Happy Women’s History Month to all of us. Let me just give you one historical fact: we all know about Paul Revere, but I bet you don’t know about the Ludington sisters. Paul Revere rode his horse through Boston, but the Ludington sisters covered the entire damn state of Connecticut, and no one wrote a book about them. I feel a little bit like the Ludington sisters here today. This is a really serious time—we have to wake up and do something, whether we like it or not. I was really pleased to see that many other people at this conference are saying the same thing.
When you talk about whether or not secularism has a political agenda, I think because traditionally we’ve all been trained in a certain nonjudgmentalism (maybe ecumenical niceness?), we express our views, but we try not to be too forceful. We are able to do that because the separation of church and state is so ingrained in our history that we never had to worry much about it. It really was part of what we were about. I’m reading a book about Roger Williams, Anne Hutchinson, and the formation of Rhode Island, which was really the first place in the country with any real religious freedom. Up until then, things were really sad; I don’t think any of us would have lasted long in Plymouth or Boston in the old days. If you think that our Founding Fathers settled all of this religious liberty business early on, I must say, no, we still haven’t. There is an absolutely raging debate going on right now.
There is something going on in our country that is really frightening. I would be practicing psychology without a degree if I tried to analyze it, but I think we have had years of Code Red politics where we have tried to scare everybody half to death. And a lot of people have started to think, “Oh, if we only had this wonderful religious thing we would be fine,” and “Oh, if only God was really on our side we would be fine,” and so forth. I hate to say it, but we’re seeing know-nothingism reconstruct itself in America.
I never really thought of secular humanists having a particular political identity, because we never had to. We do now, though.
I am a total realist. As I listen to my colleagues here explaining who they are and how they fit in, I realize all over again that America is not a country—it is a continent. We have almost three hundred million people living here. It’s a huge place, so why do we have only two parties that really count? We are talking about really huge tents, and none of us are ever going to find a candidate, or a party, or even an ideology that agrees with us about every single thing.
The reason I’m so worried and think we are in danger is that Democrats have always had to fall in love with their candidate to bother to vote. Republicans tend to fall in line with a candidate.
I have spent my entire life in politics, and I can’t tell you how frustrating it is—how many times I remember somebody telling me in California they weren’t going to vote because the state party didn’t put anything about pâté in the platform. This person had carried this amendment to the platform and it hadn’t passed because of that. What in the world is the issue on pâté? “Well the French are force-feeding ducks, and we should boycott the importation of pâté.” Now maybe we should. [As it happens, a ban on pâté—more properly, foie gras—passed in 2004 recently took effect in California.—Eds.] But you’re really not going to vote because they didn’t put something about pâté in there?
I’m using one of the most ridiculous examples I’ve heard, but believe me, I’ve heard an awful lot of them along the lines of: “They don’t agree 100 percent with me so I’m not going to vote.” On the other side, they will do absolute backflips. They will put themselves through all sorts of contortions to position themselves behind a candidate no matter what—they’re like pretzels. It’s amazing to me. They claim that they are these great Christians, and they’re finding all this stuff in the Bible about abortions, contraceptives, and homosexuals, but they aren’t finding anything about poor people and torture and capital punishment and war and—I could keep going on and on. I think we all know how you are supposed to treat the planet and everything else. But no, they haven’t found that in there. It’s very selective and it’s really scary to an awful lot of us.
When I got out of Harvard Law School, I was the pro bono publica lawyer for Rocky Mountain Planned Parenthood in 1964, and if anybody had told me contraception would be front and center in the 2012 campaign, I would’ve said they were flaming nuts. I believe in progress, but progress seems to be rolling back faster than ever.
We should note that one of the basic tenets of this marvelous country, and one of the reasons it has held together, is we have been welcoming to people from any and every part of the world. You can come here and be an American. We welcome you. Now that is very rare—try that in France or China. I studied Chinese while I was in college, and it became clear to me, even when I could speak fluently, that I was never going to be accepted as Chinese. I was always going to be a “big nose” somebody from somewhere else. But no, here we really believe you’re an American.
Our Founding Fathers were agnostics, Unitarians, and all sorts of things; to hear Michele Bachmann in the Republican primary debates, I would have thought they were all Evangelical Baptists or something. I always have a question for the Michele Bachmanns and the Herman Cains and all the people who have come and gone: Were they removed from the campaign by God? Did Providence do that to them? But you know, God is on their side. I think as we listen to all this incredibly windy pontification we also have to remember that this is a fascinating country in that we don’t have a king or a queen or an archbishop, and for some reason people are trying to get a president who’s the archbishop and the king and the whole bit all wrapped into one.
Now, if somebody asked me how we should redo this government, I would say that we should instantly put in a parliamentary system, which would be much fairer. We could then all decide whether we were conservative or libertarian or democratic or feminist. We could probably have at least twenty parties in this room, but under a parliamentary system, that’s fine; I mean, that all works because then you’re reflected. Maybe some of the young people here are energetic enough to want to change the Constitution. I just don’t think this country’s going to do it, so we’re going to be stuck with these two parties. Maybe someday we’ll get three major parties, but if Ross Perot couldn’t figure out how to pull that off, I’m not too sure I’m going to live to see three parties. But we are definitely not going to have the multiparty system they have in other places, and so we need to figure out which group is staying true to the most core values that we can tolerate as a country.
