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Austin Cline

Leah Daughtry: Atheists Aren't Welcome in the Democratic Party?

By August 23, 2008

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Beware of Atheists, Skeptics
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National Library of Medicine
In an effort to make the Democratic Party more "open" and "welcoming" to religious believers (who were never excluded in any way), Democratic leaders like Leah Daughtry are shifting in the other direction to make the Democratic Party unwelcoming and hostile to atheists. Even though nonbelievers are a fast-growing segment of the American population, Democrats' "big tent" just isn't big enough to openly accommodate us. This message was made loud and clear when Democrats decided to have an "interfaith" religious service to kick off the 2008 Democratic National Convention where atheists weren't merely not invited, but were ultimately told by Leah Daughtry they weren't welcome.

This is rather like trying to shake the perception that the Party is Jewish and so holding a special event where Jews are told to stay away, or trying to shake the perception that the Party is African-American and so holding a special event where blacks are told to stay away. It's as if Democratic leaders like Daughtry are trying to draw more support from conservative Christians by saying "look, we can be bigoted and discriminatory towards atheists, too!" Why do they even want the vote of bigots, though? If you have trouble winning on a message of inclusion, then you work harder to get people to see the wisdom of that message; you do not shift your message to match the ignorance of bigots who aren't voting for you.

Here is the heart of the letter which Ron Millar, Associate Director of the Secular Coalition for America, sent to Leah Daughtry, CEO of the Democratic National Convention Committee:

I am very concerned about the Interfaith Gathering at the upcoming Democratic National Convention.

This event is described as a "unity" event to stress the "big tent" nature of the Democratic Party; however, I have received complaints by people who identify as atheist and humanist who feel that this event excludes them as full participants in the convention.

Is this event open to Democrats who do not hold a god-belief? I assume your answer is yes, but I would be very interested to know how you plan to make the nontheist community feel welcomed. Without an inclusive plan you will make nontheistic Americans feel like second-class citizens at the convention.

Daughtry, a Pentecostal minister, went to the press to tell them that she was "befuddled" by "an angry letter from a secularist group." I wonder what it was that confused her: that nonbelievers might actually want to be included in rather than excluded from major Party events, that nonbelievers would actually expect her and other Party leaders to not treat them like second-class citizens, or that nonbelievers would have the gall to write a letter and express concern over being excluded.

Either would fit in well with perceiving "anger" in such a calm letter: just about every time members of a privileged class are asked even nicely to give up or stop expecting their privileges, they treat the outsiders as "angry" and "militant." Feminists were "militant" for daring to want the right to vote. Blacks were "angry" for daring to want an end to segregation and the creation of real solutions to racial discrimination. Even today, women and blacks continue to be derided as angry or militant when they speak up to draw attention to ongoing discrimination or unjust privileges.

We should expect the same to happen to atheists, but it's amusing when it's so obvious. Did Daughtry really think the letter wouldn't be released so everyone could see just how low her standards are for seeing "anger" from people who ask nicely and reasonably to be included as equals? Maybe she didn't care; I haven't seen a single mainstream news report on the incident point out how polite this supposedly "angry" letter was. Daughtry did say that nonbelievers should be "treated with respect," but I don't think that she believes what she says. Ronald Aronson explains:

The first sign that treating them with respect was not a priority for Daughtry was her lumping all notheists who include not only agnostics but also humanists, skeptics, and believers in spirit but not a personal god into atheists.

And the second came with the announcement of the lineup for what had once been thought of as a "values" and a "unity" event: no one represents the millions of secularists. Daughtry: "Democrats have been, are and will continue to be people of faith - and this interfaith gathering is proof of that."

But what about those Democrats who are not "people of faith?" Are they not invited? Or invited just to watch others pray? Should their own outlook not even be acknowledged? If the Democrats are trying to strike unifying chords among their entire kaleidoscopic range of liberals, moderates, and progressives, it should be obvious that secularists cannot dare be left out of the "big tent" event, and that it should be about beliefs and values, not solely about religion.

