A Different Approach To Religion In Politics
When we think of Atheism in America, the first image in your head is probably not of the Republican Party. Lauren Ell, the founder of Republican Atheists, is trying to change that viewpoint. The organization has been created for those who do not believe in god but also agree with the Republican political agenda. While the Republican Party is inextricably perceived to be solely linked to Christianity, while Atheism is linked with political liberalism, there is more nuance in the intersection of religion and politics.
Ell explains how she has not been met by open discussion, but rather hostility by certain media personalities and organizations. We discuss this hostility, the changing nature of atheism, and the future of religion in politics.
World Religion News: How would you define someone who is a Republican Atheist?
Lauren Ell: Someone who’s a Republican atheist. Well, it would just be someone who identifies as an atheist and is a registered Republican.
WRN: Is there a candidate or politician who you see embodying those two qualities?
LE: I don’t know of anyone at the moment, but I have known of two in recent history. There will be more. I will mention though that I am in contact with a number of atheist Republicans who are involved in local Republican groups. Some are even at a state level and have helped with Republican campaigns.
WRN: That leads me to my next question. Is there a historical precedent for this or would you call this a relatively new thought process?
LE: I don’t think atheist Republicans are new. They are new in the sense of being more outspoken about their atheist views, but they have existed as far back as the Civil War era. My organization, Republican Atheists, is the first organization I know of at this point that is representing atheist Republicans.
“I don’t think atheist Republicans are new. They are new in the sense of being more outspoken about their atheist views, but they have existed as far back as the Civil War era.”
WRN: So you’ve mentioned you had this treatment by certain podcasters and writers, could you go into that in more detail?
LE: I started Republican Atheists in February of 2017 as an experimental project. I haven’t been involved with atheist organizations at all in the United States, such as American Atheists, Freedom From Religion Foundation, or Secular Coalition for America. Originally I had assumed these organizations would take some interest in Republican Atheists. I didn’t expect them to embrace our political views, but I thought at least they would maybe mention the existence of Republican Atheists to their base, considering many of these atheist organizations claim they are representing the entire atheist community in the United States. But I found when I contacted groups I did not get much response from them. They did not respond to the idea of mentioning Republican Atheists to their base.
I was in contact with the Secular Coalition for America who at first had interest in Republican Atheists and said they would publish a guest article by me. I was in touch with their media coordinator and we discussed a topic to write about, and I wrote an article for them. It ended up being scrapped because they didn’t like my wording in the article, so I wrote it according to what they recommended and did multiple edits over a period of months. Despite all that time and effort of meeting their requests, at the end of the day they did not publish the article and didn’t even mention Republican Atheists to their base. They actually have not been responsive to me ever since. Some organizations haven’t responded to us at all, so I keep chipping away to build our relevance in the atheist community.
WRN: I would be interested in knowing about podcasters because you mentioned that specifically.
LE: I had an experience with one atheist podcast called Cognitive Dissonance. I actually hadn’t listened to them much, but I sent them an email introducing myself and offered to be interviewed on their show. They agreed to do a 45-minute interview. I was pretty excited because they are one of the more known atheist podcasts. I would say they have around 17,000 followers on Facebook. I ended up doing the interview with them, but they hung up on me 15 minutes into the interview because I mentioned something they didn’t agree with. They called it “the dumbest interview they’ve ever done.” I have actually been met with much more interest in gaining understanding by Christian podcasters.
Welp, we just hung up on our first guest.
— Cognitive Dissonance (@dissonance_pod) August 18, 2017
WRN: What was the particular issue they didn’t agree with?
LE: We were talking about prominent movements such as Women’s March and the Occupy Movement which was big back in 2011. We discussed who is behind the movements in terms of people who financed protests, and I mentioned the name George Soros. The hosts didn’t want to continue the conversation after that.
WRN: Why do you think it is that organizations that list as part of the mission statement the importance of critical thinking and making sure that you avoid monolithic thinking about ideas seem not to allow different versions of atheism?
LE: I think atheism is growing so much in the U.S. that atheism in itself is not significant anymore. I think for a long time atheists in the U.S. were trying to be accepted so they can at least go out in society and say they are atheists. Now, from my perspective, it seems atheists can go out and do that. There are atheist groups all over the place and even atheist conventions. I think many atheist organizations have had to find relevance which has led them to latch onto specific political ideology and ultimately develop more unified thinking.
“Many atheist organizations have had to find relevance which has led them to latch onto specific political ideology and ultimately develop more unified thinking.”
