“…no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States.” U.S. Constitution – Article VI, Section 3
The Constitution prohibits any religious test for public office; however, being an atheist in the electoral arena has been a powerful political taboo in our nation. Fortunately, this negative stigma is diminishing and the reason is simple demographics – the number of religiously unaffiliated American is growing rapidly. The Pew Research Center uses the short hand of “nones” for the religiously unaffiliated, which includes people who identify as either atheist or agnostic and those who say their religion is “nothing in particular.” According to Pew research “nones” have grown from 16% in 2007 to 23% in 2014, and is the largest “religious group” in the Democratic Party. With a third of Millennials in the “nones” category, the religiously unaffiliated community will continue to grow. If you just consider Americans who self-identify as atheists and agnostics, this community is as large as the Jewish, Muslim, Mormon, Orthodox Christian, Buddhist, Jehovah’s Witness, and Hindu communities combined!
Americans are also more and more open to voting for atheist candidates. Since 1958 Gallop has asked Americans if they would vote for a well-qualified presidential candidate who was an atheist. In the first poll only 18 percent of Americans said they would vote for an atheist. In 1999, for the first time, a slim majority said they would vote for an atheist candidate. In Gallop’s 2015 poll, 58 percent of Americans said they would vote for an atheist presidential candidate. The willingness to vote for an atheist presidential candidate varies greatly by generation: 75% of those 18 to 29 years of age, 63% of those 30 to 49, 50% of those 50 to 64, and 48% of those 65 and over; and by political party: 64% of Democrats, 61% of independents, and 45% of Republicans.
Because of the changes in demographics and the increasing acceptance of atheists by voters, the time has come for atheist, agnostic, humanist, and other nontheistic elected officials to serve openly as secular Americans and for more openly secular candidates to run for office. Our democracy is impoverished, and the quality of our political candidates is diminished, if a quarter of the population is effectively removed from the electoral arena, and the negative stigma that still exists will only be eliminated when Americans have respected and ethical secular leaders in public office.
Having atheists and humanists run professional and effective campaigns for public office is an important method to remove the unjustified bias against our community and promote the public policies that are important to secular — and all — Americans. Do not let your secular identify prevent you from running for office.
A few helpful guidelines for running for office can be found below. For a more informative guide read 10 Things to Know When Running for Office as a Humanist by Seráh Blain and Evan Clark of Spectrum Experience, a leader in identifying and promoting secular candidates.
Survey your time and talents to determine what elected and/or appointed public office would be the best fit for you. Talk to your family, friends, and political contacts to determine the best position to seek and time to run. Running for office is a serious commitment and must be done with appropriate planning and personal resolve.
Generally, there are two types of campaigns: running to win (the incumbent is weak or it is an open seat) or running to educate (facing an entrenched incumbent – but there is an opportunity to promote policy issues and remove the bias against atheists and humanists). Both types of campaigns are important, but you should analyze the race to determine the type of campaign you are facing.
The Federal Election Commission (FEC) provides information on running a federal campaign. For state campaigns, resources can be found through your state’s Secretary of State, who can provide information on election calendars, election laws, filing fees and procedures, and campaign finance. Contact your city or county government for information on local election procedures and requirements.
Additional resources can be obtained from your national, state, and local political parties.
Organizations such as Progressive Change Campaign Committee (PCCC), 314 Action (scientists), Run for Something (under 35 years old), Victory Fund (LGBTQ), Emerge America (women), Emily List (women), Higher Heights for America (African-American women), and Latino Victory Project (Latino/a) provide targeted leadership and electoral training programs.
Wellstone Action provides excellent in person training programs and free on-line tools like Winning the Wellstone Way, a comprehensive guide to running a campaign. Democracy for America and 314 Action provides free on-line videos of their candidate training sessions. The Daily Kos hosts Nuts and Bolts: A Guide to Democratic Campaigns that discusses issues to help campaigns be successful. Contact the Freethought Equality Fund for possible financial support for campaign and leadership training.
Still unsure about running for office? – please read Howard Katz’s essay “I’m Doing My Part – Are You?”