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Is It Just an 'Atheists' Club'? Inside the House of Representatives' New Freethought Caucus

As religious tensions flare in the House, four Democratic congressmen are launching a new group dedicated to science-based policy, separation of church and state, and freedom for all—including atheists.
Rep. Jared Huffman, one of the founders of the Freethought Caucus, identifies as a "humanist." He was the second member of Congress ever to openly profess to having an ethical system that's not based on God.

Rep. Jared Huffman, one of the founders of the Freethought Caucus, identifies as a "humanist." He was the second member of Congress ever to openly profess to having an ethical system that's not based on God.

The nearly 500 registered caucuses in the House of Representatives cover seemingly every issue. They represent social problems (Homelessness Caucus, Military Sexual Assault Prevention Caucus); industries (Coal Caucus, Steel Caucus); diseases (Caucus on Parkinson's Disease, Childhood Cancer Caucus); and foreign relations (Friends of Switzerland Caucus, U.S.-China Working Group). They are liberal (Progressive Caucus), conservative (Freedom Caucus), and bipartisan (Bipartisan Congressional Task Force to Combat Identity Theft and Fraud). They can be made up of only a single member, or dozens.

Despite this diversity, historians Pacific Standard consulted have never heard of anything quite like the new caucus announced last week by four Democratic congressmen: the Freethought Caucus. Formed in consultation with groups that advocate for non-theist world views, the Freethought Caucus has four goals, according to its press release:

1) to promote public policy formed on the basis of reason, science, and moral values; 2) to protect the secular character of our government by adhering to the strict Constitutional principle of the separation of church and state; 3) to oppose discrimination against atheists, agnostics, humanists, seekers, religious and nonreligious persons ... and 4) to provide a forum for members of Congress to discuss their moral frameworks, ethical values, and personal religious journeys.

"It hearkens back to Enlightenment ideas from when this country was started," says Ray Smock, who was the House of Representatives historian from 1983 to 1995. "Aside from that thought, I've never heard of anything quite like it."

Stephen Weldon, a historian of science and religion at the University of Oklahoma, pointed to polls showing what a political liability it is for a candidate to be atheist. "So to have a Congressional Freethought Caucus is pretty historic, I would say," he writes in an email exchange.

That said, it might just be the right moment for something like this. The timing doesn't surprise Matt Glassman, a researcher who once wrote about caucuses for the Congressional Research Service. "I think there's a fair number of groups in politics who are concerned about the role religion's playing in public policy," he says. "That's not new, but it does seem to be a growing sentiment among some factions, particularly on the liberal side of things."

The caucus' founding members are Representatives Dan Kildee (D-Michigan), Jamie Raskin (D-Maryland), Jerry McNerney (D-California), and Jared Huffman (D-California). Huffman is the second member of Congress ever to openly profess to having an ethical system that's not based on God. Representative Pramila Jayapal, a Democrat from Washington state's liberal Seattle area, has tweeted that she's a member of the caucus as well. The offices of co-chairs Huffman and Raskin didn't respond to interview requests.

In an interview, Ron Millar, who is the coordinator of the Freethought Equality Fund Political Action Committee and helped plan the caucus, mentioned more specific aims that the PAC wants to see: action against climate change; access to contraception and abortion; lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender rights; and maintaining the Johnson Amendment. The Johnson Amendment prohibits tax-exempt non-profits, including religious organizations, from endorsing political candidates. In a speech last year, President Donald Trump promised he would "get rid of and totally destroy" the amendment, but he then signed an executive order that made little substantive change to the law, which remains in effect, USA Today reports.

"Church-state separation has been under attack now for quite a while, and we just want to make sure policies are promoted with evidence and rational thought behind them," Millar says.

At first glance, it seems strange to package discussions of personal religious journeys and the rest of these policy goals into one cohesive platform. After all, you don't have to be an atheist to support science-based policy, and there seems to be no natural connection between climate action and separation of church and state. But the Freethought Caucus is a reaction against how some conservatives have blended faith and policy over the past few decades, Millar says: "The connection is that we wouldn't be talking about these things without the religious right."

Conservative evangelical Christians first became associated with climate deregulation during the George W. Bush administration. In a recent textbook about religion and environmentalism, historians Myrna Perez Sheldon and Naomi Oreskes describe the steps that they argue led evangelical Christians to become climate deniers: Christian fundamentalists began to develop an ethos of interpreting the Bible plainly and rejecting Darwinian evolution in the 1920s. It was not until the 1980s, however, that evangelicals really began to participate in politics, when then-presidential candidate Ronald Reagan courted them and evangelical leaders, such as Jerry Falwell, touted the Republican Party as the surest route to goals such as curtailing abortion access and gay rights.

During that decade, evangelicals pushed to get public schools to teach creationism and evolution equally—but courts struck them down, ruling that creationism is religion, not science, and therefore can't be taught in taxpayer-funded programs. In response, creationists argued that they too had science on their side, but that mainstream researchers refused to acknowledge the supposed evidence undermining evolution. It was no surprise, then, when creationists began to doubt scientific consensus when it came to climate change too.

Thus, denying evolution set the stage for denying climate change among certain religious folks. It doesn't have to be this way: There are evangelical environmentalists who support climate action as either a way of being good stewards of God's creation, or of protecting the world's poor, who are most vulnerable to global warming. But those aren't the people who show up most visibly in politics.

"People have really diverse views on what they think God is, and so I think we need to allow people to have that and explore it," says Millar, who is an atheist but grew up in a fundamentalist church. So now there's a caucus ostensibly for religion in all its forms outside of the usual conservative platform. The Freethought Caucus is not an "atheist club," Millar says, and is "open to everyone who believes in church-state separation and non-discrimination."

Whether the caucus will be able to garner enough support to be effective remains to be seen. Former House historian Smock thinks the group needs to attract at least a couple dozen members before it can have much clout. Right now, "this caucus is so small it could meet in a phone booth," he says. "It's not big enough to affect policy, but I'm certainly glad to see the ideas. There's room for a larger caucus to discuss public policy and moral values, that's for sure."