WRN: Why do you use the term Republican which has become so tied to a belief in organized faith or religion, specifically Christianity?
LE: Well, there’s a history of the Christian community latching onto the Republican Party, and it is particularly noted during the Reagan era in the 1980s. Before that Christianity was not a huge part of the Republican Party, and so that’s become a big part of the party. For an organization like Republican Atheists to come about is indeed a new thing.
WRN: What would you say to those that state for Republicans to be voted in and their agenda to be passed there has to be that link with Christian organizations? Trump was in support of white evangelicals. Cheney used Christian organizations to help mobilize votes for Bush both in 2000 and 2004. How is it possible to separate that link now?
LE: I focus on the long-term for the Republican Party. I think over time it’s not going to be so significant to have religious affiliation in the party. There are many reports saying the millennial generation has the least value for religion compared to any generation in the past in American history, and from these predictions I’ve read it’s just going to continue. This is going to play a role in the Republican Party and conservative community as time goes on and is already playing a role now. There’s a popular political organization on college campuses called Turning Point USA that does not focus on religion but instead focuses on more general issues like economics, second amendment, and school choice. There is an organization for conservative women on college campuses now that is lenient on religion. This push to represent conservative views on college campuses has been amazing to watch. It’s exciting to talk to the young people on these college campuses who are involved in these organizations. They don’t value religion very much. Many of them might be Christian, but they are fairly lenient on their religious faith and they think there is importance for separation of church and state. So I do believe, as time goes on, there is going to be less value of religion in the Republican Party. In terms of “separating that link” completely, that is not one of my goals.
“Over time it’s not going to be so significant to have religious affiliation in the party.”
WRN: Why do you think that, as you put it, “left wing” issues and atheism have been linked?
LE: I think a theme in the general U.S. atheist community has been to go against anything that is Christian, which plays a role in what many atheist organizations put forth. The Republican Party consists of a large number of Christians, so the U.S. atheist reaction has typically been to just go against the Republican Party. Anything Christians value and associate with, it seems like atheist organizations try to combat it. For example, in the Republican Party, we’ll hear about 2nd Amendment and value of the military. I feel when I talk to atheists, they associate talking about 2nd Amendment, military and so forth as associating with Christianity. I have actually been called a “Christian” by many atheists when I bring up issues like the 2nd Amendment, lowering taxes, and repealing government programs. Somehow general conservative views have been jumbled up with Christianity and U.S. atheists tend to not see the difference.
“I have actually been called a ‘Christian’ by many atheists when I bring up issues like the 2nd Amendment, lowering taxes, and repealing government programs.”
WRN: So they’ve associated specific views on issues that don’t relate to Christianity directly, but they still associate it with Christianity. You’re saying within the Republican Party base you can reach a similar conclusion but through a different process and different thinking?
LE: Yes, that is what I do when I communicate with Republicans and Christians. I don’t bring up my atheist views up front and instead focus on what we have in common. I actually never really feel the need to talk about my atheist views unless I am trying to make a point about the existence of atheist Republicans. When I talk to people, I try to find what we have in common in terms of political policies and social policies. We’ll talk about education, taxation, freedom of speech, and so forth. I find a commonality with them, and once we have that commonality, they see that even though I’m atheist we have a lot in common. That is the situation I like to be in.
WRN: This reminds me of Christopher Hitchens who was both an outspoken atheist and had several politically conservative stances. Is there anyone who you look to as a person who’s advocating besides of course yourself?
LE: There is a woman who is very impressive, and I wish she was mentioned a lot more. Her name is Jillian Becker, and she manages a blog called The Atheist Conservative. One thing I point out about Jillian Becker is she does not promote the Republican Party. Her thing is just conservatism, and there’s a difference. I always have to point out there’s a difference between an atheist conservative and an atheist Republican. I know a lot of people get it intertwined and sometimes conservatives get a little irritated. But Jillian Becker and I get along pretty well because we see eye to eye on a lot of issues. If you look her up you will see she has an impressive resume. She’s on Wikipedia. She has spoken with the British Parliament in regards to terrorism in the past. She’s a published author, has been featured in interviews, and is very outspoken. She is older now, so I wish she was mentioned more often. I also note Heather Mac Donald who is a published author and a conservative atheist. She was recently shut down on college campuses in California, and she has been interviewed about it.
