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Atheists: The Last Political Outcasts

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Atheists: The Last Political Outcasts

Bob Tiernan is an agnostic. "I'm not a hard-core atheist", he says. He was raised a Catholic and went to Jesuit College and law school. He is a practicing lawyer who specializes in issues involving separation of church and state. He is also a Democrat. This week he was in Denver to protest what he sees as the dangerous mixing of religion and politics, and the sad exlusion of non-believers in a party known for its inclusiveness.

On Sunday, Tiernan attended the first event at the Democratic National Convention, an Interfaith Gathering attended by some 2,000 people at the Colorado Convention Center. Speaking were distinguished priests, rabbis, imams and religion scholars. "I sat through, I guess I'd have to call it, a service," says Tiernan. "People were responding in unison. In the middle, Leah Daughtry (a pastor and CEO of the Democratic National Convention Committee) spoke and said that despite what the media says, Democrats are people of faith."

Tiernan says he couldn't stand it any more. "I stood up and said, 'I'm a democrat but I'm not a person of faith.' I said, 'This looks like a church service to me and I never thought I would see the Democrats doing something like this." At that point, the police came and escorted Tiernan from the hall. They told him he could leave or stay and see what the Democrats wanted to do with him, so he stayed but nobody did anything so he left.

"The thing is," says Tiernan with a chuckle, "I'm not a career protester. I just don't like religion mixed with politics. It's wrong and it's dangerous."

The Interfaith Gathering was the first of several interfaith events scheduled during the convention. The Secular Coalition of America had written to Daughtry to ask that atheists, agnostics and secular humanists be included in these events. The Associated Press reported that she received the request but never responded.

The Democrats are in a real bind this year. In recent elections, the Republicans have owned religion. The evangelical base has helped Republican presidential candidates win elections while the Democrats have stood by helplessly. This year, the Democrats are bound to show they are just as religious as Republicans, but at what cost?

In his speeches, Barack Obama has talked not only about his own deep faith but about the rights of all Americans, including believers and non-believers. But if the Interfaith Gathering was an effort to show how inclusive they are, they failed. Between 10% and 12% of Americans openly say they're non-believers and many more privately admit to not being believers but feel it is socially unacceptable to say so in their communities.

At various times in years past, women, blacks, Jews and gays were the political outcasts in one or both parties. Now it seems the only group of untouchables are the atheists.

This year, the Democrats have chosen a black man as their presidential candidate and they nearly chose a woman. In 2000, a Jewish man was on the ticket as a vice presidential candidate. Gays have won the right to be married in several states and the Democrats now openly endorse civil unions.

Can you imagine an atheist running for or even being considered for President? Even Rick Warren of the Saddleback Church, an open-minded and inclusive evangelical, told Larry King that he could not vote for an atheist.

The Democrats know that they have a large non-believing constituency and they also know that to not accept them is the height of hypocrisy. On the other hand they realize that to recognize them formally would be the kiss of death.

So what is the party of unity, togetherness, compromise, inclusiveness and pluralism to do? Sadly, it seems they have taken Leah Daughtry's approach. Don't answer the mail.



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