American Atheists’ Outreach at CPAC: Who’s Afraid of the Big, Bad Conservatives? I Am.
[3/2/15 Correction: The article originally stated that American Atheists president Dave Silverman is a registered Republican. Dave informed me of the error today and said he is “a registered Independent who always votes Democrat because of the theocracy in the GOP platform.” I sincerely apologize for the error. –DG]
I first connected with Jamila Bey because of Skepchick. Back in late 2005 or early 2006, months before working for the Center for Inquiry, I responded to a journalist’s request on a Black Freethinkers Yahoo group. That resulted in a phone interview with a passionate writer who was writing a piece on black atheist women for a new monthly online newsletter. Her article “Farthest Back in the Closet” was published in the second issue of the Skepchick e-zine.
In 2009, I met Jamila in person after giving a presentation on diversity and outreach at the Center for Inquiry–DC. When I became the director of African Americans for Humanism in 2010, I invited her to the AAH advisory committee. And in 2011, I asked her to be one of the faces of the We Are AAH ad campaign. By then I understood that Jamila is a capable spokesperson with years of experience doing radio, public speaking, and debate—and it’s clear that she isn’t afraid to represent controversial positions in difficult circumstances. So when I heard that she joined the American Atheists board a couple years ago, I was glad that she would be one of the diverse voices in leadership positions that help shape the atheist movement.
American Atheists at CPAC
Last year, American Atheists (AA) bought a booth for the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC), but they were booted just before the event started. And let’s just say there were some vigorous criticisms and defenses surrounding AA president Dave Silverman’s comments regarding why atheists should have a presence at the conference. Yeah. Let’s just say that.
So I was a little surprised to learn on Thursday that AA bought a booth for last week’s CPAC and that AA board member Jamila Bey would be on stage that day. Whoa! How did they manage that, I wondered? And why hadn’t I heard about it sooner? Well, I thought, Jamila’s sure to give an interesting presentation. You tell ’em, Jamila!
Later that day I saw an update from Friendly Atheist: “Atheist Jamila Bey at CPAC: ‘Embrace Me. Let Me Vote for GOP Candidates.'” The article includes these quotes from Jamila’s talk:
As conservatives, we’ve always been a family. Remember: we were the party that formed against slavery. We have preserved the Union before and we have persevered in a changing landscape. Our time to do this again is now.
Today I stand before you not just as a fellow conservative, I stand before you as a member of a growing Republican family that has inherited a new generation of potential leaders with millions of voters that we cannot afford to ignore. The law is: change or die. And to grow with our changing family, we must embrace this future to maintain our value systems, and, as Donald Rumsfeld put it best, we’ve gotta prepare for the unknown.
My stomach twisted. I was confused. My thoughts ran something like this: “Jamila Bey is a conservative?! There’s no way. Is there? How could she be? Wait…what could she mean by that? Maybe she’s just a Republican. Dave Silverman is a registered Republican… [Correction 3/2/15: Dave Silverman is a registered Independent.] But she said out loud that she’s conservative! How?! THERE’S NO WAY!!!”
I watched the full presentation on C-SPAN to see if there was some context missing. There wasn’t. She said it, right there! And…and…she quoted Donald Rumsfeld!
I was flabbergasted because I couldn’t reconcile the Jamila I thought I knew with the Jamila that those CPAC comments seemed to define. Conservative! But they’re against…they’re against my very nature! Everything I stand for! My rights. My freedoms. Conservative! How?
On social media I saw that I wasn’t the only one who felt that way. How could an outspoken atheist black woman be a conservative? What did Jamila mean when she identified as a conservative? Was this pandering? But why the hell would atheists want to pander to those assholes? Was it a savvy political maneuver? What could she possibly mean?
My answer is I don’t know. Although people at conferences keep mistaking me for her, I’m not Jamila, and she’s more than capable of sharing her perspective in her own words if she wants to! I wondered, of course—the dissonance last week broke my brain so hard that I Googled “conservative” to make sure I understood the definition. I know that it’s very effective to communicate to an audience, especially a hostile audience, that you share their values if you want them to listen to you, and Jamila’s an experienced public speaker. Also it’s not weird for atheist activists to be fiscal conservatives. I’ll talk about what went through my own mind because I respect my friend too much to want to speculate publicly about her political views. (Yo Jamila, send me a link if you write something up!)
Strategies for Atheist Activism
Beyond whatever Jamila’s personal politics might be, there has again been discussion of American Atheists’ objectives at CPAC. AA addressed some of the criticism and questions on Friday in a 29-minute video featuring AA President Dave Silverman and AA Communications Manager Danielle Muscato.
