Pragamatic politics for atheists

By Amanda Marcotte
Tuesday, November 4, 2008 1:02 EDT
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If you’ve read my blogging once or twice, you’re probably well aware that I’m one of the cranky, outspoken atheists who impolitely uses expressions like “Sky Fairy” and applauded PZ Myers throwing a wafer in the trash.* Thus you probably think that I was angry at Kay Hagan for her response to Elizabeth Dole’s “godless” ads, which was basically to sue Dole for libel. After all, from a certain perspective, angrily denying an accusation makes it sound like you think being that thing is a bad thing, especially when you deny it as vehemently as Hagan did. Sure, she’s not an atheist, but she made it sound like it’s a bad thing to be an atheist. PZ is certainly offended, accusing Hagan of throwing atheists under the bus by saying things like, “making false witness against fellow Christians.”

At the risk of having my cranky credentials revoked, I’ll admit that my reaction to Hagan’s “Ah hell no!” retort to Dole’s ads was sheer delight. Dole handed Hagan a loaded gun, and if Hagan didn’t fire it by out-Christianing her, she’d be a fool, and who wants a fool on your side? They live in North Carolina. The idea that a politician should take a public stand for atheists there is more outrageous than asking as politician to take a public stand for Satanists. Given the choice between token support in public and losing a genuine ally in Congress and having an ally who has to play by rules she didn’t write, I’ll take the latter. Hagan might be religious and might even think atheists are weird, but she seems like she’s a secular humanist, and that’s all I require. And by “secular humanist”, I mean someone whose political philosophy is humanist and her belief about church and state is the secular one, which is pro-separation/anti-establishment. I have confidence that she’s basically with us. I like to argue with religious liberals about religion and tease out how they have inevitable conflicts, but at the end of the day, I think most religious liberals are pure allies and secular humanists in their political views, even if they rate god higher than humans in their personal philosophy. We all have various religious beliefs on this site, for instance, but we get along famously.

I think what PZ is doing here is a common mistake, one I think I’ll probably try to write about more once the campaign craziness calms down, and that’s the difference between activist politics and electoral politics. Activists spend a lot of our time criticizing politicians who hew their opinions closer to what they think most of their voters want than what we the activists want. It’s not the worst strategy in the world, especially on issues where more people agree with us than perhaps the politicians think, and we can clue them in by raising our voices. But in cases like this, we have to remember that politicians are there to express the will of the voters, and when your opinion is that of a small minority, you’re pissing in the wind to demand that politicians actively resist the voters and take a leadership position on your issue. Kay Hagan’s job is to run for Senate and then be a Senator, Disco Ball willing. Her job is not to stake out a leadership position for atheists, especially when she isn’t one.

Activists demanding that politicians show leadership for unpopular causes is, to be frank about it, lazy. Showing leadership and persuading people is our job. If we are good at it, the politicians will follow. Remember: we’re technically their leaders more than they are ours. Politicians in a democracy are supposed to be public servants, though I can understand that after 8 years of the Bush administration running the White House like they’re a monarchy, it’s hard to remember that. But they work for us. And if we want them to do our bidding, we have to create a coalition that’s strong enough that we can effectively pressure them to do so.

It’s far from an exact science, gauging when you’ve reached the tipping point where your mass of voters is large enough that you can get a politicians to care. I think, for instance, we probably reached it on gay marriage awhile ago and Democrats are being too cautious with their strategy of openly supporting civil unions while quietly resisting roadblocks to marriage, but they’re a lot further than we were a decade ago on that. And if the difference between winning and losing is the difference between the words “civil unions” and “marriage”, I’ll take it and redouble the effort I put into convincing others that anything less than marriage isn’t fair. To show that I’m not differing between “issues that affect me” and “issues that don’t”,** I feel the same on abortion. I don’t feel personally validated when Obama talks about women consulting ministers on their reproductive choices, but I appreciate it as political rhetoric that gets the job done. Convincing people to be less hung up about sex and less religious in general is a job for we atheist feminists, and Obama’s job is getting elected and trying to hold together a liberal coalition. I can disagree with him strongly on certain issues while supporting him, because we have different roles to play.

Which isn’t to say that we shouldn’t hold people’s feet to the fire. But surely the better time to do that is when they’re in office and in the “serving constituents” mindset more than the “get elected” mindset. It’s sexier to attach your ideas to campaigns, because frankly campaigns get coverage. And sometimes it’s useful, because it can be presented as win-win to the politicians. But sometimes we have to face up to the fact that the avenue of electoral politics hasn’t opened yet. If politics were like a video game, I’d say that atheists just haven’t earned enough voter points to open up that level yet.***

*Though I don’t get near the concerned criticism for it, and I think it’s because I come at it from a feminist perspective, and I think liberals tend to think reproductive rights, for instance, are a more pressing issue than persuading more people to become atheists. And thus my frustration for religion is more understandable.
**Homophobia doesn’t affect me directly, but I do feel diminished by it, so the distinction between these categories isn’t cut and dry, and I think allies could find energy from thinking about how we’re diminished when our neighbors are oppressed.
***To strain the metaphor, I’d say that the courts are sometimes the equivalent of secret shortcuts that get you the points needed to change the politicians in a much shorter time, as was demonstrated through court-based activism in the 20th century. Whatever works, I say.

Amanda Marcotte
Amanda Marcotte
Amanda Marcotte is a freelance journalist born and bred in Texas, but now living in the writer reserve of Brooklyn. She focuses on feminism, national politics, and pop culture, with the order shifting depending on her mood and the state of the nation.
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