Humanism in American Elections: Is a “Nones” Wave Coming?

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June may arguably be the most important primary month in the 2018 midterm season. With primaries every Tuesday in many battleground states, voters are busy setting the direction for the next two years of US politics. And humanists, atheists, agnostics, and “nones” (“NAAHS” as we like to call them) are winning. Out of the eighteen “out” humanist, secular, agnostic, atheist, or religiously unaffiliated candidates who ran in six states in the past two weeks, eleven have won their primaries, giving humanists a promising success rate.

According to the Public Religion Research Institute, the percentage of Americans who identify as “religiously unaffiliated” has been steadily on the rise, increasing from sixteen percent in 2006 to twenty-four percent in 2016. One-third of Democrats and 13 percent of Republicans now identify as religiously unaffiliated, the Pew Research Center finds. Representative of these shifts, a record number of openly humanist, secular, agnostic, atheist, or religiously unaffiliated candidates are running for office, reflecting the increasing importance of secular and humanist values in American politics. And, again, many are winning.

In Maine yesterday, Pinny Beebe-Center, an incumbent, won her primary election for Maine’s State House in the 93rd Legislative District. An outspoken member of a Unitarian Universalist congregation who believes that “religion is a personal choice,” Beebe-Center has been a Maine State Representative since 2015. With 31 percent of Mainers reporting that they were religiously unaffiliated in 2014, Beebe-Center’s reelection will continue to give these Mainers a voice. If reelected, she’s promised to focus on quality public education, livable wages, and working with all faith groups and community organizations to protect immigrants.

Last Tuesday (June 5) all the “out” humanist, secular, and religiously unaffiliated candidates in South Dakota, Montana, and Alabama won their primaries. In 2016 Alabama was one of the most religious states, with 57 percent of the state identifying as religious. However, last week two Democratic women, one a strong ally of the secular community and one an “out” atheist, won their primaries to become candidates for the State House. Serious about quality education and economic opportunity for all Americans, these candidates have brought their secular values to the spotlight.

California, the home of Democratic Representative Jared Huffman (the first humanist and agnostic to openly identify as such while in office and the cofounder of the Congressional Freethought Caucus, entered its June 5 primaries with a record number of humanist, secular, and allied candidates—eleven at both the federal and state levels. Four candidates won their elections, including Huffman himself, garnering almost seventy percent of the vote. A member of Congress since 2013, this is the fourth primary Huffman has won and the first he won since publicly identifying as a humanist in November 2017.

Humanist values have permeated these campaigns. Huffman, as well as Julia Peacock, candidate for US House District 42; Tony Choi, candidate for California State Senate District 24; and Joy Silver, candidate for California State Senate District 28, have all promised to advocate for more affordable higher education, career and vocational training, more comprehensive healthcare coverage, and protecting the environment in their respective legislatures.

The Pew Research Center reported in May that twenty-one percent of Democrats say they don’t believe in God or a higher power. Although “out” humanist and atheists candidates have not quite reached that percentage in these primary elections, the candidates who do identify as humanist, atheist, secular, agnostic, or religiously unaffiliated, or who support the mission and goals of the secular and humanist communities, are making their voices and causes heard. The June primaries finish off with twenty-five “out” humanist and allied candidates, some of whom are running in heavily religious states and districts, along with a record sixteen candidates from Maryland. A wave of humanist voices and values and political action—is rising.