Source: Denver Post

Yes, it sounds strange at first that atheists would want to attend or be concerned at their exclusion from an "interfaith" or "religious" event, but if that's where you stop your analysis it's a sign that your thinking has been limited by religious privilege. You're treating the act of having a "religious" event which is exclusive to religious theists as natural, expected, and beyond question. What you should be asking is why a non-religious organization is holding a special, high-profile religious event that caters to religious theists and religious theists alone.

It's like being befuddled at Jews expressing concern over their exclusion from a "Christian" event when you should be asking why there is an event being held which is defined to cater to just Christians. That would be an example of one's thinking being limited by Christian privilege and is arguably a sign of anti-Semitism to boot. What if there were a "Protestant" religious service and Catholics complained — would people be "befuddled" over why Catholics wanted to attend a Protestant event, or would people wonder why a secular organization was holding an event to cater to just Protestants?

This is why people should be asking why there is an event being held which is defined to cater to just religious theists as if everyone else doesn't count. As Ronald Aronson points out, the Democratic Party could have held a "values" summit which is inclusive to all. I received a public relations email from Jessica Rosenblum outlining the agenda for this interfaith gathering, and it includes meetings on "finding common ground on the moral issues of the day" and a session on "Moral Values Issues Abroad" for addressing moral issues around the world.

The message here is: atheists have nothing to add to such discussions, so they might as well be defined as only concerning "people of faith" — you need to be a religious theist to have any meaningful contribution to moral discussions. That's a lie, yet people are so blind to how bigoted it all is that Jessica Rosenblum never thought twice about sending a positive message about this to an "Atheism Guide."

PZ Myers received the same email and commented:

People of faith are welcome to contribute to politics. In order to do so, however, they will have to get off their knees, unclasp their hands, and do something productive. Enshrining the prating rubbish of the religion racket as an important element of secular administration, as Obama seems to want to do, is a catastrophic betrayal of good government.

This isn't even a question of pushing against "tradition" because this is the first year that anything like this is being done and Daughtry wants it to continue every year from now on. There is no more need to have a "religious believers only" event than there is to have a "Christians Only," "Protestants Only" or "Whites Only" event. They serve no purpose except to fluff the egos of people who need to feel privileged in order to feel like they have any importance at all.

Well, it can also serve the goal of telling everyone else that you, too accept the basic American values of discriminating against atheists, as Alonzo Fyfe explains

This should be expected. Given the fact that so many voters are adverse to anything having to do with atheism, the Democratic Party had to choose between ostracizing atheists to win public office, or accepting atheists and exclude themselves from public office (as atheists themselves are excluded from public office). One of the core principles of marketing is to link that which you want to sell with something that potential customers' desire, and to link what the competitor is selling to something that potential customers hate. For years the Republican Party has sold itself by linking itself to religion and the Democratic Party to hated atheism. The rational response for the Democratic Party to take is to reject the atheists as well.

In following this path, the Democratic Party is simply trying to show that it is faithful to American values. One of those values, as expressed in the National Motto, is, "If you do not trust in God, then we do not want to think of you as being one of us." There is no better way for the Democratic Party to show its support for this principle than to say as loudly and as publicly as possible to atheists, "If you do not trust in God, then you are not invited to be one of us."

Vjack comments:

The Democratic nominee, Barack Obama, has said on multiple occasions that "secularists are wrong when they ask believers to leave their religion at the door before entering the public square." This should have put the secular community on alert.

Barack Obama falsely implied that atheists have asked believers to leave their religion at the door before entering the public square, but here we have an unambiguous case of atheists not even being let in the door of a major Democratic Party event for discussing morals and values. Do you suppose he sees the contradiction here, or is he like so many other Christians who can't recognize the injustice in their own personal privileges?

By saying that "Democrats are...people of faith," the implication is that all Democrats are religious theists. You can't avoid the implication — imagine saying "Democrats are people of faith in Jesus" and then trying to argue that you don't mean to suggest that no Democrats are non-Christian or that the Democratic Party isn't as open and welcoming to Jews or Buddhists as it is to Christians. Would it work? Of course not. You'd be laughed at as either stupid or a liar. How is Daughtry doing anything different? Daughtry is thus explicitly denying that anyone can be a Democrat and a nonbeliever, which is offensive and false.

