The nation's atheists went to Capitol Hill on Monday to launch an effort that they hope will someday give them the lobbying clout of the Christian conservative movement.
They don't have a prayer.
But that obvious fact won't stop them from exercising their God-given right to petition their government for a redress of grievances. And their grievances are many, including:
-- The "In God We Trust" national motto.
-- The National Day of Prayer.
-- The phrase "under God" in the Pledge of Allegiance.
-- The practice of opening sessions of Congress with a prayer and ending oaths of office with "so help me God."
"What does that do to our non-theist community?" asked Edwina Rogers, executive director of the Secular Coalition for America, which bills itself as the only full-time lobbying group for atheists, agnostics, humanists and the like. "What does that do to our minority religions like voodooism, et cetera?"
No doubt it makes them mad enough to cast a hex.
Rogers, who assumed her position atop the nonbeliever pyramid this year, is a creative choice for the job. She's a Republican veteran of George W. Bush's White House and the ex-wife of GOP super-lobbyist Ed Rogers, and she had a cameo on "The Real Housewives of D.C."
Rogers, in a glittery gold blouse and knee-high boots with four-inch heels, acknowledges that she has a bit of a challenge to match the $390 million she says religious groups spend on lobbying each year. But she says the group maintained its atheistic presence at both political conventions, will have chapters in all 50 states by the end of the year and, with its first congressional briefing Monday, is stepping up its lobbying.
It wasn't the best time for lobbying, as the House and Senate are in recess. But about 50 staffers came to hear from the nonbelievers' panel: a constitutional law professor whose remarks were distinguished mostly by his exceptionally loud throat-clearing; a secular rabbi who is the "humanist chaplain" at (where else?) Harvard University; and David Niose, president of the American Humanist Association, who argued that atheists should claim their place in the civil rights movement.
"Years ago, if you played identity politics, you might have emphasized 'I'm a feminist,' 'I'm a liberal/conservative, or gay/lesbian,' that sort of thing," Niose said. "Today these students are standing up and saying, 'You know, I'm an atheist.' " He said atheist clubs are popping up at colleges and even high schools nationwide, part of "a program to normalize atheism and humanism all across America."
In theory, nonbelievers could be a potent political force. As the secularists pointed out, about a fifth of Americans don't state a religious identity when asked, and a majority of Americans think politicians should keep their faith out of their public-policy decisions. "We're really not such a religious country," Niose said. "Half the country does not go to church on a regular basis."
But in practice, atheists aren't about to become capable of breaching the "fence of piety" that makes religious expression a virtue for American politicians. This is because the very notion of uniting nonbelievers behind a common cause is pretty much an oxymoron. Those who identify themselves as atheists and agnostics tend not to be the type to join affinity groups. That's why there isn't an International Brotherhood of Individualists. "Although it's a movement, it's not so much monolithic in terms of unanimity on a lot of issues," Niose allowed.
At least some of those in the audience were infiltrators: The first two questioners were from the offices of Reps. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn., and Trent Franks, R-Ariz., two of Congress' more pious lawmakers. Even the sympathetic ones were skeptical about the secularists' prospects.
"Identity politics is all well and good," one questioner said, but how about "forming a PAC to compete with, let's say, the Family Research Council?"
"You have to walk before you can run," Rogers replied. "Of course, we dream about having a political action committee. ... We're not there this year, but it's certainly on the wish list for the future."