WRN: You mention that you found on college campuses more people are less religious, but as you just said people that are associated with conservatism or Republicanism are being shut down. Do you think if people are not open to a religion it automatically means they would be interested in listening to Republican issues without the thought processes of religion?
LE: From my observations, it doesn’t matter if religion is involved or not, at least when I talked to atheists. I thought if I presented myself as an atheist and then as a Republican, then I would have some respect from atheists and maybe even some interest. Perhaps they would like to sit down and have a conversation, but I haven’t found that to be the case. I find even if I am atheist and Republican, or I note that I have interest in conservative values, many atheists still don’t want to talk. They think I’m with the Christians now, and as I said previously, will even call me a Christian. So it doesn’t seem like religion itself is what people have issues with, it’s the words “Republican,” and “conservative.” A lot of people seem not to understand what these words mean and don’t want to talk about it.
“It doesn’t seem like religion itself is what people have issues with, it’s the words “Republican,” and “conservative.” A lot of people seem not to understand what these words mean and don’t want to talk about it.”
WRN: It sounds like no matter who you’re talking about they focus on a singular word rather than the entire message. And so based on that how do you feel about religious freedom as it proposed by President Trump and his administration?
LE: First, Republican Atheists does not have an official platform of views at this point in time since we are such a small group and simply want to build a platform for atheist Republicans. Personally speaking as president, however, I am not very concerned about the religious discussions that have taken place so far by the Trump administration. I ultimately know in the long run the U.S. is going to value religion less, so I view these issues at hiccups. I have been putting more focus on connecting with atheist Republicans and atheist conservatives across the country.
WRN: So you believe any involvement a religious group takes with the government is a violation of the Establishment Clause?
LE: This is not a yes or no question for us. Generally, we do think separation of church and state is important primarily to prevent the government from funding religion, as well as to prevent government intervention in religious institutions. However, we also take interest in freedom to practice religion and are not out to scrub religious reference out of every public institution or to force businesses to drop their religious values. So we do have a certain degree of leniency.
WRN: Would you say public figures who are disparaging against any religious organization and attacking them would then be something that is good? For example, the confirmation of Mike Pompeo included negative statements he has made against Islam.
LE: I think we should point out specific religions. I’m actually based in Sweden currently and have been living here for over two years now. What has happened in Sweden as a result of mass migration since 2014 is one of the reasons why I took interest in starting Republican Atheists. Mass migration is a huge issue in Europe to this day and has changed the political landscape immensely. I think Islam is a huge concern. I’ve seen the impact mass migration has been having in Europe since most of the refugees who came to Europe are of the Muslim faith, and I think there have been more conflicts than what was predicted. I take what I see here in Europe and compare it to what the U.S. is doing, and I don’t understand why there is a lack of discussion about Islam in the U.S. I find many atheist organizations don’t talk about Islam much and don’t take interest in what’s happening in Europe. They focus on Christianity all the time because their only focus is the United States. It’s like they don’t expand on what else is happening in the world. So there is this dual perspective I see in regards to discussing certain religions.
WRN: Is there particular legislation you’re looking for? Is there right now a series of laws you would either eliminate or laws or extra protections added that you think would match the Republican Atheist agenda?
LE: Everything that I’m saying at this point is my personal opinion, not an official stance for Republican Atheists. A priority for me is school choice, such as parents having more options in choosing what school their child attends. I’m also interested in immigration policies, as well as generally discussing the acceptance of conservative views in the public spectrum. It is really exciting to see conservative speakers trying to speak on college campuses and be accepted more in society. I am generally supportive of US support for Israel, as well as not stepping aside for UN and EU on international policy.
WRN: You’ve mentioned briefly that when talking to certain conservative groups you’ve not mentioned atheism. Do you find the same level of exclusion in discussing these issues within Republican circles because of being an atheist?
LE: Since I am living abroad, much of my experience in communication at this point in time has been on the internet, primarily in atheist, conservative and Republican Facebook groups and forums. Talking online seems to be standard for many young atheists, conservatives and Republicans. Unfortunately the online realm is where a lot of people let out their frustrations, but generally speaking, I have been met with more tolerance in Republican and conservative groups than in atheist groups.
When you get into an atheist Facebook group it’s just crazy. People tend to not be so open-minded and can be very domineering and careless. Many conservative atheists have found that they don’t feel accepted in these groups, and are often attacked and even kicked out. So a number of atheist conservative groups have formed on Facebook, and there’s even a group called Atheists for Trump. I have a Facebook group called Republican Atheists.