Atheist ranks aren't solid, even in politics, says an eyebrow-raising RNS piece

Atheists differ strongly on views of religion, of themselves, even what group to join; Richard Dawkins famously compared organizing atheists to herding cats. But I'll confess that I never thought of political differences also -- not until I read a new story from the Religion News Service.

The article is couched in terms of the presidential race -- as almost every American news story this season seems to be -- but have patience. It's a fresh approach to a little-reported facet of religious (or non-religious) life.

RNS veteran Kimberly Winston starts with the event that may have gotten her attention: a video by atheist blogger Hemant Mehta. He gets pretty strident in his attitude toward Trump, and anyone who supports him:

"I don’t want a president who couldn’t even explain evolution. I don’t want a president who can’t tell fact from fiction and seems to believe anything someone tells him on Twitter," Mehta says in a recent You Tube video that has garnered a lot of attention in atheist corners.
"If I wanted to hear people whose best evidence for their belief is, ‘Well, some people have said,’ then I’d go to church."
So, Mehta, best known as "The Friendly Atheist"  on his popular blog, will vote for Hillary Clinton — and he spends more than seven minutes trying to persuade other atheists to do the same because, he believes, she — a lifelong Methodist — is the only candidate who shares their core values of separation of church and state, LGBT equality and science-based education.

Winston then reveals what may surprise: Despite their commitment to pluralism and liberal politics, Democrats cannot expect a bloc vote from atheists.  "For some, the choice is not clear," the story says of the 2016 race.

RNS largely sidesteps weighing the political talking points themselves. Instead, it scopes out a few factions and explains their choices -- and why, despite some loud voices, no one speaks for all atheists:

Historically, they have voted Democratic and liberal — a new poll by the Public Religion Research Institute and RNS found the religiously unaffiliated preferred Clinton to Trump by a ratio of 2-to-1— but they tend to be independents.
And while most voted for Barack Obama and Al Gore, politically conservative atheists tend to vote Republican and have made themselves heard in the general din of this election. Leaders of atheist and secular organizations with political agendas know they ignore them at their peril.

RNS then introduces us to Jillian Becker, a writer at The Atheist Conservative blog. She ticks off immigration reform, tax reform and even skepticism about climate change as things she likes about Donald Trump. And atheist scholar Robert M. Price even approves Trump's vow to repeal the Johnson Amendment, which bans 501(c)(3) tax-exempt organizations -- including churches -- out of electoral politics.

The latter is a great reader service by RNS. I'll bet a lot of people assume that political sermons are unconstitutional. They're not -- it was only in 1954 that it was introduced by then-Senator Lyndon B. Johnson.

RNS blurs it a bit, though, when it says the law "prevents clergy from politicking in the pulpit." Not exactly. The codified law mainly forbids the tax-exempt groups from intervening in electoral politics -- either by endorsing or denouncing candidates, or by donating to campaigns. Other matters, such as government policies, are not covered. I've attended church-sponsored rallies -- both conservative and liberal -- where clergy spoke out on racism, immigration, healthcare, abortion and the war in Iraq, and no one threatened their tax exemptions.

Still, the article gets a remarkable comment from Price: "I think the doctrine of church-state separation has been redefined to mean that religion must be scrubbed from the public square. This is a suppression of religious freedom. Trump is right to oppose it."

A more basic lack in this story is a count of atheists: The Pew Forum this year found they amount to 3.1 percent of Americans. RNS also may be overstating the strength of the pro-Trump faction within atheism. The same Pew study found that 69 percent of atheists identify as Democrats (or lean in that direction), and 56 percent call themselves political liberals. 

But they don’t seem to gravitate to Mehta's video, which on YouTube has gotten only a little more than 23,000 views. Among his more extreme claims, which RNS doesn't mention, are that Trump's Supreme Court nominees are "hell-bent on merging Christianity with the government"; that Trump would try to force employees to say "Merry Christmas" instead of "Happy Holidays"; and that conservative Christians are "pulling the puppet strings" in his organization. And Mehta gets sarcastic about third-party votes: "Your protest vote is adorable."  

In contrast, an opposition YouTube video -- by T.J. Kirk, who calls himself "The Amazing Atheist" -- has reaped nearly a quarter-million hits. Kirk says approvingly that Trump has "pushed the Republican Party left," as with economic protectionism. He regards Trump as pretty much like other politicians, except that "what they cloak in euphemisms, he just blurts out like a tactless dolt." And Kirk's message has reaped more than 240,000 hits.

Although RNS strove to keep the focus narrow, I wonder if they could have worked in comments from the candidates? It might have been interesting to read their reactions to the two atheist videos. RNS could have just asked Trump and Clinton for emailed quotes, as they got from Jillian Becker.  But maybe length was a consideration: The article already topped 1,000 words, and readers have their limits.

The only other thing I would have really liked to see was something from The Satanic Temple, which RNS wrote up just last week. That story had spokesman Lucien Greaves play up common values with other atheists. I'm sure he would be more than happy to comment for this article, too.

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