A discussion with: Lily Bolourian, AHA Legal and Policy Director; Sarah Levin, founder of Secular Strategies; and Ron Millar, Political and PAC Coordinator at the Center for Freethought Equality
This text is excerpted from a panel discussion at the American Humanist Association’s 82nd Annual Conference in Denver, CO in May.
My name is Sarah Levin. I’m founder and principal at Secular Strategies, a consulting firm that specializes in advancing inclusive religious freedom policy and mobilizing the growing number of religiously unaffiliated Americans. I work with both the Center for Freethought Equality (CFE) and the Association of Secular Elected Officials (ASEO).
We’ve been working with ASEO to support our growing number of secular elected officials and empowering non-religious voters as a political constituency. I also serve as an open atheist on the Democratic National Committee’s Interfaith Council.
Today I’ll be talking to you about the work that we’re doing to build political clout for our community in two specific ways. I first want to start with explaining what a caucus is: both caucuses within legislatures and caucuses within political parties.
Basically, a caucus is a formalized group of decision makers—in the case of legislative caucuses, legislators, and in the case of political parties, members of a political party—organized around a shared mission that they work together to achieve within the legislative body or within that party. It could be a shared policy area like agriculture or gun control, and it can also be a shared identity, like an Asian American Pacific Islander Caucus or an LGBTQ caucus.
Hopefully all of you have heard by now that there is a Congressional Freethought Caucus that was founded in 2018, mostly due to Ron Millar’s work with Congressman Jared Huffman (CA-02). A round of applause for that because that was historic, seriously. That came after Congressman Huffman came out as a nontheist. He’s still the only openly nontheist member of Congress.
He founded the caucus with Congressmen Jamie Raskin (MD-08), Dan Kildee (MI-05), and Jerry McNerney (CA-09), and the caucus has now grown to sixteen members of Congress. I’m going to just quickly read to you the mission statement of the Freethought Caucus:
…to promote public policy formed on the basis of reason, science and moral values; protect the secular character of our government by adhering to the strict constitutional principle of separation of church and state; to oppose discrimination against atheists, agnostics, humanists, seekers, religious and non-religious persons; and to champion the value of freedom of thought and conscience worldwide; and to provide a forum for members of Congress to discuss their moral frameworks, ethical values, and personal religious journeys.
I want to note two things here. One, it’s incredible. I’m reading from Congressman Huffman’s website, right? This is talking about our community, specifically calling out opposing discrimination against atheists, agnostics, and humanists. It’s a really big deal. But it’s also mentioning seekers and religious people, because it’s really important that in this work we remind people that separation of church and state and religious freedom protect religious freedom for everybody, people of all faiths and none.
Also that last part is important: providing a forum for members of Congress to discuss their moral frameworks, ethical values, and personal religious journeys. There are events that the caucus has with outside organizations like the AHA, or CFE, or the Secular Coalition for America, and other national organizations that lobby, but they also meet just together as colleagues because members of Congress and legislators are human beings. They have—especially if they work in Congress—they have tough jobs. And so this is also a forum for them to just, behind closed doors, in a safe space, discuss these things with one another. There is value in just building community with like-minded colleagues as well.
So what kind of stuff does a caucus do? Why is it important that they exist?
Here’s a few examples of what the Freethought Caucus has done since it was founded in 2018. They’ve endorsed legislation like the No Ban Act, which would prevent anything like a Muslim ban from ever happening again; a bill that would strengthen protections against female genital mutilation; a bill that would increase scientific integrity. They’ve led letters, for example, opposing nominations of judges. They have led letters—in partnership with other caucuses, like the Democratic Women’s Caucus and the Equality Caucus—that went to nine different federal agencies opposing new faith-based regulations under the Trump administration. They also worked with me and my client, Ex-Muslims of North America a few years ago and sent a letter to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg about censorship of atheists and particularly Ex-Muslims on their platform.
That’s a lot of different examples of what a caucus can do by endorsing and, of course, also introducing legislation. They can send letters to private corporations to hold them accountable, send letters to our federal agencies to hold them accountable. Because, remember, that oversight is a key function of legislators. They can also partner with other legislators and caucuses around shared interests.