As I said when I looked at running for president in 1988, I thought I knew this country, but when you get out there, it really is a continent. The difference between Maine and southern California and Alaska and Hawaii and Florida and North Dakota is just mind-boggling, so how do we hold it together? I think we do it by remaining secular, for crying out loud, and I love the word humanism. The first time I was picketed as a secular humanist I thought it was a compliment. I went out and started shaking hands and thanking people and they were looking at me like I was stark mad! It was unbelievable—talk about talking past each other!
I feel that those of us who are morally tolerant and secular are walking on a very thin crust of barely cooled lava that could break at any moment. Just this last week [in late February] Florida’s legislature—which only meets for nine weeks a year because there’s not much for it to do—clearly had time to pass in both the House and Senate a bill that will allow the children of Florida to decide what kind of inspirational messages they would like to have in their public schools every day. This is how they think they will get around the prohibition on government-sponsored prayer in school. There is no question the governor’s going to sign this bill, and it is going to be a big brouhaha again. Now the legislature couldn’t get the budget done, and their redistricting is so messed up it’s going to go to court, but they had time for this.
And obviously, like every other country or every other state, there’s this race to try and control women’s vaginas because Rush Limbaugh has told us all that we are sluts if we use any kind of contraception. It’s up to the state to try and protect us from all of this. So that’s why I do really feel like we’re walking out on this little thin rim of barely cooled lava, and that’s why I feel like a Ludington sister riding the horse saying: “Wake up, everybody!” This is not a time to be St. Thomas Aquinas discussing how many angels can dance on the head of a pin; this is a time to get out there and realize a lot of the very core of what this country is, what it was built on, is really threatened.
Now this is something Newt Gingrich said in a San Antonio church, that amazes me: “If we do not win the struggle for the nature of America, our grandchildren are going to live in a secular-atheist country dominated by radical Islamics, and our grandchildren will never know what America really was.” The brilliance of Gingrich was bringing in political consultant Frank Luntz to change the language being used. And I know he trained others, because I sat there and watched him do it; he trained the other side to use words such as betray, bizarre, decay, pathetic, lie, cheat, sick, traitors, radical, antifamily, anti-American, anti-flag, and on and on. Advertisers will tell you there are “snarl” words and there are “purr” words. Those are snarl words, and if you keep labeling the other side as pathetic and all of these awful things—they’re betraying America, and they’re bizarre—the words start to stick and people start to believe it.
I get a lot of people saying to me, “You sound like Miss Manners, what’s the matter with you? Politics has always been rough.” Well, no. When I was elected in 1972, the issues were the Vietnam War and impeachment. Those were big issues, and when you went into Washington, D.C., you could smell tear gas everywhere. We had National Guardsmen living in the tunnels because of all of the rioting going on. Okay, that was tough and we would argue issues, but we argued issues like you do at this conference. We might go at each other hammer and tongs about the war or Richard Nixon or whatever it was, but we could go get coffee afterward and continue talking because we were talking about what we thought the facts were.
Everything flipped, starting in 1994. Suddenly if you didn’t agree with your opponents, they’d start calling you all these names. It’s not about facts at all; it’s my way or the highway. If you compromise, that is capitulation, and you should be run out. So we’re in this very difficult period in our history where the needle has gradually moved further and further. If you believe that we should be operating on as much of a factual basis as possible rather than on the basis of beliefs we can’t prove, this is a clarion call. We have to get off the sofa and get out there and take them on, or we’re going to be in really big trouble. We have to start sending dispatches from those who believe in progress and humans going forward—and we have to really talk to our friends, because your friends are probably like my friends. I had someone say this to me the other day: “You don’t understand, if the Republicans don’t win we’re gonna be ruled by this liberal elite. They disdain family, they despise religion, and they celebrate indolence through government handouts.” Really? Do they really think that’s what we have in power now? Do they honestly believe that the Obama administration can’t stand families, gives out handouts to encourage indolence, and really despises religion?
When I first got into politics, I even had trouble with Jimmy Carter because I really don’t like people talking Jesus and God in politics because I don’t think they belong there—and I don’t think that if there is a God, he’d want to be in politics, so I would protect him from that, thank you very much. I used to argue that, but at least Carter kept his God off to one side; he didn’t bring it into every single thing he did. But now we have people who are using God 24/7.
Admittedly, I’m a recovering politician in the twelve-step program—my husband says when I open the refrigerator door, I talk for twelve minutes before I realize I’m talking to celery. I could go on and on, but what I’m really saying to you is that I am delighted that you’re having this conference and that you are talking about these issues. Because if there has ever been a time that we should be concerned about which way this government goes and which way this country goes, this is it. And it’s not going to be perfect. I can stand here and tell you twenty reasons why I am aggravated with the Obama administration, but those reasons are nothing like the horror of my continuing to walk over the hot pool if these other guys come in. Because I’m not going to wear a chador. And I think that’s what they have in mind for me.
Patricia Schroeder served in the U.S. House of Representatives for Colorado from 1973 to 1997, where she became the first woman to serve on the House Armed Services Committee, among many other accomplishments. She has also taught at Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs. This article is transcribed from her remarks at the Council for Secular Humanism/Center for Inquiry conference “Moving Secularism Forward” in Orlando, Florida, delivered on March 3, 2012.