When Democratic Senator from Arizona Kyrsten Sinema took the oath of office in January of 2019, she did something different from most elected politicians in the United States: she didn’t use a Bible or any other religious text. Sinema was sworn in with the Constitution because she is religiously unaffiliated—the only member of the Senate who openly identifies that way.
Christians still dominate Congress, with nearly 90% of the House and the Senate identifying as Christian. The religious composition of elected officials is out of sync with the broader public, where nearly one in three US adults are now nonreligious. When Sinema was elected, as an openly religiously unaffiliated and bisexual senator, some progressives expected that she would legislate on the basis of humanist, secular values. But three years later, Arizona Democrats have soured on her. Nearly three-fourths of Arizona Democrats would prefer another Democrat to hold her seat in the Senate. What happened?
Senator Sinema has held steadfastly to the concept of bipartisanship and the political institution of the filibuster. As Democrats pushed to change Senate filibuster rules in order to pass federal voting rights legislation, Sinema provided a sharp rebuke. “When one party need only negotiate with itself, policy will inextricably be pushed from the middle towards the extremes,” she said during a Senate floor speech. She continued by adding that removing the filibuster “would only be treating the “symptom” of partisanship and not the underlying issues. Sinema’s embrace of the filibuster in an effort to preserve bipartisanship earned her criticism from Martin Luther King III, the son of the late civil rights icon. King III said that history would not remember Senators Manchin or Sinema kindly, and compared them to the white moderates of the civil rights era who professed a desire to change discriminatory laws but took no effort to do so.
This presents an interesting dynamic. Sinema is nonreligious, but her politics have aided the religious right and conservative reactionaries in their aim to limit the scope of the electorate. Conservatives have fought fiercely to keep the filibuster in place. Garrett Bess, an executive at the conservative organization Heritage Action for America, said that the filibuster protects the cultural interests of conservatives. “On the other side of the filibuster is higher taxes and gun control and taxpayer-funded abortion,” he said.
The American Humanist Association defines humanism as: “A rational philosophy informed by science, inspired by art, and motivated by compassion. It advocates the extension of participatory democracy and the expansion of the open society, standing for human rights and social justice.” Conservatives and the religious right have fought extensively to shrink the electorate since the end of the 2020 Presidential election. The Brennan Center for Justice found that by fall of 2021, 19 states had passed 33 laws restricting the right to vote.
Senator Sinema’s refusal to change the filibuster to protect democracy and ensure the right of Americans to participate in elections means that a higher percentage of the marginalized will find it harder to participate in American politics. It means the religious right will maintain or increase their disproportionate influence on the political process. Democrats and secularists are right to question whether Senator Sinema is legislating through these values, and if her identity as religiously unaffiliated is meaningfully guiding her politics.