Asking Trump, Carson, & Santorum About Atheists

by Amanda Knief, American Atheists Legal & Public Policy Director

Ask any American whether they believe their vote matters to any particular elected official or person running for elected office, and many will say “no.” This is especially true of atheists who would like to have a say in conservative politics.

Now, there are strong progressive voices in the atheist community, no doubt. But there are also conservatives–and they deserve to be represented just as much as progressive atheists do. All atheists deserve much better and much more vocal recognition from our elected officials.

Unfortunately, many of our elected officials do not even know that atheist voters exist. Before you scoff–consider whether you or other atheists you know were aware of our movement before you began doubting your religious beliefs. How many times have we heard from atheists at meetings, conferences, and online that they thought they were the only one? If we are challenged to find each other when we are looking, imagine what fog of ignorance must exist for those public officials who don’t even know to look.

The religious right has done an outstanding job of making politicians pay attention to their issues and their leaders by getting their members and followers to get involved in elections and campaigns. Their work has greatly benefited the candidates they supported, and candidates took note and began catering to the religious right’s demands. After more than 30 years of marrying conservative public policy to Christian voters, it has become accepted that one must be religious to be a conservative. We are only seeing a few cracks in this symbiotic relationship with some conservative leaders and elected officials supporting marriage equality.

Using the religious right playbook, American Atheists teamed up with Iowa Atheists & Freethinkers to protest at the 4th Annual Family Leadership Summit in Ames on July 19; the summit featured 10 conservative leaders hoping to get the Republican presidential nomination. More than 35 protesters from Iowa and South Dakota stood in the blazing sun with a heat index over 100 degrees for hours to interact amicably with attendees. Protesters’ signs advocated separation of religion and government, reason over myth, and that Christian beliefs don’t represent all Americans. A few people argued, some stopped to talk, but everyone looked.

I had a ticket to attend the summit. I wanted to hear what the candidates were going to say to a conservative religious crowd. Would their regular stump messages change when they knew the crowd favored Christians? There were more than 2,000 people there and more than 200 news outlets covering the event. So wearing my bright red #AtheistVoter t-shirt, I went inside and visited the media information table and introduced myself and handed the worker my card. I explained I was at the event for American Atheists to report on the messaging of the candidates. I asked if I could be credentialed as media. The head of the press table agreed to do so. So adorned with a MEDIA pass, I entered the auditorium and found a seat in the orchestra pit–between NBC News and the New York Daily News.

The summit was a Q&A format where the interviewer, pundit Frank Luntz, asked the candidates questions and also took questions from the audience members, who queued at several microphones. Before it got started, the host of the event, Bob Vander Plaats had a pastor lead the audience in prayer. I watched as most of the media took pictures of the crowd praying. The pledge of allegiance was also recited. I did not stand and I never say it because of the insertion of “under God”, but it was perhaps best that I didn’t. I was seated in the center of the last of three rows of press and I would have blocked the shots of a dozen photogs.

Some of the candidates talked to the press after their Q&As with the audience. With my media pass, I was able to be part of these events. The first one I went to was for Donald Trump, who made some controversial remarks about Sen. John McCain and also about running as a 3rd party candidate. The press mobbed him but eventually I was able to get in a question.

Me: “Mr. Trump, by coming to a religious-based event like this are you telling atheists that you don’t want their votes?”

Trump: “I don’t know about atheists. They may not like me.”

I didn’t get the chance for a follow-up because his staff ended the presser soon after. But Mr. Trump’s answer seemed honest. I don’t think atheists as a voting bloc had ever occurred to him.

The second media event I went to was for Dr. Ben Carson, who seemed to be the most grounded of the candidates based on the research I had done. Only about 20 media attended his event versus the 50 or so people at Trump’s. But that allowed me more opportunity to get in my questions.

Me: “Dr. Carson, there is a sizeable African American atheist population. When you come to an event like this are you still seeking their votes?”

Carson: “African American atheists population?”

Me: “Yes, sir.”

Carson: “I would be seeking the votes of all Americans. I wouldn’t necessarily divide people up into segments or groups because so many of the things that affect us as a nation in terms of our survival don’t have anything to do with every little special group. Now it is our divisiveness, it is our lack of fiscal responsibility, and it is our failure to take a leadership position in the world–those are the things that are going to result in our destruction. And it will result in everyone’s destruction. And I guarantee you when the jihadists get over here, they’re not going to ask you whether you’re gay or straight, black or white, Republican or Democrat, before they cut you down.”

