Ahhh. What a relief. After eight years of an administration that ruled by its version of “God’s law,” I knew that whatever the results of Tuesday’s election, many things would change for the better. For example, regardless of the outcome, the National Institutes of Health would again be permitted to use the most promising materials in its research – new lines of embryonic stem cells.
The specific results: the election of President-elect Barack Obama, Elizabeth Dole’s loss of her Senate seat, Rep. Pete Stark’s reelection win by an even larger margin (76 percent) than his last election – lead me to the following conclusions regarding the future of nontheists’ rights and separation of church and state in the United States.
Following the rhetoric during the presidential campaign, we now know that even those who support our Constitutional secular government, are willing to parade Christianity as a prerequisite for earning votes. Both Obama and Senator-elect Hagan (Dole’s opponent) felt obliged to prove that they are Christians. Both neglected to add Colin Powell’s commentary: so what if candidate isn’t Christian (though his comment had to do with “allegations” that Obama is Muslim, the same could be said of “allegations” that Hagan doesn’t believe in a god.)
Such rhetoric pushes back many advances that nontheists (and non-Christians in general) have made in terms of visibility, respectability, and acceptance in our society. The invocation offered at the huge public party in Grant Park in Chicago prior to Obama’s acceptance speech was offered in Jesus’s name, and I wondered if Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Wiccans, and other non-Christians in the audience felt as excluded by that as the nontheists in attendance. Those non-theists have told me that their excitement at being there was dampened by the fact that our President-elect would invite a minister who wasn’t even interested in including all the theists with a more inclusive prayer to God (the kind of prayers nontheists usually endure.)
President-elect Obama has promised to expand faith-based initiatives and even indicated that some of the government grants may continue to flow directly into church coffers. The Secular Coalition for America is working with over 40 other organizations to convince the new president to eliminate the privileging of religion over effective secular social service grantees, and to deal with the other abuses seen in the current faith-based scheme. On the plus side, Obama has stated that he will require that grantees stop discriminating in hiring based on religion when using such funds.
I do expect to see a renewed respect for science. Thus in addition to stem cell research, sex education funds and international family planning aid might again flow without limitations regarding theologically-based abstinence-only requirements. Creationism may now be placed where it belongs in public schools – comparative religion and world literature curriculum; it is definitely NOT a scientific theory. And when a creation story is taught in religion or literature curriculum in public schools, those curriculum must place it beside the many other creation stories of the world, and must not present one story as the truth over any others.
There will be many more changes to come. As we wish good-riddance to eight years of faith-based rule, I end on the most positive note. When Representative Pete Stark allowed the Secular Coalition for America to announce his nontheism, many individuals told me that they assumed he did so because he planned to retire. I assured them he planned to run for reelection, and having interacted with Rep. Stark, I can assure everyone that he is more vibrant and “young” than his chronological years should allow. His formidable reelection win should embolden other nontheistic members of Congress (at least those from parts of the country considered “safe” to do so) to refrain from hiding their lifestance. Perhaps before the next election cycle there will be more than one out non-theist in Congress. Until then the caucus of nontheists in Congress will consist of – in Stephen Colbert’s words, “Stark, his self and him.”