In general, having caucuses in legislative bodies is an opportunity for organizations like the Center for Freethought Equality and others to work with them because they have an established mission that aligns with our goals. So we have a partner in that legislative body to advance our policy goals as opposed to having to ad hoc find partners with this legislator, that legislator, find the co-sponsors on ad hoc policy priorities. We have this body. This is a group of legislators that have come together saying this is what we want to do. We’re aligned with these values and we can work with them. So that started in Congress. Now we’re starting to see caucuses at the state level as well.
In almost every state, you’re going to find a prayer caucus. And you can probably guess the kind of work that they’re doing. They’re working with Christian nationalist organizations that are shopping around their policy priorities. It’s really important for us to have partners on the inside of legislative bodies to advance our priorities.
We are working with Representative Sheri Dutzy, who is a state representative in New Hampshire and a board member of the Association of Secular Elected Officials. She started a Secular Values Caucus in her state, and one of its first actions was to challenge the fact that their legislative meetings were starting with prayer every day, and the prayers were pretty much explicitly Christian. While their measure was defeated, they had a very close vote where they almost changed the rules. Even just the process of having that conversation among her colleagues and bringing together other colleagues who were also upset—not all of them atheist, by the way—about these invocations, that’s the start of a really great opportunity for us to advance policy priorities in New Hampshire.
We also have the Secular Government Caucus in Minnesota, which was established last year. The reason that was possible is because activists like Minnesota Humanists, Minnesota Atheists, and other folks for years have been building relationships with legislators in Minnesota who understand the importance of church-state separation. They understand it and understand its urgency, in great part because of the advocacy work of people on the ground who are meeting with them every year, year round, talking to them about these issues and making clear that it’s an important issue to our constituency. We’re actually in conversation right now with the members of that caucus about legislation they can introduce in the next session, which is really exciting.
In every political party, you also have caucuses. I work in the Democratic Party, so I’m going to use those examples, but you can do this whether you’re a Republican, you’re Green, you’re a Libertarian, or a Democrat. You can do this in your party. You’ll pretty much find an LGBTQ or Stonewall Caucus in almost every state party. You’ll find a Women’s Caucus, a Black Caucus.
It’s very similar to legislative caucuses, but the goals are a little bit different. In 2016, when I was still at the Secular Coalition for America, I had two volunteers who worked in Texas, and they also were really involved in the Texas Democratic Party. And they said, “Hey, we have our state convention coming up, and we would really love to have a secular presence.”
So we did two things. We got a secular caucus on the schedule and I drafted planks that also called resolutions for consideration of the party platform, because that’s one of the big things that parties do at their state conventions. They come up with their party platform. The secular caucus was standing-room only. Hundreds of people, both non-religious people and people of faith.
And we had three of the planks incorporated into the party platform that year, including one that called for the removal of the religious test for office that’s still on the books on the Texas State Constitution. That was with very little marketing. What that taught me was that, if you create a space for people to be both secular and Democrat and to address the church-state separation issues they’re concerned about in a partisan space, they will come.
My suggestion for you, whatever party you associate with, is to just start going to the meetings. Find out where your local club is, get involved. A lot of times they’re looking for people to run for positions, and that’s a great way to get involved and start learning the way that the party works.
Then you start meeting people who are like-minded within the party, who have the same concerns as you, and then you could start a caucus—and it doesn’t have to be an official one. You can also informally organize, and there’s a few reasons to do this. One: influencing the platform to advocate for candidates within your party who are secular or aligned with our values, because the parties aren’t necessarily prioritizing increased representation of non-religious people in office. We need to fight for that. That’s what other caucuses do, right? A Women’s Caucus is going to be supporting women running for office within the party. An LGBTQ Caucus is going to be working to support their LGBTQ candidates. We need to show up for our secular candidates.
And two, it’s to bring more secular people into your party. I can tell you that working with the Secular Caucus in Nebraska, they have told me they have members who said, “I did not join the Nebraska Democratic Party until I learned about the Secular Caucus, because I didn’t feel welcome as an atheist in this party.”