A couple of minutes later.

Me: “Dr. Carson, the conservative movement has become very religious. If you become our president,  how would you convince atheists and religious minority Americans that you are their president too?”

Carson: “Because the things that we will talk about will be the things that affect all Americans. When we talk about liberty and justice for all, we’re not talking about liberty and justice for Christians, liberty and justice for atheists, liberty and justice for gays, liberty and justice for straights. And this is where we have gone off the rails most recently; we pick and choose who is the flavor of the day and how do we make things better for them. That is absolutely the wrong philosophy for a country that is based on equality for all groups.”

Someone then asked Dr. Carson about the recent video showing a senior Planned Parenthood doctor talking about fetal tissue retrieval. Dr. Carson said that as a pediatric neurosurgeon he spent his whole career saving lives and that he operated on babies still in the womb. He said the video would shake people up and shows the “level of depravity that has crept up into our society where we can sit there and sell and distribute the liver and the heart and the lungs. … “

Me: “Are you against fetal tissue medical research?”

Carson: “I do not believe there is a single thing that has been accomplished that could not be accomplished without fetal tissue.”

Me: “Including the polio vaccine?”

Carson: “Including the polio vaccine.”

(Room is dead silent for several seconds–which never happens.)

Another reporter: “How else could that have been done. I have a medical background.”

Carson: “Well, you can use other tissue forms and other cultures. It doesn’t have to be done that way.”

Me: “At the time the polio vaccine was created, there were alternative methods? So millions of people wouldn’t have suffered?”

Carson: “There are always alternative ways. Do I believe in vaccines? Absolutely. Have they saved a lot of lives? Absolutely. Are there ways to do it without killing babies? Yes, there are. And if there are ways to do without killing babies, I am all for it.”

Dr. Carson, who  is anti-abortion added: “We need to talk about the relationship between a woman and that baby inside of her. She is protector of that baby–not the enemy of that baby.”

The final candidate I was able to talk to was former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum, who was mingling with the crowd during the lunch break. I walked up to him, handed him my card, shook his hand, and introduced myself. He continued to pose for pictures and sign autographs as we talked. I told him that atheists were feeling left out of conservative politics. He raised his eyebrows and said, “What do you expect at this kind of event?” I said it’s not just this event, but I am here because it is free and it is a good way to hear how you all talk to your religious voters. He quibbled with me about whether I should be at this event or attend other conservative non-religious events (are there any?). Then said “Atheists have no reason to feel excluded.” And turned away from me.

I thought that was the end of my adventures with Mr. Santorum, but the next day I spotted him sitting behind me in the lounge at the airport. I snapped a photo. A few minutes later someone recognized Mr. Santorum and got a selfie and then asked for Mr. Santorum’s pitch about why he should vote for him. I could hear a few things they said–and none of them were about god or religion.

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After we boarded the plane, the guy who had spoken to Mr. Santorum passed me in the aisle. I asked him if he had gotten good answers and whether he would vote for Mr. Santorum. The guy said “I think so.” and “No.”

Also on the plane sitting across the aisle from me was U.S. Secretary of Agriculture and former Iowa Governor Tom Vilsack. I got selfies with both the secretary and the senator. I was able to speak to Secretary Vilsack for several minutes after we deplaned. He asked me about American Atheists and the work we did. We bonded over being Iowans. Of note: Secretary Vilsack sat in coach; Mr. Santorum sat in first class.

My take-away from the Saturday event is that the conservative leaders I spoke with have never considered atheist voters as potential votes or in any way as a voting bloc.

That needs to change. With the nones and together with all the labels used to describe atheists, we make up more than 20% of the U.S. population. It is time this sleeping giant wakes up and demands that public officials listen. We have the numbers, we have the agenda–we need the people to stand up at every political event, rally, town hall, and summit and say “I’m an atheist. Do you want my vote?”

  • Ed Buckner

    As has happened repeatedly in the past, Amanda Knief speaks for me. But, as I know she would stress to me and every other atheist voter, we all need to speak for ourselves to ALL these political leaders and wannabes. Thanks, Amanda.

  • David Williamson

    Now these three conservative candidates can’t say they’ve never heard of us! Great job Amanda and American Atheists.

  • RBKobe

    This article really makes no sense to me at all. The entire pursuit here seems counter to any thing even close to logical, reasoned thinking…

    I tend to think of atheists as being much more focused on rational thought & logic (perhaps I’m assuming too much, but I would guess that may be what helped some come to their atheistic conclusions). And NONE of the supposed “conservative” candidates even come close to being logical or rational at all!