If you have the time, I highly recommend listening to Dave’s answers in his own words. Here are some of the ideas expressed in the video (transcription my own; remarks by Dave Silverman unless otherwise noted):
- American Atheists wants to show the CPAC crowd that “conservative” does not equal “Christian.”
American Atheists is at CPAC to spread the word among the people at CPAC that conservatism is not a synonym for Christianity and that there are many many—in fact tens of millions of people—who would vote conservative if not for the theocratic agenda, the social conservative side of conservatism.
- “Conservative” also does not equal “Republican.”
Of course there’s a big difference between conservatives and Republicans, okay. Republicans have a platform. Conservatism is much broader. And we need to push that Republican platform. We need to push the conservatives to push the Republican platform to clear itself of the Christian crap and make itself a party of all the people so that we atheists—and you know this is gonna be strange for the atheists in the audience—can actually have two candidates from which to choose in the elections.
- “Conservatism” means “small government.”
Well conservatism is what conservatives say it is, and that is small government.
…I’ll pay the minimum taxes to keep me safe and to protect me, to have a strong military and to protect my rights, but that’s where it stops. Give me the small government that we want. And that’s what conservatism is. That’s my view of what conservatism is.
- “Social conservatism” is the opposite of small-government “conservatism.”
Now we’re talking social conservatism, is actually the exact opposite of conservatism. It’s the government being bigger; it’s the government going into your life; it’s the government telling you what you can do with your body, when you can do with your body, who you can marry, what you have, how long you have to live. It’s ridiculous and it’s not conservative. It’s theocracy.
- There are many atheists who are fiscally conservative but socially liberal.
First of all there’s a substantial amount of atheists here. And these atheists are not social conservatives. These are socially liberal atheists, voting conservatives. These are people who are pro-choice. There are people who are pro-marriage equality, pro-death with dignity. But they’re not major issues for these people. They’re minor issues.
- American Atheists is not at CPAC to recruit atheists who are “social conservatives.”
And again, I want to stress, this is not about recruiting atheists who are anti-abortion or atheists who are anti-gay marriage. There are very few of those. Very very few of them. What we’re finding is the atheists who are on our side, on the humanist side, they just don’t see the importance of it as to be as high as the other issues.
- Many of those atheists vote conservative because other issues are more important to them than are atheist issues.
The major issues for these atheists are things like gun rights and small government and immigration reform.
- American Atheists is trying to get conservative atheists (who are socially liberal) to raise their voices as atheists and to be more concerned with atheist issues including separation of church and state and “equality.”
So these atheists are kinda pushing that off to the side and swallowing the bitter pill, and doing what they think is more important. We’re here to raise awareness of the fact that they shouldn’t do that.
What we’re finding is the atheists who are on our side, on the humanist side, they just don’t see the importance of it as to be as high as the other issues. We’re here to raise that profile. We’re here to raise the awareness of the fact that they need to see this as more important and they need to push it within their party.
- Atheist conservatives need to come out of the closet and raise their profile so that other conservatives will know that atheists matter.
And we’re here to say okay, these people need to raise their voices. They’re not raising their voices. They need to sing. They need to shout. They need to wear their atheist pins. They need to come out of the closet here. Here! at CPAC! So that the candidates who espouse those Christian views will see that they’re not all Christians. We have to raise awareness within the ranks of the fact that atheists exist here in CPAC in conservatism. And that we’re relevant and that we vote and that we matter. So that those conservatives, so that the Rand Pauls and the Ted Cruzes can acknowledge us. So that the Rick Perrys and the Rick Santorums in the world can at least understand that not all their followers are Christians, and that they are hurting conservatism when they assume that they are.
- American Atheists is fostering humanism and equality at CPAC.
So we’re here to actually push humanism. So you’ve got this bubble, okay, you’ve got this this cauldron, this stew, okay, and that’s what we’re seeing here. It’s a stew. And some of these people are humanists but they don’t see it as important as it should be. So we’re here to raise that awareness, push that up, get humanism in conservatism. Foster it. Bubble it up. Make it known. Make it obvious. Make us not the bad guys. Make us not the evil ones. Make us the good guys clamoring for equality just like we are all the time. This is how we make humanism prosper—by going where it’s not and bubbling it up, going where it’s not prominent, pushing it up, fostering it, nourishing it, making it a presence.
- It is effective for atheists and humanists to have a presence within conservatism to push atheism and foster humanism.
We have to come into the belly of the beast and push atheism and push equality where it’s not being pushed. Where otherwise people are just assuming that those crazy Tea Partiers represent all conservatives. They don’t.
