Attendees of the 2015 Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) got a surprise during yesterday's early afternoon session: For perhaps the first time ever, an out-and-out atheist was addressing them from the flagship event's main stage.
Jamila Bey is a mom, a business owner, a Pittsburgh native—and a board member of the group American Atheists. She also, apparently, identifies as conservative. After introducing herself to the crowd, Bey used her three-minute spot to invite audience members to drop by the American Atheist table in the exhibition hall and learn more.
American Atheists is at CPAC on a mission, according to the organization's president, David Silverman. "By our calculations there are approximately 17 to 20 million atheists in this country who would vote Republican but don't," he says. "And we theorize, very reasonably, I think, that they don't vote Republican because the Republicans are pushing them away. I don't vote Republican because Republicans push me away."
The group wants conservative leaders to consider doing the unthinkable and not leading with their faith. "If they come out with 'We're a Christian nation,' that's akin to saying I'm somehow less of an American. So why should I vote for that?" Silverman asks. "If somebody comes out and says, 'I can't trust people who don't pray,' well, I don't pray. So when the conservatives come out, instead of saying we're for small government, and responsible gun rights, and a strong military, they're saying all of that after they say I'm a second-class citizen."
Silverman thinks this would be a win-win, benefitting both atheists and the GOP. Republicans would gain access to tens of millions of secular voters who agree with them on the issues already—and right-leaning nonbelievers would get a real choice. Right now, "atheists by and large only have one party for which to vote," he says. "We're voting Democrat in huge numbers, but it's a defensive move. It's not because we agree with the policies, it's because atheists are afraid of Republicans, because Republicans are overtly hostile to us. And that's wrong."
Bey, speaking to attendees at the organization's booth, is warm and welcoming. She describes American Atheists as a "First Amendment group," says "I love this country and I love this Constitution," and insists, "We're not here to hurt anyone or tell anyone that they're not free to worship or believe. We are just here to say, you can't say in order to believe in small government, you have to believe in Jesus. In order to believe that an American child should be well-educated, you've got to give the glory to God. That's all we're saying."
The group believes their message is resonating. "People have been wonderful to me," Bey says. Minutes later, a woman who appears to be in her 60s or 70s walks by and, pointing at Bey, says, "Great job. Great job." Smiling widely, Bey says, "Thank you!" then turns back to me and another reporter. "That's what people have been doing all day to me. I'm not exaggerating, that's probably the hundredth person who's walked past me and said, 'Hi, good job!'" As for haters? "I haven't gotten one."
American Atheists had to fight for its place at the conference this year. Silverman says the group paid for a table at 2014's CPAC only to have their booth pulled and their money returned to them after "certain members of the religious right" complained. He came anyway, handing out flyers in the hallway and encouraging attendees to urge CPAC to let them have a table in 2015. Apparently it worked.
Whether Bey and Silverman will have success convincing conservatives to stop talking about religion is another story. Their main point seems to be that faith is a private thing, and politicians should keep theirs to themselves. To many on the right, that's simply not the way it ought to be.
Despite Silverman's claims, the group's policy positions may also hurt it. American Atheists, in addition to opposing mandatory school prayer and tax breaks for religious but not secular nonprofits, wants to completely overturn the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. That's the law that gave us last summer's Hobby Lobby Supreme Court ruling, allowing certain religious business owners to opt out of providing contraception coverage to their workers. Silverman is adamant that employers are "public accommodations" and that faith-based objections are irrelevant—nobody should be excused from following the law.
That stance is unlikely to win him many friends at a place like CPAC. But at least this year he has a seat at the table to make his case.
UPDATE 3/2/15: Jason Torpy, president of the Military Association of Atheists & Freethinkers, points out that many atheists serve their country in the armed forces. He wants Reason readers to know there are nonbelievers in foxholes as well as at CPAC, contra my subheadline.