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Here's what it's like being an atheist in the Democratic Party


Here's what it's like being an atheist in the Democratic Party

Of the 20,000 Democratic National Committee emails released by Wikileaks this week, one of the most memorable was one that showed a DNC staffer appearing to target Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders over his religious beliefs.

"I think I read he is an atheist," the e-mail read. "My Southern Baptist peeps would draw a big difference between a Jew and an atheist." 

The e-mail could lead one to believe that being an atheist is a liability in Democratic politics. But in reality, secularism is growing in the party -- and its growth was on full display at the Democratic National Convention this week.

On Monday, atheist, agnostic, and otherwise non-religious delegates to the DNC met at Philadelphia's Hilton Garden Inn for a drink. The event was organized by the Secular Coalition for America, a lobbying group that advocates complete separation of church and state.

Larry Decker, the group's director, told Circa that there are more openly non-religious people at this year's DNC than ever before.

"This is the first time we've really had a presence at a convention," he said. "The party has seen a great deal of progress."

According to the Pew Research Center, "nones" -- people who don't identify with any religion -- make up 23 percent of American adults.

In the Democratic Party, that number is even bigger. 28 percent of Democrats are non-religious, Pew's research shows.

Conversely, people who identify as non-religious are much more likely to vote Democratic. 70 percent of self-identifying atheists, for example, voted for President Obama in 2012, according to Pew

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James White, a Texas delegate and an atheist.

One of those atheists is James White, a Texas delegate for Hillary Clinton at this year's DNC. At the convention on Monday, White was wearing a shirt that read, "I'm actually an atheist."

White said he still feels it's necessary to publicly broadcast his beliefs to promote acceptance of atheism within the party.

"When we make it safe for people to realize that a nearly 60-year-old Texas middle-aged white guy is an atheist and a Democrat, those things make it easier for others to come forward too," he said.

There has been some progress, White said. Earlier this year, the Texas Democratic Party adopted three secular resolutions into its official policy platform.

The Texas Democratic Party platform now includes "a resolution to repeal religious exemptions to child protection laws; a resolution to strike discriminatory language from the state Constitution that bars non-theists from holding elected office; and a resolution supporting secular reproductive health care policies," according to the Secular Coalition

There is still some stigma, however, associated with being a non-believer in the Democratic Party.

Karalee Hargrove, a California delegate for Bernie Sanders, said she experienced it firsthand when she ran for California state assembly in 2014.

"I did get a lot of pushback saying Karalee was endorsed by a devil-worshipper and things like that," she said. "So the biggest problem is educating people on what freethinkers are, what secularism is, instead of them thinking it's a devil worshipping situation."

I think that its imperative that we stand up to the notion that atheists are immoral people who shouldn't hold public office.
Larry Decker

While Decker said acceptance of secularism in politics is growing, he also said the DNC's email targeting Sanders for atheism showed there's still a long way to go before non-religious people have full support from the Democratic Party.

"We fight to change that bigotry every single day, and I think that its imperative that we stand up to the notion that atheists are immoral people who shouldn't hold public office when in fact we have a number of openly elected atheist officials across the country," Decker said.

"We'd like to see those numbers grow -- in the Democratic Party, in the Republican Party and elsewhere."

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