How do you decide which political candidate to vote for? Do you vote for the same political party as usual? Do you go over a candidate's record and positions? Even if you do basic research, when was the last time you saw much or any information about a candidate's views on issues like equal civil rights for atheists and church/state separation? Such information is rare, which means you need to do some original research. You need to interview the political candidates asking for your vote.
No One Automatically Deserves Your Vote
No politician should take the votes of atheists, agnostics, humanists, or secularists for granted. This is the fastest growing "religious" demographic in America and it's a highly diverse group with a wide variety of social, political, philosophical, and personal beliefs. These voters tend to lean liberal on a lot of social and political matters, but no liberal politician "deserves" the votes of secular atheists for that reason alone.
If a politician wants your vote, they need to demonstrate not just that they hold political positions you agree with but also that they do not agree with or tolerate any bigotry, hate, or discrimination directed at you and other nonbelievers. No atheist with any self-respect should vote for, donate to, or otherwise support any candidate who actively promotes or implicitly supports anti-atheist bigotry.
The first and most basic step in holding political candidates accountable to such a minimal standard is to get them to explain their position on relevant issues.
Media Doesn't Address Atheist or Secularist Issues
You may have noticed by now that the mainstream media simply doesn't ask questions about these issues, though. Candidates don't hesitate to talk about their religious faith and the media asks questions about faith, but when did you last see questions about where a candidate stands on atheists, agnosticism, humanists, or secularism? That's why you have take the initiative and ask the questions yourself. You can do it at a campaign event where questions are welcomed or you can submit the questions privately via email.
One of the reasons why candidates fail to address these issues may simply be because they have no reason to think that many voters care. If you and enough other atheists, agnostics, humanists, and secularists start submitting questions on these issues, it may send a strong signal about your growing numbers not just in America generally, but in your political district as well. Asking questions of the candidate is thus not just the first step in holding them accountable, but also in getting them to recognize that they need to address these concerns at all.Sample Questions
You could ask general or specific questions of a political candidate and ideally you would ask a few of both. Some of the questions should be about issues relating directly to atheists and atheism, like whether they regard atheists as equal citizens (isn't it sad that this has to be asked in America?). Other questions should be about issues which are separate from atheism but are nevertheless important to atheists, like church/state separation and secularism.
Questions about atheism and atheists:
- What is your position on atheists? Do you treat atheists as equals?
- Should atheists be treated as having the same political and social standing as do religious theists?
- Do you think there is there something wrong with atheism?
- Are there any atheists on your staff or in your office?
Questions about church/state separation:
- What is your position on church/state separation - do you believe that church & state should be strictly separated or that they should have some other relationship?
- What is your position on secularism - do you believe that the government should be secular and neutral in religious matters or should instead reflect/endorse/promote particular religious beliefs/values?
If there are or have been any cases dealing with church/state separation in your area, you could ask a candidate directly about them and where they stand on that particular matter:
- Do you think a government body has the authority to single out one religion for special treatment?
- Do you think a government body has the authority to single out one version of the Ten Commandments to memorialize?
- Do you think a government body ha the authority to pick one religion's religious rituals and prayers for official endorsement?
Do note that is you are submitting questions to a candidate for a judicial office, they may not be able to answer questions that strike to closely to cases which they may hear in the future. Thus in the case of judicial candidates, it may be a good idea to stick to general questions and avoid specific cases.
Publicize and Discuss the Answers... or the Silence
The next step in holding political candidates accountable is to realize that your questions an the answers you receive aren't just about you. After all, you aren't the only atheist or even theist who may be affected by this candidate's views on these issues if they are elected. This means you need to bring the answers to the attention of a wider audience.
If you are part of a local atheist or freethought group, make sure you share the answers with them. Get those answers published on the group's blog with the answers received by other members, if you have all been working together on it. If you are alone, publish the answers on your own blog — and if you are going to be committed to even a minimal level of activism, you should already be writing about these sorts of things. Keep the answers from all the candidates handy and use them as part of writing letters to the editors of local publications — you can reference what the candidate has said as part of your own commentary on the issues.
You should give a candidate time to answer the questions — they aren't sitting around, doing nothing every day (we hope). At some point, though, you should consider the absence of any response as your response. Perhaps they are either afraid to commit their answers to writing. Perhaps they don't care enough about you and these issues to respond. These are both types of answers which deserve just as much publicity as direct answers.