DES MOINES — The Secular Coalition for America is working to bring a new voice to the Iowa Capitol on behalf of atheists and non-theistic Iowans who want to see a strong separation of religion and government.
The Iowa push is part of a nationwide effort to organize chapters in every state by the end of 2012, said Lauren Anderson Youngblood, communications manager for the 501(c)(4) organization that serves as the national lobby for atheists, agnostics, humanists, free-thinkers and other non-theistic Americans.
She said the coalition comprises 11 diverse groups that work to protect and strengthen the secular character of government as the best guarantee of freedom for all.
Youngblood said the Washington-based group began work in July to establish a presence in Des Moines as part of a national outreach because “some of the most egregious examples of religion being inserted into government are happening at the state level, and it’s really impossible for us to keep track of everything that’s going on in all 50 states.”
She declined to say how many Iowans have expressed interest in the Secular Coalition for Iowa chapter because it is still in its formative stages. She expects an announcement sometime prior to the start up of the 2013 legislative session in January by Iowans who are fashioning their own specific agenda catered to the issues identified as the most important for the state.
“In general, people who choose not to identify with a religion don’t want other people’s religion imposed on them. We really see what we’re doing as advocating for all Americans whether they realize it or not,” she said. “There are plenty of people who do have a belief in God that recognize that the place for God is in their church or in their home or within their private lives, but not within our public secular government.”
Steffen Schmidt, an Iowa State University political science professor, said interest in keeping religion and government separated is not new but having a high-profile atheistic group lobbying in Iowa is.
“I’ve never really heard of it before,” Schmidt said. “For a long time, being atheist was kind of not considered to be a good thing, and so it was not politically a very active point of view. It is new and different.”
He is one of several people who viewed the development as a response to the increased involvement of religious/evangelical conservatives in Iowa’s political arena in recent years.
“I think it’s symptomatic of the fact that we are a really divided country, and everybody is screaming at everybody so, if there’s a lot of religion in politics, it’s not surprising that one more group wants to get in on the action defending whatever their views are,” he said.
Bob Vander Plaats, president and chief executive officer of the Pleasant Hill-based Family Leader, an influential conservative organization, said he did not think Secular Coalition for Iowa would be very effective as a lobbying force and probably would be a liability for politicians who become associated with what would be viewed as a “far-left fringe group.”
“I don’t think Iowans embrace that whatsoever,” he said. “They can talk separation of church and state, but what we recognize is that if civil law is out of concert with the law of nature and the law of nature’s God, it’s going to be a train wreck.
“It’s coming down to world views: either our rights come for God with certain unalienable rights endowed by our creator or our rights come from government. What it really comes down to is either God is or God isn’t, and a group like this is saying God isn’t. I think Iowans will recognize that as a very dangerous course to travel.”
However, Youngblood pointed to a Pew Forum study that indicated that 30 percent of Iowa residents do not express an absolute belief in God and 49 percent disagreed that “religion is very important to their lives” as evidence that her group might find fertile recruiting ground in Iowa.
Kevin deLaplante, chairman of the Iowa State Department of Philosophy and Religious Studies, said he was not familiar with the Pew study or its methodology to know whether the numbers were credible. But he said there has been a growing concern among secular, humanist and even libertarian and centrist Republican factions over the intermingling of religion and politics.
There is also a generational divide with younger Americans being more tolerant of diversity and atheistic or agnostic concepts or associations than older generations, he said.
However, deLaplante said the Secular Coalition faces a serious public relations challenge in Iowa given that self-avowed atheists usually rank low among demographic groups that are liked or trusted.
“That is still one of the hardest nuts to crack in terms of public opinion,” he said. “There are lots of people who want to be tolerant of religious diversity but who nevertheless have some strong skepticism or worries about overtly atheistic endorsements. That’s a concern for many.”
However, Hector Avalos, an ISU professor of religious studies who started an atheists and agnostics society at the Ames campus in 1999, said that over the past decade or two, America has seen a “rise of the nones” — people who have no religious preference or participation. Whether that translates into membership for the Iowa Secular Coalition chapter is unclear, he said, given that secular people “by nature are not joiners” and have been the target of prejudice in this country.
Avalos said several post-Sept. 11 best-selling books have given rise to a “new atheism” movement rooted in the idea that “religion is what was behind 9/11 and that religion therefore holds the potential to end civilization as we know it.” Interest continues to spike as conflicts around the world increasingly are rooted in religious disputes, he added.
Although the Iowa chapter will fashion its own issue agenda, Youngblood said, she noted some Iowa-specific topics that likely would fall within the new organization’s scope included separate proposed constitutional amendments dealing with marriage and “personhood,” a bill that seeks to create “religious conscience protections” or exemptions that can be used to discriminate based on religion and the practice in the Iowa House and Iowa Senate of opening daily sessions with prayer.