Op-Ed

Democrats diss atheists, but still count on our votes

Emails show that DNC leaders tried to brand Bernie Sanders, who says he is Jewish, as an atheist.
Emails show that DNC leaders tried to brand Bernie Sanders, who says he is Jewish, as an atheist. AP

Unlike Bernie Sanders, I am an atheist. Why is the Democrat Party taking me for granted?

Why did members of the Democratic National Committee think it OK to tar Sanders, who says he’s Jewish, as an atheist? Bradley Marshall, the now former chief financial officer of the Democratic National Committee, thought this would be a way to hobble Sanders’ appeal in Kentucky and West Virginia. “My Southern Baptist peeps would draw a big difference between a Jew and an atheist,” Marshall wrote in an email to DNC colleagues.

Marshall and others in the DNC resigned over this dirty trick. He issued an apology to the DNC on Facebook. But there’s one group Marshall didn’t apologize to, the group he maligned — atheists.

No one within the Democratic Party establishment stood for atheists. Instead they let that bit of antiatheist bigotry dangle out there without denouncing it, without saying something like, “The Democratic Party is proud to have the support of so many of America’s atheists, and we are deeply saddened and disgusted that a DNC member would suggest exploiting the unfair bias that exists against atheists for political gain.”

Atheists make up 3.1 percent of Americans and agnostics another 4 percent, according to Pew Research Center’s 2014 Religious Landscape Study and those are people willing to ’fess up to pollsters. Jews are only 1.9 percent of the population; Mormons 1.6 percent.

In other words, there are a lot of us. We are a growing and essential segment of the Democratic Party. About 69 percent identify as Democrats or lean that way, according to Pew. Atheists and agnostics give Democrats the margin of victory in election after election. Include the entirety of the “nones” — the one-in-five Americans who tell pollsters they have no religious affiliation — and we are the Democratic Party’s largest faith demographic.

About 28 percent of Democrats say they have no religious affiliation, compared with 21 percent who say they are Catholic, 16 percent who are evangelicals and 13 percent mainline Protestant.

The nonreligious voter bloc and its significant subpart, atheists and agnostics, are a big deal for Democrats. And what thanks do we get? Snubbed on a good day and open hostility on one that’s not so good.

I’m not sure why atheist and agnostic Democrats who rely on reason, science and evidence to form their overarching worldview are treated as outcasts by the people who depend on us for votes, contributions and activism. But considering that the University of Miami recently announced that it is establishing an endowed chair in atheist studies and Harvard University reported that more entering 2015 freshmen are self-described as atheists and agnostics than any other faith-related group, there is going to have to be an attitude adjustment.

We are tired of being taken for granted. As pointed out by a commentator in The Guardian, nearly every speaker at the Democratic National Convention declared “God bless America.” It’s exclusionary language the same way “Jesus Bless America” would be. And the Democratic Party platform gives an approving shout-out to “people of faith and religious organizations.”

Where’s ours?

Democrats in officialdom need to ask themselves why they fight for the dignity and respect for every other marginalized group — racial and ethnic minorities, the LGBTQ community, people with disabilities — except atheists. If the answer is because they can, since the Republican Party shills for the Religious Right and liberal atheists have nowhere else to go, for shame.

We deserve welcome and appreciation. Absent that, the least the Democratic Party can do is acknowledge that we’re in the room.

Robyn Blumner is CEO of the Center for Inquiry, a nonpartisan nonprofit that promotes reason, science and secular values.

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