Rep. John Carter reads from the Bible during the National Day of Prayer earlier this month. Secular groups are mounting a campaign to limit the influence of religion in politics and public policy.
A group of self-described Godless Americans is defying predictions of the Rapture to kick off a new campaign this week against the religious right.
As some Christians quit their jobs this week to prepare for the end of the world, the Secular Coalition for America headed to Capitol Hill with an ambitious task: reducing the influence of religious interests on government.
The lobby group — created in 2000 to unite atheists, humanists, nontheists and nonbelievers of all stripes — chose this weekend to meet because of its significance to a small faction of Christians. For followers of religious radio broadcaster Harold Camping, Saturday marks the beginning of the end of civilization and the return of Jesus Christ as predicted in the Bible.
“Faith-based groups for 2,000 years have been preparing for the end times, while reality-based groups such as the Secular Coalition and our allies have been hard at work to improve present times and plan for our nation’s future,” Herb Silverman, president of the Secular Coalition, quipped.
Despite a recent injection of $1 million to its operating budget — large contributions from two private donors — the coalition’s effort still resembles the Biblical tale of David and Goliath.
The secular activists aim to reduce religious influence on the military, foreign aid, stem-cell research, education and women’s reproductive health — all with a handful of staff and a $750,000 operating budget. The coalition is made up of 10 secular groups, including the American Humanist Association and American Atheists.
On the other side are millions of dollars being spent by Faith and Action, Family Research Council, the Conference of Catholic Bishops, Concerned Women for America, World Vision, the Christian Coalition of America and a raft of other faith-based groups to influence legislation and politicians.
Still, Sean Faircloth, executive director of the secular group, said his side could win some battles by placing a stronger emphasis on lobbying and building a grass-roots base to support those efforts.
“That’s sort of what this summit is all about — changing the game. Our next big goal is really to make bigger investments in the secular movement,” he said, noting that it took some time for various secular groups — many of whom disagree with each other philosophically — to agree that they have the same interests politically.
That realization came as faith-based groups have grown in size and influence over the past three decades to the extent that “the religious right effectively has veto power over one of two major political parties in the United States,” Faircloth said.
The three-day summit kicks off Thursday and is expected to focus on that challenge and how the group can overcome it.
The activists say they have already made some progress. Last year, they participated in what was billed as the first-ever White House meeting with secular groups. They are also close to having their first policy proposal introduced in Congress — legislation that would ensure that child care centers run by religious groups are held to the same health and safety standards as nonreligious centers. The group would not name the Member they expect to introduce this measure.
To the secular activists, the fact that some states exempt religious groups from child care regulations that could protect children from abuse indicates the breadth of the problem.
“We want to raise the flag and ring the alarm bells about what’s happened in this country and use these issues, if you will, to wake people up,” Faircloth said. “Anywhere where you see privileging of religion in law, we’re going to speak out.”
While the coalition itself is small — about 20,000 people are on the mailing list — Faircloth said the platform reflects what most Americans believe.
“We don’t want government to be making decisions about your bedroom on behalf of Jesus,” he said. “If you go out there and talk to the average America, a soccer mom or Joe Six-pack, the majority of them agree with us.”
Christian groups say the opposite is true.
“Christianity and belief in God is the mainstream view in America,” said Wendy Wright, president of Concerned Women for America. “When the rubber meets the road, people do want to be able to express their religious beliefs in the public sphere.”
Wright said groups such as the Secular Coalition misinterpret the separation of church and state as meaning that there is no role for faith or religion in the public sphere. Her group advocates using biblical principles to guide policy decisions.
“We’re not looking to censor the atheists. They’re free to meet, to talk, to lobby. But we don’t find the opposite is true. We find that often times the goal of aggressive atheists is to censor Christians,” she said.
Peter Sprigg, a senior fellow for the conservative Family Research Council, said he is concerned about a growing sentiment that religion should only be practiced at home or a place of worship.
“What we see today unfortunately is a very narrow conception of religious liberty: a four-walls freedom. You have religious liberty within the four walls of your house and your church but nowhere else,” he said. “Religion is something that pervades our entire lives, and the free exercise of religion is something that cannot be limited.”