As if that weren't bad enough, Daughtry pretends to "prove" this through the existence of an "interfaith" meeting she created. So she "proves" that Democrats are all religious theists by setting up an event where atheists are not allowed and, when challenged, "proves" that atheists shouldn't be allowed because all Democrats are religious theists. How utterly convenient.

It would be legitimate to say that there have always been Democrats who are also "people of faith" (which is a silly term anyway), but it is not legitimate to try to stake out the Democratic Party for religious theists alone like a puppy marking the corners of its new yard. Yes, I do mean to use that image because that's precisely what's going on when people try to appropriate cultural and political institutions in such a manner: they are engaging in territoriality by excluding "undesirables" and even defining themselves by the fact that those "undesirables" are not included.

In the end, though, marking territory like this is just an exercise in pissing all over everything... and everyone.

August 24, 2008 at 6:55 pm
(1) BlackSun says:

I disagree with Obama on this issue. I do think that theists should leave religion behind at the door to the public square. Belief is a private matter, and when it’s brought out in public, either as a matter of policy or even stated opinion, it can only create divisions.

I’m not trying to take away freedom of speech. People have the right to express their opinions in public, religious or otherwise. But they do not have a right to demand that others take them seriously. If they cannot support a belief, then they should expect ridicule for it. Only substantial historical Christian privilege keeps this discussion alive in politics. But like blacks, women, and gays, non-theists will eventually get their place at the table–accompanied by howls and grumbling from the theist majority.

Someday, God-talk and Jesus-talk will be seen in the same light as talk of goblins, witches and evil spirits–fine for holiday fun and games–but having no place at a serious event like a national political convention.

I’m glad I’m not Leah Daughtry, because being witness to the inevitable downfall of her privileged and unsupportable world view will be distressing and painful.

August 25, 2008 at 10:18 am
(2) Dean says:

Up front, I’m a Libertarian, so if my bias is showing, at least you know what it is. If your traditional party excludes you and does not represent you adequately, you can express your dissatisfaction by voting Third Party. The Libertarians hold that your religion and sexual orientation are none of the government’s business, but if my party is unpalatable to you, there’s the Greens, the Reform Party, or maybe just whoever Nader is with this year. Send a message that the Democrats will have to pay a price for doing this. Even a threat to do this could have an impact if enough people are behind it.

June 22, 2011 at 5:03 pm
(3) Dave Edgar says:

Nothing can or ever will break the smug stranglehold of these bigots if we lack the courage to demonstrate our non-support at the moment when they pay the most attention. Vote third party or continue to be disenfranchised. Those are the only two paths open to you within the election process.

August 25, 2008 at 6:42 pm
(4) Guy says:

I have been giving money both to the DNC and to the Barack Obama campaign. Now I understand that a high ranking DNC member Leah Daughtry is funding anti Gay, Creationist, and Anti Choice agendas within the Democratic party. What is happening to the Democrats? I’m not giving one more cent nor am I willing to support any Democrat until I get a response about this issue. I’m encouraging all of my friends and colleagues to withhold financial support from the DNC and from the Barack Obama campaign until we get a response about this outrage.

August 28, 2008 at 12:40 pm
(5) Ralph says:

@Guy – letting the ugly prejudice of one leader in the party turn you against the entire party and Obama is silly in the extreme. I’m an atheist Obama supporter and contributor and I think your appalling lack of logic with this comment smells fishy. Sounds more like something a conservative shill would write.

August 28, 2008 at 3:58 pm
(6) Bob says:

@Ralph – No… you’re the one who is displaying (to use your words) an “appalling lack of logic”. Obama has shown himself to be a serial sell-out – not just on this – but in countless other ways. Clinton is even worse, and McCain is the worst of all. The two major parties are offering Republican, and Republican-lite. Thinking people are voting third party.

You’re being used, and you don’t even know it. Use your head!

