The Secular Movement Can Reshape Public Policy

With a new survey from Pew showing that about one in five Americans are now religiously unaffiliated, it would be reasonable to ask what impact, if any, the rapidly growing secular movement will have on public policy. (Among those under 30, the percentage is even higher: one in three.) This enormous demographic, silent for so long, is finding its voice, and the fallout could be significant.

Mistakenly, some have suggested that seculars are too diverse to convey a cohesive political message. Because nonbelievers are independent-minded and cover the entire political spectrum, some pundits say the movement will never gain political traction. "The very notion of uniting nonbelievers behind a common cause is pretty much an oxymoron," writes Dana Milbank of the Washington Post, reflecting the predictable cynicism of a seasoned D.C. journalist, but also a surprising level of naivety.

Consider, for example, that this expectation of political unity seems to apply only to seculars. Surely few would dismiss the women’s movement so quickly, even though the women’s vote is usually split more or less evenly among candidates (48 percent of women voted for George W. Bush in 2004, for example). The LGBT movement, meanwhile, has seen much progress even as “conservative” gays fill the ranks of Log Cabin Republicans. And similar political differences are common within most racial and ethnic groups, despite common generalizations to the contrary.

All these minorities have seen effective identity-based movements even as their members have disagreed on political specifics, because each movement has carried a central message that resonates despite those differences. And the same can be said for the secular movement, driven by an increasingly identity-conscious demographic that is demanding long-overdue recognition. The eleven groups comprising the Secular Coalition for America, for example, include members that run the gamut from left to right, but all share a common vision of an America that embraces reason-based values.

So how might the secular movement play out in public policy? Here are a few areas where the effects of the rising tide of seculars will likely be seen:

Electoral Politics: Texas Governor Rick Perry launched his presidential campaign last year with a prayer rally, an event that was striking evidence of how the religious right has changed the political calculus. A decade or two ago, it would have been suicidal – even in the GOP – to initiate a presidential campaign with a fundamentalist prayer rally filling a football stadium. But this tactic proved to be smart for Perry, who was soon thereafter on top of the GOP polls. (He subsequently proved to be an inept candidate, but the fact remains, sadly, that the prayer rally was politically effective.)

In the realm of politics, the rise of the religious right has resulted in increasing numbers of candidates who proudly profess anti-intellectual, fundamentalist Christian views. Candidates who vocally reject evolution, for example, are now routinely elected to Congress, and we even see them touted as presidential prospects – Michele Bachmann, Mike Huckabee, Rick Perry, and Sarah Palin, for example.

Thus, one outcome of a successful secular movement would be an influx of reason and sanity into the realm of electoral politics. The emergence of the secular demographic would necessarily diminish the political appeal of biblical literalism and brazen anti-intellectualism.

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