counterprotested an appallingly popular rally in support of the amendment in Raleigh. Here’s a couple of pictures characterizing the event:


Protestor at the Marriage Rally with a particularly boring sign; he was especially keen on harassing the counterprotestors, questioning them about whether they "knew Jesus"

Counterprotestor at the Marriage Rally

Counterprotestor at the Marriage Rally with a particularly awesome sign; the progressive insurgency in the South certainly has the higher ground on humor

So you can imagine being a religious minority in such a climate is rough enough, let alone attempting a bid for office. But, dear reader, candidates of that sort do exist down under: Cecil Bothwell, currently an Asheville City Councillor, now running for the NC11 House seat, is a member of the Unitarian Universalist church, and a self-identified atheist. Also quite the beat poet.

That last bit is pretty telling, though– Asheville isn’t exactly your typical what-kind-of-crops-does-your-family-grow Southern commune. It’s more of, to borrow a sentiment from Patton Oswalt about places like Portland, OR and Austin, TX, the state’s isolated “bubble of sanity”, where the “streets are paved with marijuana” and you can “elect a hacky sack mayor”. Yet Asheville, wonderfully weird as it is, still generally espouses a peculiar non-progressivism. A coalition of local conservatives, along with their sympathizers across NC, challenged the legitimacy of Bothwell’s initial bid for City Council on the grounds that the North Carolina state constitution, in print, requires a belief in God to hold office. Naturally, thanks to progressive activists, the Fourteenth Amendment, and sanity, this was ruled as bullshit.

And now, Bothwell has set his sights on challenging incumbent Heath Shuler (a Blue Dog Democrat and former NFL Quarterback– again, in Asheville, where lawmaking may well be done via fingerpainting, exists an entirely wacky universe that still somehow upholds Southern conservatism). Sentiment expressed by local bloggers and columnists looks positive towards Bothwell, but not until later this year will we really see how contentious the race will be.

Bothwell’s plight offers a fairly, I think, accurate portrayal of what it’s like to be a religious minority–or almost any minority, for that matter–candidate down South. I’m still hunting for other examples outside of my home state– part of the difficultly in tracking down religiously eclectic political hopefuls, particularly with nontheists, is that they just avoid the subject of religion altogether.

But that’s the South. Not entirely conquered by conservatism and traditionalism, but enough so that it is pretty damn politically nonviable–or, certainly, a struggle–to out yourself as belonging to a religious group that doesn’t already have five churches throughout your district. For the next year, when I’m not following specific politicians with nontraditional religious views, I’ll also tackle issues wherein certain minority religious groups have been discounted or discriminated against by politicians to help their election bids (as done by current Senator Kay Hagan in the last cycle).

Don’t let the hot climate fool you–politics in the South can be awfully cold. So let us go then, you and I, and see what they hold for those in the religious 99%…er, rather, the less than 50%.

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.

I Can See The Mountaintop: It’s in Provo

Today, Jon Huntsman has said he will formally withdraw from the presidential race after finishing third in the New Hampshire primary behind Mitt Romney and Ron Paul. CNN reported that Huntsman will endorse Romney, his distant cousin and fellow Mormon. Throughout his campaign, Huntsman tended to distance himself from his Mormon faith, saying in an interview with Fortune that he wasn’t “overly religious.” By contrast, Romney has and continues to be an active member of the LDS. He served as a bishop in the Belmont, Massachusetts ward and as President of the Boston stake. In LDS-speak, this means he was a volunteer lay minister in Belmont and leader of several wards around Boston. Today, he regularly attends church services. This may help explain why Mormon voters tended to favor Romney over Huntsman.

The upcoming primary in South Carolina may very well determine the Republican candidate for President. As a state with a conservative reputation, (I’m thinking John C. Calhoun conservative, who looks eerily like a muppet) many have speculated that Romney’s Mormon faith is likely to affect voters’ decisions. Indeed, the recent decision by a coalition of Christian leaders to support Santorum could sway some evangelical voters. However, despite its reputation, South Carolina is experiencing increasing religious diversity which could better the odds for Romney. At any rate, a win for Romney in South Carolina puts him one step closer to being the first Mormon President of the United States. On this Martin Luther King Day, I hope that we can celebrate diversity and not judge a candidate whose church before 1978 would not let our current President hold the priesthood(3:05).

The Resemblance is Striking

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.

Newsreel 01/14

In the news this week…

  • NPR published a story of two Mormon missionaries in New Hampshire and reported that the two young men were repeatedly asked one question, “Huntsman or Romney?” Which I found strange, because I was under the impression that most encounters with Mormon missionaries went like this. All shameless Broadway references aside, whether Huntsman and Romney’s participation in the Republican primary will bring understanding and positive attention to the historically ridiculed Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints remains to be seen. Perhaps, as the musical The Book of Mormon claims, “tomorrow is a doper, phatter latter day” for religious tolerance, at least.
  • In a federal appeals court this past Tuesday, an Oklahoma measure banning the consideration of Sharia law in state judge’s decisions has been blocked. Muneer Awad, the leader of the Council of American-Islamic Relations who brought the suit said, “This is an important reminder that the Constitution is the last line of defense against a rising tide of anti-Muslim bigotry in our society, and we are pleased that the appeals court recognized that fact.” Read the full story here.
  • This week, the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life published a massive report entitled Mormons In America which included numerous polls of Mormons about theology, values, and their thoughts on the perception of their religion by non-Mormons. One result that may help clarify some of the misconceptions is this: only 2% of Mormons polled said that polygamy was morally acceptable. Keep in mind that a recent poll found that 2% of Americans think that Mitt Romney’s real first name is “Mittens.” Another 2% think his real name is “Gromit.” Should we really judge all Americans for the shortcomings of this unrepresentative minority? If not, then let’s drop the whole polygamy thing.
  • The New York Times reported that Evangelical leaders in the U.S. still seem hesitant to support current Republican primary front-runner Mitt Romney and instead hope that the upcoming primary results will provide a viable alternative to rally around. Newt Gingrich, Rick Santorum, and Rick Perry are each courting this constituency by attempting to out-Christian each other.
  • Stephen Colbert has purchased airtime for a campaign ad to be run in South Carolina supporting his bid for the presidency. In response I must say that I’m not ashamed to admit that I’m an atheist, but you don’t have to watch the Colbert Report every night to know that there’s something wrong in our country when a comedian can openly be the most qualified candidate for president, IMHO (and that of Jesus Christ). Read the humorous coverage here.