August 28, 2008 at 4:01 pm
(7) Signless says:

@Ralph – While I can see some of the merit in your response, allow me to be a bit of an apologist in regard to Guy’s comments.
The Democratic party has been over the past decade increasingly distant, unresponsive and, at the very best, sluggish in its reaction to neoconservative efforts to hijack this country. Leadership has been aloof and extremely elitist, and judging by Pelosi’s outright refusal to consider impeachment as a course of action, acting contrary to the wishes of a great many of her overall constituents.
I’ve been a lifelong democrat, but this party is moving further away from the strong ideals of its past, all in an effort to mimic the successful “big tent” strategy of Gingrich’s republicans.
I can no longer allow spineless, distracted and/or self-serving party leadership to create and campaign on a platform that treats me as a second-class citizen.
I’m disappointed in the extreme in Obama’s complacency on FISA and domestic intelligence gathering, and worried that these continued appeals to “people of faith” are representative of a shallow attempt to woo “values voters” to the party banner – at the cost of the principles of tolerance and inclusion that made the Democrats strong in the first place.
After all…wasn’t it these same so-called “values voters” that elected the current administration, not just once…but TWICE.
That, my friends is evidence of Epic Fail, in the extreme, of the Democratic party leadership.
I do, however, agree on one point…it IS the time for a change.
Unfortunately, the changes offered by the Democrats are becoming more and more indistinguishable from the changes offered by the Republicans.

August 28, 2008 at 4:15 pm
(8) Erik says:

Though I agree with most of this article, I’d like to point out that you can’t really compare exlcuding atheists or Jews with excluding african-americans.

You can’t choose to be black, or choose to be of Jewish ethnicity, but you can choose wether or not to be an atheist or to adhere to Jewish doctrine or not.

June 22, 2011 at 5:21 pm
(9) Dave Edgar says:

Why, pray tell, would one choose to abjure good sense and begin entertaining belief in fantasy figures? I was born atheist, just as much as I was born with my ethnic heritage.

Obama has demonstrated beyond cavil that progressive ideas hold no particular appeal for him, despite including several such ideas in the platform when he ran for his current office. Therefore, he and his party, if they have not betrayed progressives, have certainly refused to represent progressives.

Obama has demonstrated that freethinkers have no appeal for him. We too, if not strictly betrayed, can clearly perceive that we are not being represented by this party.

The democrats in Congress in both chambers have exhibited little spine defending poor people. Voices like Kucinich are lovely to hear but are treated as mere noise when the party votes. Poor people are being badly represented by the party as well.

If anyone expects Republicans to suddenly espouse the concerns of poor people, atheists or progressives, she is beyond the reach of reason.

Voting third party is the only reasonable response. Even when a democratic President literally owes his election to these people, as Obama arguably does, that President quite obviously feels entitled to ignore them, and afterward feels entitled to ask for their support again! How many times does this have to happen to them?

How many times will you continue to support and vote for a party which doesn’t represent you? Guy is by no means the only person with a lick of sense and a shred of dignity. Third parties are out there. Show these people you do not live in their pockets.

August 28, 2008 at 4:47 pm
(10) Austin Cline says:

Though I agree with most of this article, I’d like to point out that you can’t really compare exlcuding atheists or Jews with excluding african-americans.

You can’t choose to be black, or choose to be of Jewish ethnicity, but you can choose wether or not to be an atheist or to adhere to Jewish doctrine or not.

1. Historically, discrimination against Jews meant discrimination against anyone of Jewish ancestry, regardless of whether they were religious or not. So, by your own standards excluding Jews would indeed be like excluding African-Americans.

2. I don’t choose to be an atheist. I no more “choose” to disbelieve in gods than I “choose” to disbelieve in elves in my basement or elephants under my bed.

3. Your comment suggests that excluding people because they chosen Catholicism or Methodism would be less bad than excluding people because of race or ethnicity. Is that what you really believe?

4. Isn’t this much like what the Christian Right argues when they claim that discrimination against gays can’t really be compared to discrimination against blacks? Do you agree with their argument?

August 29, 2008 at 8:10 am
(11) Jeff says:


But like blacks, women, and gays, non-theists will eventually get their place at the table–accompanied by howls and grumbling from the theist majority.

