Lesson 1, Section 6: Interest group politics

Humanist activism: Interest group politics

By last count, the non-religious represent almost 30 million people in the United States. While it’s difficult to say how many of these individuals fall into the humanist camp, it is probably a safe bet to say that many millions do. For the purposes of pressure or interest group politics, that’s all it takes to have an impact on candidates and issues.

So how does one go about being a player in interest group politics? And aren’t humanists already involved in this kind of politics?

Let’s answer the second question first. Many, if not most, humanists are already enthusiastically engaged in the political process. It’s safe to make this assertion because polls demonstrate that most humanists have achieved a high level of education, and there is a strong correlation between educational achievement and political involvement.

But there are many kinds of political activism. There’s protest politics, voting, and getting actively involved in campaigns. When we talk about interest groups politics, we’re referring to face-to-face lobbying of elected officials and grassroots efforts to sway the vote through mass mailings and other media. There is no reason to believe that humanists are any less involved in interest group politics than in other more conventional forms of politics, such as getting out the vote.

So what’s the problem? It’s that humanists are not participating as humanists. They may involve themselves in such issues as women’s rights and church/state separation, but for all the politicians know they are simply the same garden-variety liberals that typically engage in such causes. Even when groups like Americans United for Separation of Church and State engage in pressure politics, there is no distinction made between religious or non-religious supporters.

The non-religious need to self-identify. They need to let politicians know that they exist, are numerous, and politically active — that they will hold elected officials accountable just as the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP) or the National Rifle Association (NRA) would when it comes time for re-election. Even if elected officials don’t like secular Americans, they may still have to deal with us. Respect sometimes comes before affection.

Why is it important to self-identify, if other groups are already pushing our issues? Or more simply, why not just push issues?

For one thing, it is important for reasons of self-respect that individuals be actively engaged in issues that profoundly affect their lives. Could you imagine a gay rights movement run exclusively by straight folks? Or a civil rights movement for African-Americans run by white people? Letting people know who you are, not just what you are for, carries other benefits too, such as cultivating acceptance.

Some humanists argue that it’s more important to simply push progressive issues and not self-identify as humanists. They fear that doing so may actually injure the cause being advocated. On some occasions, that may be the right thing to do. But if humanists continue to engage in self-denial, then they’ll always be an invisible population not taken seriously by politicians. Invisibility would be fine if it were not for these negative repercussions.

So the first rule of activism is that humanists need to self-identify when they are engaged in politics. They need to say who they are when they are writing a letter or demonstrating outside a government building or even inside actually lobbying. Only then can they attain visibility and seek to earn respect from others.

But atheists are anathema to most politicians! Even those who agree with the views of the non-religious don’t like to be seen hanging around with freethinkers. It’s not conducive to a long political career! Again, that is the same hurdle blacks, women, gays and other minorities had to get over when they began their long fight for equal opportunity and recognition. What if they hadn’t bothered?

So how does a humanist go about engaging in interest group politics and making politicians listen? From a practical viewpoint, focusing locally might be a good idea. Washington, D.C. can wait while you check out your state capital. You may be surprised how interesting and educational it can be to hear firsthand what your politicians really have to say when you pop in on them. We’ll examine some of the do’s and don’ts in the final lesson of this module.

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