We’re here to foster the method, the, the scientific method, the social humanistic method of, of equality. And we’re fostering it here, where nobody else would. We’re alone fostering it here. We’re the only ones pushing equality. We’re the only ones pushing atheism. We’re the only ones pushing not just equality for atheism, but equality for all non-Christians, right here at CPAC. We are making a difference in the belly of the beast here and it’s a difference for good.
Danielle: I mean, this is it, this is the place where these types of big-picture political changes happen. And like I said, we are a civil rights nonprofit focusing on atheism, not on politics, but this is where you have to go if you want to make those changes. And we’re making them, we’re actually making progress, and it’s so exciting to see this happening, to see this starting to happen.
Some of this reminds me of the discussions around whether atheists should be involved in interfaith efforts. But there’s a key difference—the interfaith activists aren’t trying to stomp all over my rights, but the Rick Santorums are. (Man, fuck that guy.)
I mentioned that I felt my stomach twist when I heard Jamila identify as a conservative—I had a literal visceral reaction. As a skeptic, I recognize that it’s hard to think about all of this while trying to minimize my obvious intense (and, I’d say, perfectly reasonable) assumptions and biases. There’s a lot of dissonance when a friend identifies as a member of a powerful group I feel antipathy towards, a group that I spend a lot of my activist time fighting against. It’s not hard to understand why American Atheists’ casual hobnobbing with, and identification as, conservatives brings forth feelings of hurt, anger, and betrayal from other atheists.
As an organizer who’s interested in effective activism, I want to put myself into different shoes and try to look at this from a more neutral perspective. So let’s look at the strategy.
Does This Outreach Work?
Do you think their strategy is effective? I would love to hear what Skepchick readers think about this.
One obvious downside is that associating with conservative conferences and allying with conservative causes alienates some current supporters and may sour potential future supporters. I think that AA wants to minimize this—hence the video above.
After AA’s presence at CPAC last year, American Secular Census published “Courting atheist conservatives: a misguided strategy, statistically.” You can read several different arguments there.
Let’s take a charitable look at some of the arguments in support of their stated strategy.
Dave Silverman argues that atheists need to foster change from within the conservative movement. Does that work? Generally, it’s a good tactic. Can the same arguments that were made to support atheist participation in interfaith work also be made for atheist participation in conservative events? In this case, if conservatives start thinking that atheist voters matter, and that leads them to shift their platforms away from religious fundamentalism (while retaining their other conservative platforms, I assume), I (somewhat grudgingly) acknowledge that it would be an improvement. So I do think the arguments are similar—if we’re talking specifically about the atheist movement.
What are the goals of the atheist movement? The American Atheists website says that it “fights to protect the absolute separation of religion from government and raise the profile of atheism in the public discourse.” In the video, Danielle Muscato said, “We are a civil rights nonprofit focusing on atheism, not on politics.” If we assume that these statements are reflective of the atheist movement’s fundamental objectives, then having an organized presence in conservative groups seems like a good idea. Having a voice in those spaces can raise the profile of atheism in public discourse, and it can help make sure that the separation of church and state is defended.
Is it true that having an organized presence helps shift the party from within? Let’s look at a different issue. It seems that a growing number of the CPAC crowd, particularly young people, now support marriage equality. U.S. News reported: “CPAC might be brimming with young ideology and energy – more than half of the conference’s attendees are between the ages of 18 and 25.” And as Jamila mentioned in her remarks at CPAC, surveys show that young people are increasingly secular. While the conservative movement softens its stand against same-sex marriage because it doesn’t want to alienate young conservatives, isn’t it also wise to get them to pay attention to atheists and consider shifting their platforms to make sure they are attractive to young secular people?
But that objective highlights one of the problems. If conservatives become more accommodating to atheists and secular people, then they’re more likely to do well, and I don’t want them to do well! For many of us, those basic atheist movement goals mentioned above are not our primary motivations for being involved in this broad and wacky “movement,” and “the movement” is actually a collection of related movements with overlapping but different goals. Yes, I want conservatives to be less religious, but I don’t want conservatives to win. I feel more strongly about public education and health care safety nets than I do about prayer at football games. Even though I don’t think that secular organizations can or should be involved with every single issue, and I know that it’s effective to speak to conservatives using language that suggests we’re trying to help them, and I know that it’s good to try to foster change from within…I still don’t want to help CPAC conservatives be better at anything, and I know I’m not alone on that. Blech. It’s difficult to feel positive about AA’s efforts to help atheist conservatives shift their movement in a positive direction if I don’t want conservatives to succeed. Perhaps that’s short-sighted?