I’m going to talk a little bit about how to get engaged with the legislature, with your elected officials. You really want to meet with your elected officials at least once a year.
A lot of times now you can do it virtually since COVID, so it’s a lot more accessible. You don’t have to go to the state capitol, and then you can just build a relationship throughout the year. Working with the AHA—or American Atheists has a great state advocacy program as well—building those relationships and talking to them about these issues, informing them about the urgency of our issues, is the beginning.
That’s how we start getting to the place where we are in Minnesota, where we can make an ask about introducing legislation or starting a caucus. It really starts with relationships because these ideas and this urgency have to come from constituents. It can’t come from me and Ron at the national level. It has to come from you having consistent relationships with legislators and staff.
In terms of getting involved, build relationships with your elected officials and get involved with organizations that are doing that work. If you are involved in a party, start showing up. You will be amazed how far you can get in a political party just by showing up.
My name is Lily Bolourian. I am the Legal and Policy Director for the American Humanist Association. And I’m also the proud daughter of Iranian asylees. I am here to speak today a little bit about the threat of white Christian nationalism and what actions we can continue to take to push back.
Under the presidency of that last guy, we saw white supremacist Christian nationalism become emboldened in ways we’ve not seen in generations. “45” fanned the flames of the Christian nationalist right and set up a movement across the states to attempt to dismantle the indisputably secular foundation of our political system. Now, to be clear, the right has been meticulously organizing in the states for decades.
But the last administration gave them the tools to plow through all of our norms to get whatever they want done. We know that the right has used Christianity to inflict violence upon marginalized people for decades. The best example, or one of the biggest ones, is the targeting and assassination of abortion providers. We know that since 1977, there have been eleven murders, forty-two bombings, 196 arsons, 491 assaults.
And since 2020, stalking of abortion providers has increased by 600 percent and clinic invasions have increased by 129 percent. White Christian nationalism results directly in violence. We know and remember that the attack on Charlottesville in 2017 was a white Christian nationalist terrorist attack. And we know about the violent attempted coup on our Capitol on January 6th. These coordinated attacks are not happening in a vacuum.
The attacks on trans folks we’re seeing in the states are all examples of nationalist violence. We have a theocratic fascist in Ron DeSantis in Florida. Do I have anyone from Florida here? Yes, love Florida. Not a big fan of Ron, but I think it’s critical for us to pay attention to Florida because Ron DeSantis is using it as a laboratory for what they’d like the rest of America to look like.
I spoke earlier about the fact that my parents are asylees from Iran, so watching white Christian nationalism take hold in this country is horrifying. My parents left a theocracy. They left the definition of what happens when religion and state marry. They left that to come here so I wouldn’t have to deal with that. And here we are.
Another fundamentalist religious group is taking over government. People often talk about a dystopia. What would happen if they took full control of all of government? What could our country look like? But we don’t need to use our imaginations. We can just look to the Islamic Republic of Iran and what they are doing to their people. Many of you may know in September, a young woman, Mahsa Amini, was murdered by morality police in Iran. The reason for this was that she was allegedly not wearing her headscarf properly. They have a morality police for that.
Hundreds of young people have been killed for fighting against this. Thousands—12,000 to be exact. There are many political prisoners in Iran at the moment and at least four of these prisoners were executed by the government. One of these individuals, Majidreza Rahnavad was asked at the last moment by his executioners to take on Islam, to “repent”. And he said, “I refuse.” I refuse. He looked his executioners in the eye and he said that I do not want anyone to read any religious books for me. I want you to celebrate and I want you to fight for freedom.
Now I talk about Iran, and it sounds like an extreme example, but I’m telling you right now that nation in less than a year went from a secular government to a theocratic fascist regime. And it’s been here for forty-four years. And if you think it can’t happen here, I have a bridge to sell you.
But let me say this. Despite how loud Christian nationalists are, we know that individuals in the United States tend to be way less religious now than ever before. According to Pew, in 2021, about three in ten adults now affiliate with being non-religious. Sixty-three percent of the population identifies as Christian. In 2007, seventy-eight percent of the nation identified as Christian. This presents a huge opportunity for progressive humanism to step into that gap.
