On the Lack of Democratic Outreach to Atheists

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Here is how David Gibson (Religion News Service) opened his recent post, The divided soul of the Democratic Party:
To judge by public perceptions, and more than a few pundits, the Democratic Party is the default home of secularists and atheists, with practicing believers shunted to a side room only to be trotted out when a political event needs a gloss of godliness. But walking around the Democratic National Convention taking place this week and talking to delegates and activists reveals a much different picture, with people of faith — almost every faith — eager to testify to their beliefs and how they in fact bolster their political choice for a party some view as inimical to religion.
I think he's correct. Despite public perceptions, which are bolstered by polling data showing that atheists, secularists, and freethinkers are more likely to lean to the left politically, there appeared to be plenty of faith on display at the Democratic convention.

Gibson notes that this has not always been the case and suggests that the Democratic party launched a concerted effort to appeal to "faith-based voters" following the loss of John Kerry in 2004. He explains that this was an important part of the 2008 and 2012 Obama campaign strategy. Throughout the Obama administration, it does seem like we have seen a continuation of many Bush-era policies aimed at appeasing religious believers and weakening separation of church and state.

Gibson argues efforts by the Democrats to reach out to faith-based voters seem to have ended recently and cites a Pew survey finding a drop in the number of people who regard the Democratic Party as "friendly toward religion." I came away from the recent Democratic convention with a very different impression. It seemed to me that outreach toward religious voters was back in a big way. And honestly, I'm not at all convinced that it ever went away.

Where, one might ask, is the outreach to atheists, freethinkers, and other secular voters? If we do make up a significant number of the Democratic base, why is there rarely any acknowledgment that we exist much less outreach to us?
Another challenge for Democratic believers is the cold political reality that there are more religiously unaffiliated voters than ever — at 21 percent of the electorate, the so-called nones now constitute a larger voting bloc than any single religious group. And those voters are increasingly leaning Democratic, which means the party can’t afford to ignore or offend them.
This does seem like a challenge, and it is one that the Democrats are not handling particularly well. The frequent "god-talk" and bible quoting is off-putting at best and offensive at worst. This is a secular democracy, and our elected officials are not supposed to use their positions as an opportunity to promote their religious beliefs or even religious belief in some general way. That they continue to do this suggests that they are not terribly worried about offending us.

Prior to this election season, it was hard to blame them for ignoring us. It is not like large numbers of atheists were going to move over to the Republican Party (although some are doing so now because they find Donald Trump more appealing than Hillary Clinton). Prior to this year, Democrats could take us for granted as people who had nowhere else to go. Even more important than that, however, is that our unwillingness to organize allows political candidates to ignore us and not have to worry much about upsetting us. As impressive as our numbers are, we cannot expect to have much of a political impact until we come together and express ourselves collectively on at least a handful of issues we agree are important to us.

The question posed in a recent post by Hemant Mehta was, "With This Much Non-Religious Support for Hillary Clinton, Why Isn't She Reaching Out To Us More?" The answer seems obvious to me: she knows she does not need to do so. Clinton knows there is virtually no downside to ignoring us. And as if that wasn't bad enough, I suspect she also knows that there could be a downside to reaching out to us. Atheists are still politically toxic in the U.S. She could afford to be perceived as tolerant of us, but she could probably not afford to be perceived as reaching out to us in any meaningful way.

I wish I could agree with Hemant's characterization of us as "a voting bloc," but I don't think we are a voting bloc. We are too divided on too many political issues, and I do not think there are very many atheists out there who vote their atheism. Even if one focuses only on politically left-leaning atheists and pretends that there are no conservative or libertarian atheists, one finds considerable disagreement and a reluctance to come together in support of shared goals. We may be a potential voting bloc, but I'm not sure we are anything more than that yet. Far too many of us cannot even be bothered to vote.

I've praised the #AtheistVoter campaign here before, and I continue to believe that this is a step in the right direction. At the same time, most of those I see using the hashtag on Twitter are not doing so in any coordinated effort. Individual atheists, like me, use it when we are tweeting about political issues that are important to us. I think this is worthwhile and far better than nothing. Still, large campaigns where many people were using it to promote specific positions would probably be even more effective.

For me, the pressing question is not why the Democratic Party does not do the same sort of outreach to atheists as the Republican Party does to evangelical fundamentalist Christians; it is how we atheists can effectively increase the political activity of secular persons to the point where elected officials of all political parties can no longer afford to ignore us. I recognize that there are no easy answers and that real progress in this direction is almost certainly going to require us to do something we have not yet been willing to do: organize.