Young, conservative, and ... atheist? A test for the GOP

Young voters are increasingly secular. To grow the youth vote, Republicans face a challenge in keeping religious conservatives on board while expanding their reach to atheists and the 'religiously unaffiliated.' 

Mike Theiler/Reuters
A guest reaches for a flag pin at the Sen. Rand Paul (R) of Kentucky booth at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in National Harbor, Md., last week. Senator Paul is a favorite among conservative-leaning atheists.

Conservatives made history this year. For the first time, an avowed atheist addressed the Conservative Political Action Conference, or CPAC, the big annual gathering of conservative activists. And atheists occupied an exhibitor’s booth, another first. 

Jamila Bey, an African American journalist and board member of the group American Atheists, didn’t exactly wow the crowd, for whom professions of religious faith and a belief in God are standard fare. But she wasn’t booed either. For the atheists, long held at arm’s length by Republicans, that’s progress. 

“Embrace me. Let me vote for GOP candidates,” Ms. Bey said last week at the 41st annual CPAC.

In particular, Bey said, Republicans must reach out to young people who identify as “secular,” a cohort that is growing.

Indeed, Republicans have lost badly among young voters in recent presidential elections. And doubts about God’s existence among young adults are growing fast. In 2007, a Pew Research Center survey found that 83 percent of Millennials in the United States said they never doubted God’s existence. Five years later, that figure was down to 68 percent.

This rising secularism among young voters could put the very ability of the Republican Party to compete nationally at stake. In 2012, President Obama won the youth vote, those aged 18 to 29, by 67 percent to 30 percent. And as long as the GOP is seen as only for the religious – and specifically, those who adhere to only certain beliefs, including opposition to same-sex marriage – it is losing out on millions of potential votes.

“These people are an essential component of our growing electorate,” Bey said. “We ignore them at our peril.”

Perceptions are key. The leadership of the American Conservative Union, which puts on CPAC every year, says it’s about being inclusive. In addition to the atheist Bey, the head of the gay-rights group Log Cabin Republicans, Gregory Angelo, was allowed a speaking role (albeit at the last minute, and on a panel on Russia).

One Republican who has been able to tap into the Millennials – including the religious doubters and the atheists – is the libertarian-leaning likely presidential candidate Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky. Yet Senator Paul himself is religious. 

“We must remember that our rights are unlimited, unenumerated, and given to us by God,” Paul said in his address to CPAC.

Young CPAC attendees wearing both “Rand Paul” stickers and “Conservative Atheist” buttons said they understood where he was coming from on religion, and didn’t mind. Paul’s father, another libertarian leader, former Rep. Ron Paul (R) of Texas, had been an obstetrician before he went into politics, and came to his beliefs on God and life through his work, they said. More important, they say, are Paul’s views on small government, privacy, and a noninterventionist foreign policy.

But these young, atheist Paul-ites disagree with the standard Republican views on gay marriage and abortion; they support the right to both.

“The same people who say Islam is a threat are pushing their Christian doctrine on us and saying the government shouldn’t recognize a contract between two consenting adults,” says Matthew Boyer, a junior at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, N.J., and head of the campus chapter of Young Americans for Liberty.

Mr. Boyer was raised Roman Catholic, and says he still goes to Mass on Easter and Christmas, and cuts back on meat for Lent. But it’s more a family ritual than a reflection of faith, he says.

Religious affiliation among the young is also down. Last year, 33 percent of Millennials – those aged 18 to 34 – identified as religiously unaffiliated, according to the Public Religion Research Institute. That’s up from 29 percent in 2012. (“Religiously unaffiliated” includes those who identify as “nothing in particular,” atheist, or agnostic.) The percentage of Millennials who identity as “atheist” has held largely steady. In 2014, 4 percent of Millennials identified as atheist, down from 5 percent in 2012, the institute found.

 “Freedom of religion should mean freedom from religion as well,” adds Alexis Esneault, another former Catholic, now atheist, backing Paul at CPAC. She’s a senior at Spring Hill College, a Jesuit school in Mobile, Ala.

Both Boyer and Esneault would like to see God removed from the Pledge of Allegiance and from US money; references to God were added to both in the 1950s, during the cold war.

Their views seem ripped from the pages of Ayn Rand, the libertarian philosopher and a hero to many modern-day Republicans who overlook her atheist, pro-abortion-rights views. The Ayn Rand Institute also had a booth at CPAC, and so the American Atheists weren’t the only nonbelievers in the exhibition hall.

But the booth occupied by the American Atheists was still an arresting sight, and a hub of activity during CPAC. Most visitors were just curious. Some, most of them young, eagerly took buttons that said “Conservative Atheist” and “Foxhole Atheist” and “This is not a church” (superimposed on a picture of the US Capitol). After three days, more than 50 CPAC attendees had signed up to join the group famous for its late founder, Madelyn Murray O’Hair, best known for the lawsuit in her name that outlawed Bible reading in schools. 

One of the merely curious was Steve Piotrowski, who identified himself as a Christian.

“I didn’t want to go over there and be confrontational,” he said. “I just wanted to see why [they were] here. I’m a Christian, I believe in the teachings of our Savior. But they do have a right to be here.”

A few visitors were openly hostile to the group’s president, David Silverman, who sat at the booth (which technically had been rented to the Secular Policy Institute; American Atheists are a member organization). But he took the attacks in stride, and was in fact surprised by how well he and his group were received.

“You can judge a person’s reaction to our booth by the stickers they’re wearing,” Mr. Silverman said. “If they’re wearing a Rand Paul sticker, they’re going to be all right with it. If they’re wearing a Jeb Bush sticker, not so much.”

In coming to CPAC, Silverman says, all he wanted was to “raise awareness of the fact that Christian and conservative are not synonyms. We don’t have two parties to vote for.”  

His past with CPAC is a bit fraught. Last year, American Atheists applied for a booth, were accepted, and paid the fee. Then Silverman told CNN, “The Christian right should be threatened by us.” The American Conservative Union canceled the atheists’ booth and returned the money. Silverman blames religious conservatives for the cancellation.

This year, the American Conservative Union and the American Atheists tried again, and agreed to Bey's speaking role.

“We are really working to bring in all conservatives for a positive, effective, constructive approach to our nation’s problems,” says Daniel Schneider, who took over as executive director of the American Conservative Union in late 2013.

This is classic political coalition-building. Find core areas of common interest – for conservatives, smaller, less intrusive government – and let the differences be. But this can be easier said than done.

“Even among conservatives, there’s lots of diversity,” says John Green, director of the Bliss Institute of Applied Politics at the University of Akron in Akron, Ohio. “But finding a way to balance libertarian impulses and traditional religious impulses is difficult.”

For Republicans, a core of the party’s activist “base” is religious conservatives, who are feeling under siege over the rise of gay marriage and its growing public acceptance – particularly among younger voters. The addition of atheists to this year’s CPAC may have added insult to injury. But leaders of the religious right still took part in the conference.

“The whole idea of this conference was you’ve got all kinds of people who don’t agree with each other, or even talk to each other, but are supposed to get along,” says David Keene, former longtime chairman of the American Conservative Union. “They usually do.”

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