    Perhaps it’s partly a problem with definitions here, since the notion of what “conservative” means — *in politics* — has veered far afield from what it used to mean. But I see no reason for anyone with even half a tiny cell of rationality or logic remaining in their brain would even consider anything to do with ANY of these Republican nut-cases. And they all are. Really…

    Let’s see… Trump: window dressing, entertainment… nothing else really needs to be said. Moving on….

    Santorum: Does not believe in human caused Climate Change & apparently doesn’t believe we need to do anything about it anyway: drill drill drill, frack frack frack, mine mine mine, blah blah blah. Strongly opposes same sex marriage, LGBT civil rights, womens’ rights, abortion even in cases of rape or incest, health care reform. Wants to privatize Social Security & anything else he can get his hands on. Strongly pushes for “religious freedom” & wants religion “back in” government AND in our classrooms. Opposes Common Core educational goals, wants “creationism” taught in schools — doesn’t apparently believe in evolution… Oh sigh. That’s just a TINY taste of his flavor of crazy. Need I go on…?

    Carson: Does not believe in human-caused Climate Change & thinks it’s wrong to use Climate Change as “an excuse not to develop our “God given resources” (drill drill drill, blah blah blah)! Opposes the ACA (“Obamacare is…the worst thing that has happened in this nation since slavery.” REALLY?!) but also wants to eliminate Medicare & Medicaid & to raise the age of eligibility for Social Security. Strongly opposes same sex marriage (implied it leads to bestiality, among other things), LGBT civil rights, womens’ rights, etc etc etc. Does not, even as a doctor, apparently understand medical research or history. Strongly pushes for “religious freedom” & wants religion “back in” government AND in our classrooms. Opposes Common Core educational goals, wants “creationism” taught in schools — doesn’t apparently believe in evolution…

    And let me repeat, that both these “gents” (actually ALL repub candidates) somehow believe that religion is under fire in this country, that it isn’t represented or relied upon heavily enough in government and education, & that it belongs on an equal footing with scientific knowledge.

    Of Carson the author said he “seemed to be the most grounded of the candidates based on the research I had done.” Really? That any one of these guys can be called “grounded” in any manner is just ridiculous.

    If you are an atheist (someone who likely leans toward logic & reason) AND a conservative — in one old sense: “a person who is cautiously moderate, averse to change and holds to traditional values and attitudes” — I can (sort of) see why you might want to identify &/or support a candidate who presents themselves as likewise being “conservative”.

    But you should be very, VERY wary about what they actually mean by that. Because for the most part, they do NOT mean what you think they mean!

    Why would any rational, thinking person (atheist or not) even consider ANY of the Republicans who are calling themselves presidential candidates? And by extension (assuming being an atheist means one is rational), why would ANY atheist even consider any of these idiots? At the very least, they are simply nuts & time wasters. At their very worst (think Walker & Cruz), they are dangerous & should not even be in the offices they already inhabit.

  • Atheists as a voting bloc is a silly idea, much akin to Methodists or birdwatchers as a voting bloc. There are Atheists who are politically conservative, liberal, and even libertarian (A recent, unscientific poll of LP membership indicated that roughly 40% of Libertarians are Atheists/Agnostics). While their Atheism may advise their choice within their preferred philosophy, it is highly improbable they would unite behind a single candidate.

    • Unrepentant Atheist

      You are correct on how diverse a group we are, however there are a few topics that we could be very motivated toward. One example is the separation of Church and State. If we are not careful and do not get more involved, the recent successes we have had in removing religious propaganda from government properties and schools will get reversed as Christians have way more clout than we do at this time. We are lucky that many judges have a rational head on their shoulders.

      The Christians are too tied up at the moment worrying about what gays are doing in the bed room to really notice Atheist groups, but this will not be always the case. We need to build some kind of footing so that we do not end up in more of a theocracy than we already are.

      • Edward James Oldenburg

        I believe that it is time for Atheists to form our own political party. We could call it, The Freedom Party.

  • Unrepentant Atheist

    Great article. I would have guessed the result prior to the research you did, but the research needed to be done anyways. If we have more people like you reaching out and asking questions, eventually one of them is going to ask, “What is with all the Atheist questions as of late?”.

    Then they will start paying more attention. Conservative is not synonymous with religion.

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