However, let’s be real. Our numbers have to continue to grow to rise to the threat. And when we’re thinking about growing our numbers, we need to ensure we’re centering and bringing new folks into the fold.
You know, when you look at the demographics of folks who are in this movement, we’re not seeing nearly enough young folks at all. We need to have a much more inclusive movement if we want to win. And I want to win. And I think you all want to win. And I think you all know we have to win.
While white Christian nationalists across the country are acting quickly to legislate their insidious agendas, they don’t sleep. Remember that. We see right now, for example, that Texas has put up a bill mandating that every public classroom receiving public dollars has to prominently place the Ten Commandments on the wall of their classrooms. This is where we’re at.
We need to understand that just because something like that is happening in Texas does not mean that those of us who live comfortably in blue and purple states don’t have an obligation to stand up and fight for our neighbors. We have to be everywhere. School boards right now are becoming kind of ground zero for some of the most insidious attacks. They are banning books. They are changing the curriculum. They are rewriting history. They are lying and gaslighting people about the ideals that this nation purports to be about. They are lying. And so it can be intimidating. If you live in a red state, it can be really scary. But if even one person shows up to a school board meeting when they’re about to pass disgusting policies that will harm trans people, for example, even one person standing up causes a ripple.
I know it’s scary. But be there every time they do something. We have to show them we are not afraid. We’ll meet them there. They will always have resistance. And when they know that, they’ll have to rein it back in. But I don’t think we’ve shown them exactly our strength yet. In order for us to win—and I do believe that we will win—we need to continue to work together to create cohesiveness in our movement and expand to the greater progressive movement. We need to make sure we’re on the same page because we have a huge threat and we need all of our numbers to fight it back.
I’m Ron Millar, the political coordinator and PAC manager at the Center for Freethought Equality, which is the political and advocacy arm of the American Humanist Association (AHA).
I want to go over how our community has become a little more visible. We’re not visible enough yet. I have a little test question. Who is the first member of Congress to ever identify with the atheist and humanist community? Raise their hands. Anybody know?
Pete Stark actually did way back in 2007. I was working at the Secular Coalition for America. Someone said, “Why don’t we have a competition to see what’s the highest elected official we find that publically identifies with our community?” And, we were thinking back then, “Well, dog catcher? We might have a couple.”
So we got recommendations. Lori Lipman Brown, who was the director, went out and talked to folks and we had a meeting with Stark’s office and he said, “Yes, I’m a Unitarian who does not hold a belief in a supreme being.” And we were floored. We didn’t expect it, you know? And so he agreed to be public about that.
And then he started getting invited to meetings with the AHA and other groups. And then he said, “Well, maybe I’m a humanist now.” And then he took on the term atheist. As soon as he found community, he embraced our more common terms for ourselves. That’s important. Remember that when you’re meeting with elected officials, because once they know that there’s a constituency, they’ll feel freer to be their authentic selves.
Then we actually had a false start. When Joe Biden was elected vice president, he appointed one of his longstanding colleagues to fill his Senate seat until the next election. And the person wrote about how he had a humanist and a Catholic parent. And we thought, “We could have a senator!” So Lori went to meet them.
Just accidentally, the meeting was on Ash Wednesday, and she walked into the office and saw the little ashes and thought, “Well, we know he went with the Catholic side.” So we still haven’t had a senator yet. We hope to have that happen.
But in 2017, Representative Jared Huffman responded to one of the candidate questionnaires that I send out to members of Congress and candidates. I do it at the federal and state level and, occasionally some local races, and he sent it back. It had—and this in 2017—it had a sort of nebulous question asking about how are you identified with religion? We did a bunch of emails back and forth, and then finally we were able to set up a meeting.
Roy Speckhardt (then the AHA’s executive director) and I went and had lunch with him, talked about the pros and cons of announcing his membership of our community. He set up meetings with his colleagues, with his key contributors and constituents, even talked to the chaplain of the Congress, for some reason. And, obviously, he talked to his family members and he decided it was safe enough for him to make the announcement.
He did. And we got a little fanfare from that. And as we were having dinner with him that night, we laid out several things that we would love for him to do. And one of them was, we would love to have a caucus, as Sarah was talking about. But, it’s hard to have a caucus of one.
