On January 3rd, the U.S. House of Representatives came under Republican control for the first time since 2006. With the new tide of Republican freshmen come many extremists with views certain to give any humanist pause. And with a Republican advantage of 49, incumbent extremists who are anti-science, anti-choice, and anti-separation of church and state also have much more power and influence than before. If humanism is to move forward in the two years ahead, it is vital that humanists work together to counter the message of these extremists.
Consider, for example, Rep. Sandy Adams, the freshman Republican congresswoman representing Florida’s 24th Congressional District. As a state senator, she voted in favor of a bill requiring Florida’s science teachers to teach a view contrary to evolution in their classes. An adherent to the Tea Party platform, Rep. Adams is staunchly anti-reproductive choice and voted in favor of a series of restrictions on abortion in Florida, including longer waiting periods and stricter requirements for parental notification for minors seeking abortions. She also opposes stem cell research.
Or check out Rep. Raul Labrador, freshman from Idaho’s 1st Congressional District. He won office with massive support from religious right organizations and is a close friend of religious extremist and American Family Association director of public policy Bryan Fischer. He received a glowing endorsement from the National Right to Life PAC on account of his extreme anti-reproductive choice votes as a state representative.
But he looks positively mild in comparison to Mississippi’s newest congressman, Rep. Alan Nunnelee, who represents the 1st Congressional District. As a state legislator, Rep. Nunnelee led a statewide effort to put the words “In God We Trust” on the walls of every public school classroom. In addition, he brags on his campaign website that, thanks to his efforts to restrict reproductive choice, Mississippi now only has one abortion clinic, located in Jackson, to serve the entire state of nearly 3 million people.
The danger of these and other freshman extremists will no doubt be mitigated by their steep learning curve as new members of Congress, and they undoubtedly will find advancing their personal agendas to be more difficult than they promised their voters. But many in the senior leadership in the House of Representatives are also advocates for extreme positions, including dangerous stands against science. From Speaker John Boehner’s denial that carbon dioxide emissions are harmful to the planet to the Republican caucus’s efforts to prevent the Environmental Protection Agency from taking action against global warming, it is clear that the long two years ahead will see science-based public policy take a significant hit. And it does not inspire confidence to see that someone as influential as Majority Leader Eric Cantor is a shaky supporter for religious freedom.
Humanists and other nontheistic Americans continue to be woefully underrepresented in Congress; the newest Pew Forum Survey on the religious composition of the House and Senate finds that, while 16% of Americans identify themselves as unaffiliated with any religion, not a single member of Congress does. This is the largest religious population in the United States to be wholly unrepresented in Washington. Although 2008 Humanist of the Year Rep. Pete Stark is an acknowledged nonbeliever, he also considers himself to be affiliated with the Unitarian Universalist Church. Nevertheless, he is a strong advocate for many humanist issues and is one of the greatest friends nontheistic Americans have in Congress).
Until humanists have more representatives in Washington, our best avenue for countering extremism and effecting humanist change is by organizing together and raising a collective humanist voice on the issues that matter most to us. The new extremists in Congress will make the next two years long and difficult, but the growing nonreligious population in the United States, coupled with the greater tendency toward secularism and tolerance among younger generations of voters, gives hope that there is yet reason for optimism over the years ahead.