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An atheist Republican is back in the New Hampshire legislature
State Rep. Brandon Phinney lost his seat after leaving the GOP in 2018, but he's back in office with an (R) after his name
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Somehow this escaped my attention during the last election, but it’s important enough that I wanted to post about it now: An openly atheist Republican won election to the New Hampshire legislature in November.
Even more surprising? It’s not his first time in office.
Brandon Phinney first came to my attention about six years ago when he wrote a letter to the editor. New Hampshire had been dubbed the least religious state in the country in 2016, and it was still one of the least religious a year later. That’s when a local reporter for Foster’s Daily Democrat wrote about how the demographic shift impacted local churches. One priest was quoted saying that the rise in secularism was the result of people being more selfish rather than relying on God.
Phinney was bothered by that comment, so he dashed off a response basically asking, Why is that a big deal? That alone wouldn’t have received too much attention… except this wasn’t some random dude. This was a sitting state representative.
I fail to see the problem with this cultural shift. In an age of information, scientific progress and exploration and the understanding of the workings of our world, it is difficult and to be frank, rather foolish, to hold onto archaic beliefs that deny reality. In these modern times of religious extremism, I do not see the value of belief systems that consistently devalue others by telling them they’re bad people for not believing the same things or having some sort of moral superiority. Also the amount of hatred from these groups that manifest into violence turns people away. People are rejecting religion because it just does not coalesce with our modern times.
The reliance of self is something to be celebrated. By being able to rely on ourselves instead of unseen forces that cannot be proven to exist, we encourage personal responsibility, personal freedom and autonomy with others. Love, morality, justice, etc. are not strictly religious doctrines, but originate in our human nature to do good for ourselves and for others.
The last thing I would like to point out is the crucial and often times ignored aspect of our society, which is the separation of church and state. Religion has no place in governance and should be kept separate as we are not a theocracy. Our federal and state Constitutions protect religious freedom but we should respect the freedom from religion as well. We are no more a Christian nation than we are a Muslim country or a Jewish country or an atheist country. There is plenty of proof in history, such as the Treaty of Tripoli, that highlights the fact the United States of America was not founded on the Christian religion.
A sitting Republican politician referred to religion as “archaic beliefs that deny reality.” He said religion didn’t “coalesce with our modern times.” He argued that religion had “no place in governance.” And he cited the Treaty of Tripoli to show we weren’t founded as a Christian nation.
I would expect that kind of sentiment from a national atheist organization, not a GOP lawmaker. It was shocking. It was the sort of thing that could make you a pariah in the Party.
I reached out to Phinney to confirm he really was a Republican who believed all this. He told me, without holding anything back, that it was true.
… Yes, there are many Reps in the House here in New Hampshire, that I am friends with, who know where I stand religiously and politically. I have had many a discussion and debate with dozens of people on atheism and politics. Although fearful I am of this kind of thing affecting my political office, I will always stand firm in my beliefs (or unbelief).
I have been critical of the use of religious invocations in the House because I find it inappropriate given our status as legislators. I am respectful of course, but I don’t participate…
I hope in the future our country and our state will continue to shift away from religion influence.
“I am an atheist,” he added. “I am not worried about party lines. I look at the facts.”
At the time, that made him the only openly atheist Republican elected official in the country. (He temporarily shared that title with his colleague State Rep. Robert Fisher, who was outed as both an atheist and creator of Reddit’s controversial “The Red Pill” forum. Fisher resigned weeks after that story broke.)
But then things got even weirder for Phinney. Within a few months, he announced he was leaving the GOP. While he was a fiscal conservative and an advocate for church/state separation, he no longer felt at home in the party. (No surprise there.) He officially declared himself a Libertarian and continued serving in the legislature. He even began a Secular Caucus within the Libertarian Party.
That may have been a principled stance, but it didn’t help him later that year when he was up for re-election. The two major party candidates trounced him in the polls, with the Republican winning.
