Why the Secular Movement Needs Bi-Partisanship

We live in scary times. The rise of the Religious Right has created a co-mingling of religion and government that has been steadily increasing since the 1970s.

Some of the politicians that have risen from this movement want to insert their particular brand of religion into secular laws—at both the state and federal level. While mixing religion and politics is almost always unconstitutional, it has gotten to a point where it’s spiraling completely out of control.

We have seen a slew of laws being introduced across the country that affect everything from contraception and women’s health care access, to religious exemptions in bullying laws, to laws that discriminate in adoptions. These pieces of legislation attempt to insert religion into our secular laws. We see a mobilized Religious Right opposing all sorts of science-based ideas and research on things such as stem cell research, and dragging down the American public education system by attempting to teach intelligent design in public schools rather than the scientific theory of evolution, insisting on abstinence only sex education, and discouraging funding for schools that don’t comply with their religious agenda.

For example, earlier this year former U.S. Senator and Republican presidential candidate, Rick Santorum, criticized college because he said college students lose their "faith commitment."  He also wanted to decrease taxpayer support for public schooling in favor of homeschooling—which some groups of conservative Christians believe is best because their children won’t be introduced to science-based ideas that conflict with their religious beliefs.
 
Some say the Republican Party has been hijacked by the Religious Right. And it’s easy to see why this sentiment prevails—especially within the secular movement. After all, the Religious Right seems to be closely affiliated with the Republicans, and many secularists wonder why we should “waste time” trying to include, persuade or reason with a party that seems to have aligned itself against the very thing we aim to protect and strengthen: the separation of religion and government.
 
However, that is the very reason we must reach across the aisle. While the Religious Right may represent a faithful voting bloc—and therefore hold a disproportionate amount of power within the party—they do not represent all who identify as Republican.

In 2000, about 14 percent of the electorate identified itself as part of the "Christian Right," with 79 percent of this sector voting for George W. Bush. A new analysis shows that the share of voters identifying with or leaning toward the GOP has either grown or held steady in every major religious group. But the GOP is not comprised of only conservative Christians. Another recent study found that 34 percent of Republicans (and 51 percent of the general public) agree that religious conservatives have too much control over the GOP. And a full 44 percent of Republicans believe the Church should keep out of politics.

While individual nontheists may identify as liberals, conservatives, libertarians, independents, among others, the nontheist movement as a whole is associated with the Left in the minds of many.  As a result, we haven’t been able to reach quite a few on the conservative side who are either nontheists, or who may be receptive to the secular agenda. And there are quite a few. Nearly 30 percent of “nones”—people who do not identify with any religious affiliation—identify as Republican. 

Between the Republican “nones” and the 34 percent of Republicans that don’t like where the Religious Right is taking their party-- that’s a lot of people we’re missing if we work with only the other side. Not to mention that legislators tend to be a bit more motivated to introduce satisfactory legislation and fight harder for your vote when there is legitimate competition for it—rather than paying empty lip service to a voting bloc they know is not going anywhere. One needs look no further than President Obama backing off his promise to end discrimination in the hiring of government-funded positions by religious organizations, or his hosting of in the annual Prayer Breakfast, to see that politicians on both sides are angling for religious votes.

The reality is, no matter where you fall on immigration, taxes, foreign affairs, crime—it does not affect the principles of secularism and the constitutional value of separating religion from government. Secular values should be shared by all, regardless of where you fall on everything else.

We do ourselves a disservice when we actively attempt to align ourselves with only one party. Of course, we may naturally gravitate toward one side or the other, but we must remember that most people are not single issue voters.  That is to say that when they go into the voting booth, they are not voting solely on their beliefs on religion (or any one issue). They may be put off by the religious rhetoric of a particular candidate, but are more concerned about immigration policy, for instance, and vote for a religiously-affiliated candidate anyway.

It’s our job as a movement to make voters see the importance of voting based on secular issues. We should never give up on creating relationships and building coalitions where ever we can.

As a movement, and in the case of the Secular Coalition, an advocacy and lobbying organization, it must be our goal to make secular viewpoints transcend party lines—a concept especially important when we remember that the political tide is always only one election away from possibly turning in the other direction.  What a shame it would be to lose 2, 4, 6, 8 years—or more, because we are waiting for “our side” to be elected or reelected, before we were able to join the conversation or enact legislation of our own. And even then, is it guaranteed?

Having relationships on both sides of the aisle ensures that no matter who is elected, we will have a seat at the table. And if we have a place in both parties, we can even help temper the influence of those with more radical and religiously extreme views—pulling the party back toward the center.

We often say that secular values are American values because they represent the principles our country was founded upon and the vision our founders had for this nation. And that’s the truth. These values belong to all of and should never belong to any one party.
 
If we want to succeed as a movement, we cannot focus on partisanship, but instead, on pragmatism. If we want our message and values to be widespread and universally socially accepted and valued, we can't focus our message on only certain groups. When we have relationships with both sides, we will begin to have real and lasting power to effect change in legislation. 

When we can successfully do that, we will not only be able to combat the horribly egregious issues we are seeing pop up from state to state around the country, but we will also have helped protect the very values our forefathers intended for us when they founded this great nation.

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