After he made the announcement, several of his colleagues came up and said how proud they were of him for making this announcement and told him they wanted to be there to protect him in case any pushback came on it. And so then he started the Congressional Freethought Caucus. And Roy and I were invited to Huffman’s townhouse on Capitol Hill for a meeting. The first person to show up when we were doing this was Jamie Raskin. And Jamie came in saying, “Oh, great, caucus of two.” But then as more and more people came in, he got really excited. It was just great to see his emotional span over that meeting because he was like, “This could be something.” And, of course, now he co-chairs the caucus with Jared.
So, again, it’s knowing that others are in the fight with you. And that’s why we really need to be more visible and meeting with elected officials, meeting with candidates. I’m sure you’re all very politically active, but as Lily talked about, we are in the fight of our lives. This white Christian nationalism is very dangerous as we’ve seen from January 6th and other events across the country.
We have now grown as a population so that we can counter that if we get visible and we get active. We’re not doing it just to fight against Christian nationalism, we’re doing it because we want to see our values in public policy. And the only way we can do that is through the electoral arena. I know that most atheists and humanists are very active in the electoral arena, but we have to redouble our efforts. On our website at the Center for Freethought Equality, we have an entire page about what individuals can do to be more involved in the electoral arena. Obviously, you’ve got to vote—and not just during presidential elections. You’ve got to vote in every election. Local elected officials have more of an impact on your day-to-day life than the president or any federally elected official. You have to be an informed voter. So we also have links to things like Vote411, which is the League of Women’s Voters website. There’s also Ballotpedia, which gives lots of information, and there’s Project Vote Smart. So use those resources. Another resource to use is to check out the Religious Right groups. They always put out voter guides. Just see who they’re endorsing and vote the opposite way, because they do the work for you.
It’s not only voting, though. Voting is the bare minimum. When you’re making your budget for the year, make a budget for how much money you’re going to donate to candidates, how much time you’re going to spend working for candidates, or your preferred political party. Budget that in, because it’s not just going to happen. You have to make a plan for it and you have to make sure it works within what you can do. Obviously, you know, there might be limitations on your time, there might be limitations on the money. You can work out a balance that you can deal with. Volunteering is so important—find the candidates that you like. If you’re in a safe blue state and everything is perfect in your area, you have the greatest bubble you’ve ever lived in, then reach out to neighbors because there’s phone banking, texting, and you can do that for candidates across the country. So adopt a place where you can make a difference.
Attend political events and wear your humanist and atheist swag so that you’re visible. Get a group of your friends together, so it’s not just you. Make our community visible in the political arena. Get active in your party politics and, most importantly, think about running for public office. I know it’s intimidating. Probably not a lot of people here will be running for president. Congress is also intimidating, but state legislatures are out there. There’s over 7,000 seats in state legislatures, but there’s also a half a million local elected officials throughout the country. There’s going to be a position that’s just ideal for you and your background. So think about that. There are also a host of commissions and other groups that impact your community. Join one of those. And do it as a visible humanist and atheist because, in addition to getting our values into public policy, the more visible we are, the more we’re going to eliminate that bias that still exists against our community. That only happens if we get elected officials who people respect.
Your groups can also be effective. Your groups can also be very active. Your groups can do that basic civics that nonprofits are allowed to participate in. Make sure your members are registered to vote. You can have a web page with links to voter registration, what elections are coming up, and make sure people are aware of the electoral process in your community. Invite elected officials to speak to your group or go visit them as a group.
On our website, we list the seventy-three elected officials at the state level who identify with us, and that’s up from five from 2016. But we have a ways to go because, if we want to reach parity with our population, we need another 1,500. We’ve got a lot of work to do. But get to know those seventy-three people. They need to know that you’re out there as a constituency. Your groups can go visit them or visit your elected officials regardless of whether they’re on my list or not. You want them to know that we are a constituency out there. You can send letters to candidates, you can do voter guides, you can have candidate forums.
Lastly, but very importantly, become a member of the Center for Freethought Equality at cfequality.org. It’s completely free.