Overview

Secular values are real, definable, and urgent. If more politicians consistently advanced those values in their votes, the US would be a better place, with many more elected officials like Jamie Raskin

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What would the United States look like if it were led according to secular values?

Although the US was founded as a secular nation, Christianity has always wielded disproportionate influence on our politics. How would our laws be different if nonreligious people held one-third of congressional seats, proportional to our share of the population?

Secular values are real, definable, and urgent. Consistent philosophical, ethical, and political implications flow from the belief that we have only one world and one life. This isn’t armchair reasoning: It reflects opinion polls showing that secular people are strongly progressive and united across a broad spectrum of issues.

How would our laws be different if nonreligious people held one-third of congressional seats, proportional to our share of the population?

Paradoxically, you can be a secular person who doesn’t support secular values—see Senator Kyrsten Sinema for an example. But if more politicians consistently advanced secular values in their votes, the US would be a better place.

In short, a secular America would have many more elected officials like Jamie Raskin.

Rep. Raskin is a progressive Democrat and constitutional law professor from Maryland. He identifies as a humanist, and in 2018 founded the Congressional Freethought Caucus together with Reps. Jared Huffman, Jerry McNerney, and Dan Kildee. The Caucus takes as its mission:

• To promote public policy formed on the basis of reason, science, and moral values;
• To protect the secular character of our government by adhering to the strict Constitutional principle of the separation of church and state;
• To oppose discrimination against atheists, agnostics, humanists, seekers, religious and nonreligious persons, and to champion the value of freedom of thought and conscience worldwide.

Congressional Freethought Caucus,” via the Secular Coalition for America

These are noble ideals, but of course anyone can sign their name to an aspirational statement. Action matters more than lofty principles. But on that score, Rep. Raskin has delivered. His voting record is exemplary for issues of concern to secular people.

Secular values stand for personal freedom. Traditional religious values hold that there’s a single proper way to live, and it’s found in the writings of scripture or the proclamations of prophets. In contrast, the secular outlook leads inevitably to the conclusion that we’re all trying to figure out how to live our lives, and we should all have the same freedom to choose what seems best to us so long as it does no harm to others.

For this reason, secular values staunchly oppose any law that takes away freedom of conscience or oppresses people on the basis of belief. One example of these values in action is Rep. Raskin’s Resolution 512, which passed the House in 2020 with overwhelming bipartisan support. It calls for the repeal of all blasphemy, heresy, and apostasy laws worldwide so that people everywhere can choose what to believe free of government coercion.

As another outgrowth of personal freedom, secular values counsel strong support for LGBTQ rights, because it’s no one else’s business what consenting adults do with their bodies. The nonreligious were among the first and strongest supporters of marriage equality, Rep. Raskin included. During a 2006 debate on same-sex marriage, he memorably said to an opposing lawmaker: “When you took your oath of office, you placed your hand on the Bible and swore to uphold the Constitution. You did not place your hand on the Constitution and swear to uphold the Bible.”

We’re still leading the fight. One example is the Equality Act, co-sponsored by Rep. Raskin, which would extend the anti-discrimination provisions of the Civil Rights Act to sexual orientation and gender identity. Shockingly, 50 percent of Americans live in places that have no such protections, meaning LGBTQ people can legally be fired or denied housing or employment.

Secular Americans also overwhelmingly support cannabis legalization, another choice that flows from our support of personal freedom so long as it does no harm. We recognize that the drug war has fueled violent, oppressive policing and destructive mass incarceration, while offering no counterbalancing benefit.

Rep. Raskin spoke about the virtues of medical marijuana after a personal battle with cancer. He’s a cosponsor of the MORE Act, which would remove cannabis from the federal list of controlled substances.

Another example of how a secular worldview implies a consistent morality: atheists and agnostics oppose the death penalty more than any religious group. Whether this comes from a rejection of primitive eye-for-an-eye morality, a refusal to write a human being off as beyond all possibility of redemption and growth, the impossibility of remedying a terminal miscarriage of justice, a recognition that the death penalty in practice is applied in a severely racist way, or all of the above—a strong majority of us support its abolition.

In the Maryland legislature, Rep. Raskin led a successful charge to end the death penalty in that state, making Maryland the 18th state to do so. He’s also sponsored legislation to end the death penalty federally, calling it “barbaric“.

Secular values support true democracy, in which everyone has an equal voice. One excellent proposal to make America more democratic is the National Popular Vote, which would decide the presidential election by a majority of all votes cast rather than overweighing a few swing states. Rep. Raskin was an early proponent of this idea. It’s because of him that Maryland was the first state to join the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact, which goes into effect when states representing a majority of the Electoral College sign up.

Speaking of democracy, there’s never been a more anti-democratic president than Donald Trump, who tried to overturn an election in which the people went against him. When that failed, he incited a mob to storm the Capitol and prevent certification of his loss. Rep. Raskin served as the lead impeachment manager when Trump was impeached (again) for this insurrection.

Last but not least, one of Rep. Raskin’s recent legislative efforts is a bill calling for a memorial to Thomas Paine, the great American patriot and freethinker. Paine’s writing was immensely influential in sparking the American revolution (via his pamphlet Common Sense), arguing for the innate rights of humanity and for democracy against hereditary government (The Rights of Man), and attacking supernatural revelation and the corrupting influence of theocracy (The Age of Reason). It’s a longstanding injustice that he’s not recognized among the founders as widely as he should be, and this is a welcome effort to change that.

On our more pessimistic days, it may seem as though American politics are irreparably broken. It’s undoubtedly a good thing to have people in Congress like Jamie Raskin who speak for us and our values, but it may feel like we’ll never elect enough people like him to bring about real change.

But it would be premature to throw in the towel. Even a small number of secular progressives in government can make a difference. Just by their presence, they can shift the Overton window, making previously inconceivable ideas feasible and even inevitable. And if we elect more than a handful, they wouldn’t just be a source of ideas and policies, but a voting bloc to be reckoned with.

The Congressional Freethought Caucus is only the beginning. There are dozens of other state and local elected officials around the country, some of whom have come together to create advocacy groups like ASEO. All these organizations are new, but they’ll gain numbers over time as America becomes less religious. The more visible we are, the easier it will be to overcome the de facto religious test that has kept secular philosophy from exercising the political power that by all rights it should have.

The ideas we advocate today, even if they don’t pass into law next week or next year, are seeds that will grow and bear fruit. That’s why we need to keep voting, marching, and making our voices heard. More importantly, we need to support all the secular elected officials already in office—by donating money, by knocking doors, by making phone calls, and even by stepping up to run for office ourselves if there are no other secular candidates in the race.

This is the messy, unglamorous, but essential ground-level work of democracy. If we do all this, we can banish the pernicious influence of religion in government and create a flourishing garden of secular values.

DAYLIGHT ATHEISM Adam Lee is an atheist author and speaker from New York City. His previously published books include "Daylight Atheism," "Meta: On God, the Big Questions, and the Just City," and most...