On the other hand, Dave said (and other AA staffers have echoed this) that the American Atheists strategy is not about helping conservatives. It’s about helping atheists. From the video (at 7:04):
Danielle: …So is it the goal of American Atheists to help conservatism prosper—is that something that American Atheists is trying to accomplish here?
Dave: This isn’t about conservatism so much as it is about atheism, right? This is about the separation of church and state. This is about having atheists matter, okay. We’re not pushing a conservative agenda or a liberal agenda. We’re pushing atheism, we’re pushing atheist relevance, we’re pushing the separation of church and state, we’re pushing equality, okay. That’s all we ever push. And we’re pushing it here just as we would push it anywhere else. But it is more important that we push it here, because nobody else is pushing it here. Okay? And it has to be pushed. This is something and…you know people that are getting upset about this, they don’t understand—we have to do this. We have to come into the belly of the beast and push atheism and push equality where it’s not being pushed. Where otherwise people are just assuming that those crazy Tea Partiers represent all conservatives. They don’t.
In the video, Dave describes American Atheists’ goals as long-term. Their long game is to foster atheism and the issues that are integral to the atheist movement (church-state separation and “equality”) by having an organized presence at a massive conference—over 11,300 attendees this year!—with some of the most powerful political movers and shakers including just about every one of the 2016 Republican presidential candidates. Why wouldn’t it be worthwhile to have an organized atheist or secular presence there? And remember, Dave and Danielle noted that they’re not there to recruit atheists who are social conservatives.
There’s much more that can be said about goals, strategies, and tactics, and I hope to see some of that conversation in the comments below. I’ll highlight only one other consideration that’s connected to the previous tactic. I mentioned different goals and different movements, and Dave Silverman described different kinds of conservatism. Dave also said that AA is trying to foster humanism within conservatism. Does having an organized atheist presence at conservative conferences foster humanism?
This is the question that breaks my brain. I’m tempted to flip the question: Does helping conservatives foster humanism? Then my gut response is “Hell no!” But aren’t some humanists fiscal conservatives and libertarians? Certainly, yes—but it’s a small minority, and I think it’s a minority for a reason. I’m not a socialist, but I don’t think it was accidental that the early humanist movement in the U.S. was closely tied to socialism. I know I believe in some political ideas that seem intuitively obvious and have strong emotions tied to some of the issues. But I will try to take a charitable look at Dave’s argument (although my gut says he’s wrong wrong wrong and also boooo conservatives but I’ll put that into better words).
There are 11,000 people at CPAC. A significant number of them are atheists, and some are humanists. Some conservative goals conflict with the goals of the atheist movement and the goals of humanism. I agree that having an organized atheist presence at CPAC that pushes atheism and fosters change from within can help the atheist movement accomplish its goals. But I am still afraid that helping the conservative movement recruit young people is harmful to humanism’s goals, because many conservative goals and methods are in direct conflict with humanism’s goals. I understand that there are conservative and libertarian humanists who think otherwise…but I think they’re mostly wrong. Again, I recognize that I have strong feelings about political issues which make it harder for me to consider alternative perspectives. (Note, Rick Santorum was my senator for twelve. fucking. years. Grrr. Strong feelings.)
I’m not as confident in my conclusion as my friends were about the actual color of that dress, but at this moment I’m persuaded by Dave’s argument for AA’s involvement in CPAC (although organized atheism at CPAC is a tiny secular vegetable in a big meaty religion-flavored stew in a cauldron that might be built out of selfishness. I know, I know. I got biases.). I hope they’re right that their involvement can help push secular and atheist issues from within a large and powerful movement, even as it will push some secular liberals away from their work. Considering the increasing number of young secular people, AA might be in a good place to have a growing secular impact on the conservative movement. But I fear in our two-party political system that anything we do that empowers conservatives will ultimately harm “our side.” The libertarian Koch Brothers, for example, support same-sex marriage and abortion rights—David Koch even made abortion rights part of his political platform when he ran for president in 1980—but they pour money into Focus on the Family because evangelical Christians vote for conservative candidates who are tied to the Koch Brothers’ economic interests. (And the Kochs are rumored to be atheists…) Splitting religious and social conservatism from fiscal conservatism seems like a good goal. It’s hard to imagine it happening in our two-party political system.
Politics, man. Complicated business, and I’m no expert. Feedback, further discussion of movement strategy, and gentle criticisms are welcome in the comments.
(For the record since I discuss personal politics here: I’m registered independent, but I’m comfortable identifying as a progressive.)
Featured photo credit: Brian Engler, from the first Women in Secularism conference