"The Democratic Party wants every Democrat to have a voice ... This year's platform process is the most representative and inclusive in history," says the Democratic National Convention's website. A quick scan of the 51-page document would seem to support this claim. African Americans, Latinos, Asian Americans, Pacific Islanders, Native Americans, lesbians, gays, bisexuals, transgender people, people with disabilities, other people of color, people with autism, people with drug addictions, and young people all merit a mention, and Democrats officially state that "black lives matter." This level of inclusivity is worth celebrating. But one important group is missing from the DNC's platform: atheists.
Perhaps more problematic than the exclusion of the nonreligious from the platform is a recently leaked email message from DNC CFO Brad Marshall in which he suggested to colleagues that the DNC should "get someone to ask" Sen. Bernie Sanders about his religious beliefs in order to undermine his presidential campaign. "Does he believe in a God," wrote Marshall. "He had skated on saying he has a Jewish heritage. I think I read he is an atheist. This could make several points difference with my peeps."
Marshall has since publicly apologized to "those [he] offended," including his colleagues at the DNC. The party has sought to distance itself from his remarks. He did not, however, publicly apologize for suggesting that Sanders' religious beliefs (or lack thereof) should be used against him.
Atheist groups have called for Marshall's resignation. "It is unacceptable that Sanders' faith was called into question in that way, and that [DNC officials] view [his purported atheism] as a negative," says Nick Fish, national program director of American Atheists, an interview with Bustle.
Paul Fidalgo, communications director of the Center for Inquiry, which is dedicated to fostering a secular society, tells Bustle in an email he found Marshall's email "deeply dispiriting." He says that the nonreligious have worked very hard "to be seen as equals, to fight off the absurd and baseless prejudice that atheists somehow lack morals or are untrustworthy." Fidalgo is particularly distressed that none of Marshall's colleagues appear to have rejected his suggestion via email.
The DNC has not responded to Bustle's request for comment about the exclusion of atheists from the platform. However, Mark Paustenbach, the DNC's national press secretary and deputy communications director (and one of the recipients of Marshall's email), responded to my question about how he replied to Marshall's proposal with the following statement:
On behalf of everyone at the DNC, we want to offer a deep and sincere apology to Senator Sanders, his supporters, and the entire Democratic Party for the inexcusable remarks made over email. These comments do not reflect the values of the DNC or our steadfast commitment to neutrality during the nominating process. The DNC does not — and will not — tolerate disrespectful language exhibited toward our candidates. Individual staffers have also rightfully apologized for their comments, and the DNC is taking appropriate action to ensure it never happens again.
We are embarking on a convention today that — thanks to the great efforts of Secretary Clinton, her team, Senator Sanders, his team, and the entire Democratic Party — will show a forward-thinking and optimistic vision for America, as compared to the dark and pessimistic vision that the GOP presented last week in Cleveland. Our focus is on electing Hillary Clinton, Tim Kaine and Democrats across the country, thanks to a Democratic Party that is strong, unified, and poised for victory in November."
Mandisa Thomas, founder and president of Black Nonbelievers, tells Bustle that her group is dedicated to challenging the unique stigma faced by black atheists, who are often "perceived to be rejecting [their] blackness." She sees the exclusion of atheists from the Democratic Party's platform as "disheartening" and a "lack of acknowledgement of diversity within these United States."
It's especially telling that this year's platform singles out "people of faith" and "religious organizations" for praise. According to the official platform:
Democrats know that our nation, our communities, and our lives are made vastly stronger and richer by faith in many forms and the countless acts of justice, mercy, and tolerance it inspires. We believe in lifting up and valuing the good work of people of faith and religious organizations and finding ways to support that work where possible.
This language implies that, because these qualities are "inspired" by religious faith, they cannot exist without it — an implication that is offensive to many people in general, and to many Democrats in particular.
According to Pew Research Center data from 2014, 28 percent of Democrats are religious "nones" — that is, religiously unaffiliated (which includes those who identify as atheists or agnostics, as well as those who list their religious belief as "nothing in particular"). Sixty-nine percent of atheists lean toward or identify with the Democratic Party. "Nones" are on the rise, and according to Fidalgo, "the religiously unaffiliated are [now] the largest [belief-based] voting bloc, and are the largest belief group in the Democratic Party."
For elected officials, it's more socially acceptable to be gay in 2016 than it is to proclaim disbelief in God. As Fish tells me, "[Former congressman] Barney Frank came out as gay before he came out as not believing in God." Frank came out as gay in 1987; he described himself as an atheist on Real Time with Bill Maher in the summer of 2013, when he was no longer in office. It's still extremely rare to be an atheist in Congress, and when it comes to presidential candidates, Americans are most biased against atheists and socialists.
President Obama mentioned the politically unmentionable in his 2009 inaugural address, declaring that "We are a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus, and non-believers." It was a nice nod to a growing community. But not even "nones," let alone atheists, made it into the historically inclusive 2016 Democratic Party platform.
Outspoken atheist and Pulitzer-Prize-winning New York Times science columnist Natalie Angier tells me in an email that this exclusion doesn't bother her: "Yes, I'm an atheist ... But do I care whether the Democratic platform includes an explicit nod to us atheists? Hell no. So long as the platform doesn't include policies that would allow my atheism to be used against me, I don't need the pander."
Toni Van Pelt, president and public policy director of the Institute for Science and Human Values, disagrees. "This is the time to call on the Party to officially recognize the nonreligious as true Americans," she tells Bustle in an email. "Atheists are on a relentless march to be recognized and valued by the larger community. We will no longer accept a back seat to those who profess a faith ... it would behoove the Democratic Party to reach out in a public statement to those of no religion ... and [acknowledge] that the philosophy of living life to the fullest here and now is of great importance."