Phinney told me at the time that he had no regrets:
I will never regret standing on my principles to promote things I believe in; true personal freedom and a government that protects our rights. I will never regret reaching more people in my city than ever before with a campaign that promoted the liberty I believe in. I have a lot to be proud of from the last two years but this is not the end of the road for me. I’ll be back.
Say what you will about Republicans—or even former Republicans—but that was one hell of a statement.
Since that 2018 election, we’ve seen more open atheists in public office. Just this past November, another atheist Republican won a seat in the Idaho State Senate. But I assumed Phinney was done with politics. His name was never on my radar during the 2022 elections because… well, why would it be?
I should have paid closer attention. Turns out Phinney ran in the (newly redistricted) Strafford 9 district… as a Republican.
He was the only GOP option in the primary and ultimately beat the Democrat in the race by a mere 15 votes. (He actually won by 16 on election night; a recount added only one vote to his opponent’s tally.)
That win was a big deal. Republicans in the New Hampshire State House currently hold a 201-197 edge (with two vacancies). Phinney’s victory helped the Republican Party retain control of the chamber, giving the GOP a governing trifecta in the state.
So what the hell happened?
Was he no longer a Libertarian? If he didn’t feel at home in the Republican Party during the Trump administration, why did he think the GOP best represented him today? And for a guy who seemed to take principled political stands just a few years ago, was it possible he was switching party affiliation for no reason other than the edge it gave him in an election?
If you glanced at his social media, he certainly appeared to adopt several GOP talking points, like in this Facebook post trashing Democrats shortly before Election Day:
I would file several of his other posts under an anti-trans, “anti-woke” umbrella.
At the same time, however, he’s not exactly rooting for MAGA cultists to take over his state. Just two weeks after that previous post—after his victory—he warned supporters that the GOP trifecta might not be able to achieve much because not all Republicans were in lockstep, suggesting he wasn’t going to join up with the right-wing zealots.
It’s hard to pigeonhole the guy. Some of that libertarian streak still appears to drive him.
If that’s the case, though, what happened last year to make him decide to jump back into the political arena—as a Republican, no less?
Yesterday, I asked him.
In a phone call, Phinney told me that he also expected to be done with politics after his 2018 loss. He thought about running for local city council, but he ended up moving to a different part of the state. He even began drumming in a “progressive death/doom metal” band called Vigil.
But then a local Republican Party official got in touch with him and asked him to consider running for an open seat in the region.
“It took me a while to say yes,” he told me. That’s because he opposed the religious extremism that has overtaken large swaths of the GOP. His principles, he insisted, hadn’t changed. But being in office was the best way to achieve his political goals, including legalizing cannabis use. (New Hampshire is the only state in New England that hasn’t done that yet.)
Running as a Republican was no doubt an easier path to victory than running under a third party banner. He added that he made his positions clear to GOP leaders; he wasn’t going to be a rubber stamp for their other policy desires. They didn’t mind; after all, with such a thin House majority, having a Republican who disagrees with them most of the time is still better than having a Democrat take the seat.
Phinney insisted he wasn’t wavering from that. “I don’t care about that culture [war] bullshit,” he said. That means, for example, that he’s not about to go along with abortion restrictions. He doesn’t want to regulate what goes into your body or what might come out of it.
”My specific goals in office are to move public policy in a direction that expands personal freedom and keeps the economy solvent.” (He believes legalizing cannabis will help with the latter.)
As for his atheism, he said his colleagues are aware of who he is and what he stands for. While he’s not going to use his office to promote atheism—nor should he—he’s not about to hide it.
Ultimately, he’s mostly the same person he was several years ago with many of the same views, but he figured he could accomplish more in office, even as a Republican, than out of office due to his Libertarian label. That’s not a far cry from what the other Republican atheist in office, Geoff Schroeder of Idaho, told me last year. They’re both Republicans who aren’t like those other Republicans.
We’ll find out soon how true that is. So far, the list of bills Phinney has sponsored and voted for look nothing like what you’d expect from the MAGA crowd. That’s good news if you’re a conservative who’s disturbed by what’s happening with the party at the national level.