I hope you’re right, but the shift in the minds of people toward acceptance of blacks, women, and gays as equals has frequently been a debate that ends up being framed within the context of religious doctrine. Unfortunately for non-theists, any argument framed in such a fashion (the New Testament says associating with non-theists is a-okay) will easily be seen as an attack on religion by the heretics and dismissed as easily. I don’t think that it is a given that non-theists will end up with a seat at the table.

August 29, 2008 at 5:20 pm
(12) Charley says:

Leah Daughtrey is not just another democrat with an opinion, she is the DNC Chief of Staff.
She believes in a theocracy with god in control of everyone, including government. We cannot have a theocracy take over a democracy and if left unchecked, that is where this country is headed.
Austin, thanks for your voice of dissent and reason.

August 29, 2008 at 5:31 pm
(13) gillian says:

I have been an active Obama supporter since he announced his candidacy. I have attempted to rationalize and convince myself that his support of bush’s faith-based initiatives wasn’t really that bad. now I find out that atheists are actively being excluded from the party. what is a skeptic to do? If I vote third party, it’s a throw-away. If I vote for McCain, many of my rights as a woman will disappear. If I vote for Obama, I may still be treated as a second class citizen for having the audacity to think rationally. Once again, I will have to figure out who the lesser of two evils is. Maybe one day, the u.s. will wake up. I fear, however, that day is not anytime soon.

June 22, 2011 at 5:26 pm
(14) Dave Edgar says:

Nonsense, Gillian. In what sense a throw-away? It is the only way to send a clear message. Do you think this is a horse betting parlor, where the point is to have named the winner? The point of a vote is to express your support. If they needed our support, as progressives or as atheists, they would take us into account once in a while. If they don’t need our support, as their actions make pellucidly clear, then what on earth is more of a throw-away than to vote for them?

August 29, 2008 at 7:04 pm
(15) Less Pain says:

At this time, I believe we need to put aside our displeasure with the Democratic Party and concentrate on the November election. I will vote for Obama. I am not better off after 8 years of a Republican in the White House and plan to use my vote to register that disgust. Obama and his party are currently the lessor of the evils. After the election, I will address the faults of Leah Daughtry and the Democratic Party. I won’t vote third party. I fear that McCain, the Republicans and their cronies might win and have another four years to pillage and plunder this country.

August 29, 2008 at 8:43 pm
(16) John Hanks says:

The Democratic party is a con game where a group of people gather around a “candidate”, and then they proceed to get others to support her using issues, traditions, and lies to gather support. Frankly party politics is almost totally bogus using every crooked marketing tactic in the book. When the new queen and her courtiers are “elected”, they just give anyone with smarts the bird.

August 30, 2008 at 8:46 am
(17) Morgan-LynnGriggs Lamberth [skeptic griggs [ world wide poster says:

I appreciate Jim Wallis and such who are ever trying to get evangelicals to support Democratic policies but I prefer Paul Kurtz. Arthur Kaplan and Austin Cline as moral leaders. Let us petition the party to recognize us as people of values.
By the way, the atelic argument that the weight of evidence shows no cosmic teleology [ my friend Paul Draper], then God need not apply for work!
See in the current issue of Free Inquiry what Victor Stenger has to say about what Alexander Smoltczyk maintains Haughty John Haught takes us naturalists to task for not accepting other venues of knowledge when he merely question begs the matter [ Logic is the bane of theists; they forever beg questions.] Such is the arrogance of theists. And those two make as much sense as Pat Robertson!

. Haughty John Haught takes us naturalists to task for not accepting other venues of knowledge when he begs the question therefor.

