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Atheist reminds Democratic leaders: We "are the party of religious freedom"
Sarah Levin urged Democrats to take back "religious freedom" language while including non-religious voices
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If you showed me this video a decade ago, I don’t think I would’ve believed it was real.
After all, why would the Democratic National Committee allow an atheist to deliver a benediction at one of their meetings? It seems like the sort of thing prominent Democrats would avoid purely because of the optics, because it could become fodder for criticism from conservatives.
Yet last week, Sarah Levin, the founder of Secular Strategies and program director for the Secular Democrats of America, spoke about the importance of (actual) religious freedom and why Democrats were uniquely suited to protect it.
DNC Chair Jaime Harrison introduced Levin by letting the audience know she “represents the secular community” on the DNC’s Interfaith Council, helped establish the “first-ever secular caucus in the Texas Democratic Party” (where she helped get three policy resolutions incorporated in the party’s platform), and got the DNC to pass a resolution in 2019 acknowledging the “value, ethical soundness, and importance” of non-religious Americans.
The speech she delivered was one that really needs to be heard because she showed how Democrats can (and should) go on the offensive when it comes to religious freedom.
Good morning, Democrats. Thank you, Chairman Harrison, for the opportunity to deliver today's benediction. We’re gathered here in St. Louis, Missouri to collaborate, to prepare to move forward as a unified body, and to draw energy and inspiration from one another that will nourish us as we turn our attention to the hard work that lies ahead of us.
At our Interfaith Council meeting on Thursday morning, I was honored to share the stage with veteran civil rights activist and former secretary of the Missouri Democratic Party, Reverend Darryl Gray, who it turns out is a very close friend of yours, Mr. Chairman.
Reverend Gray began his advocacy journey working with the Southern Christian Leadership Conference founded by the late Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Reverend Gray is one of 14 clergy suing the state of Missouri to overturn its abortion ban. (Yes, you should clap for that.) And they're suing on the basis that it violates the Missouri State Constitution which calls for the separation of religion and government because abortion is a matter of religious freedom.
When a state bans abortion, it codifies a narrow set of religious beliefs that does not represent everyone, and therefore, violates the religious freedom of its citizens. Democrats have been on the front lines working to protect access to abortion in the face of Republicans’ relentless attacks on reproductive health care, and therefore, it is Democrats, not Republicans, that have been on the front lines defending religious freedom.
Reverend Gray, a devout life-long Christian who has been doing this work for longer than I've been alive, and I, a Humanist, an atheist Jewish millennial, could not be more aligned when it comes to our understanding of religious freedom. And that shouldn't come as a surprise because interfaith work is not about shared beliefs. When you bring people of different belief systems together, you're not gonna agree on matters of theology, but that's not the point.
Interfaith work brings us together around our shared values. We value the inherent worth and dignity of every human being. We share a desire to alleviate suffering and provide opportunities for everyone to thrive and prosper in our nation. We share a commitment to be good stewards of the one planet we have and to leave the world a better place than we found it. And we share a commitment to fight with everything we've got to defend democracy itself.
Reverend Gray is one of thousands of clergy and civic leaders across the nation that we can take example from, who understand that to win the battle for bodily autonomy is to also win the battle for freedom of conscience and freedom of religion.
In the midst of great pain and harm caused by the GOP’s draconian anti-choice policies, may we forge strong trusted partnerships in our communities with faith and civic leaders who can help us to activate the millions of Americans waking up to a post-Roe world. As Democrats, we embrace our diversity as a strength. We are the big tent party, big enough to include people of all faiths, of all spiritualities, and non-religious folks like me.
We're not afraid of a changing religious landscape. We embrace it. Because we believe in pluralistic democracy. We, the Democratic Party, are the party of religious freedom. And don't you think it's time that we take those words back from the GOP?
Then with this benediction we set our intention to honor and take pride in the diversity of beliefs within our party, to be unified in our shared values, and to be guided by empathy, compassion, and our shared humanity.
I will end here with the words of the late astronomer and science educator Carl Sagan: “Every one of us is, in the cosmic perspective, precious. If a human disagrees with you, let him live. In a 100 billion galaxies, you will not find another.”
She’s right, of course.
If we care about protecting civil rights for LGBTQ people, preserving reproductive freedom for all, passing fact-based public policies, teaching comprehensive sex education, saving the environment, promoting science, reading challenging books, and more, only one party represents the diversity of America, and it’s not the Republican Party which only ever seems to give a damn about the desires of white evangelical Christians.
The question that comes to my mind is whether the Democratic Party has any formal plans to excite and engage with non-religious voters next year. It would be a huge mistake to take us for granted especially since atheists overwhelmingly support Democratic candidates while secular Americans still favor Democrats over Republicans. 78% of atheists voted for Hillary Clinton in 2016 compared to only 14% who backed Donald Trump. (For agnostics, it was 68-23 in favor of Clinton. And for the rest of the “Nones,” it was 55-38 for Clinton.) In 2020, Biden got 72% of the voters with no religious affiliation, compared to only 26% for Trump.
The problem is that many secular Americans don’t vote at all. If we voted with the same zeal as conservative Christians, we would be a political force to be reckoned with. For all the talk of peeling away some white evangelical voters from Trump, it would be far more strategic to excite non-religious non-voters who could easily be convinced to support a candidate who doesn’t take his cues from one religious demographic, who supports evidence-based policies, who backs civil rights, and who supports religious freedom for everyone.
Levin, who has been making that exact case to her Democratic colleagues, told me via email that there was no backlash or criticism to her speech. She even received praise from at least one unlikely source:
For example, one DNC member, a state legislator, described herself as a Christian and said she had never heard the shared values between people of faith and secular people articulated that way before, and that it resonated with her.
That’s the sort of reception you would hope we get in political circles. It helps to have a smart, progressive voice articulating our shared values. Ron Millar, the Political Coordinator for the Center for Freethought Equality PAC, told me Levin’s speech (with the DNC Chair introducing her, no less) was “unprecedented” and that Levin was doing an incredible job “increasing the visibility of the humanist and atheist community in the Democratic Party.”
I hope Democratic candidates take a lesson from all this and explicitly reach out to non-religious voters in the year ahead by talking about the dangers of Christian Nationalism and the importance of church/state separation. It’s not just a one-way street, though. It’s up to secular voters to prove we can deliver for the candidates who aren’t beholden to a particular religious group. If you aren’t registered to vote yet, you should fix that immediately.