August 30, 2008 at 9:10 am
(18) Morgan-LynnGriggs Lamberth [skeptid griggsy, skepticgriggsy,esceptico griggsy -world poster says:

I appreciate Jim Wallis trying to ruge evngelicals to support Democratic policies but my moral leaders are PaulKurtz, Arthur Kaplan and Austin Cline.
Even the most fervent upholders of natural theology in the end rest in their shield of faith, the we just say so of crdulity. Haughty John Haught excoriates us naturalists for not accepting other venues of knowledge when he merely begs the question. [Logic is the bane of theists; they beg questions.]. Such is the arrogance of theists!
And in the current issue of Free Inquiry, Victor Stenger [ great writer!] takes to task Alexander Smoltczyk for stating that God is not a person, nor an entity nor a principle but the answer to Leibnitz’s blunder why is there something rather than nothing?
Remember as the ignostic challenge goes, God is a fatuous, nebulous,otiose and vacuous notion that cannot serve as an explanation as whatsoever as that would be the uninformative tautology God wills what He wills: God did it.
After thousands of years and tons of trees in the form of realms of paper, theists have not and probably never will adduce a successfu argument for God such that here it is indeed absence of evidence is indeed evidence of absence -the auto-epistemic rule- rather than an argument from ignorance that there is probably no god!
We naturalists have the positive arguments – the problem of Heaven [ '"Arguing for Gods], the hiddenness problem [JohnL.Schellenberger] the problem from nonbelievers [ Theodore Drange] and the atelic one [ Mine].
The latter one notes that the weight of evidence [ my friend Paul Draper]is against any cosmic teleology,showing thus that God need not apply for work![ This is contrary to Eugenie C. Scott, who faults her fellow naturalists for noting this in that that is a principle of philosophy,not one of science, but as Draper notes, she is wrong, and does not fathom the problem of demarkation.She believes that whle wanting to show creationists that evolution can accomodate God. Note what Clifford Richard Dawkins states about her and Michale Ruse.]
Thanks, my friend Austin!

August 30, 2008 at 9:12 am
(19) Morgan- Lamberth says:

Sorry for the typos. skeptic griggsy

August 30, 2008 at 11:51 am
(20) Rasena says:

Being a humanist I hsve spent a lifetime on the outside (72). Why are you all so amazed? I am amazed when we are left alone or counsul is sought at all!!Which is why I will always vote for a 3rd party. Before you cry wasted vote! Your votes are wasted as you cannot choose a candidate unless you register with a party. My Constitution doesn’t have a test for religion or a party affiliation as necessary. So I ask where is the democracy? and understanding (not tolerance)?

August 31, 2008 at 10:31 pm
(21) Beatnik Bob says:

It is sad that under the 2 party system you often vote against someone rather than for someone, but, remember, there may be three vacancies on the Supreme Court in the next four years, and John McCain has pledged to appoint judges like Alito and Roberts. Then where’s your Church-State separation?

September 1, 2008 at 2:43 pm
(22) andy says:

Austin,I do have to object to one item in your article.You accuse Obabma of falsly accusing atheists of saying that politics should be left at the at the door when people enter office-as if that request a fault.I’m sorry,but isn’t that exactly what secularists should be saying to politicians-especially in a country founded on avowedly secularist principles?
I know Realpolitic plays a part,but the problem with Realpolitic is that you end up forgetting whatever you believed in the first place.

September 1, 2008 at 3:59 pm
(23) Austin Cline says:

You accuse Obabma of falsly accusing atheists of saying that politics should be left at the at the door when people enter office-as if that request a fault. I’m sorry,but isn’t that exactly what secularists should be saying to politicians-especially in a country founded on avowedly secularist principles?

No, that’s not what I accuse Obama of. Here are my exact words:

Barack Obama falsely implied that atheists have asked believers to leave their religion at the door before entering the public square…

There is a difference between leaving religion at the door when entering politics and leaving religion at the door when entering the public square. The latter is what Obama has implied atheists want and I don’t merely accuse him of lying, it is a lie.

Worse yet, it’s a lie which the Christian Right repeats often as part of their campaign against secularism and atheists. What does it say when Barack Obama has bought into the lie and is spreading it himself?

September 4, 2008 at 1:56 pm
(24) Emily says:

You only waste your vote if you vote for someone you don’t want.

The longer people keep thinking that they need to vote ‘against’ the other guy, and that they HAVE TO vote for the ‘lesser’ of two evils, the MORE EVIL your options will become, and the LESS OPTIONS you will have.

Its not a game. Don’t vote to “win”.
You vote to let your opinion be known.
Keep voting in evil, stop complaining about it.

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