Goose egg. Nada. Zip. Zero. That is how many times the word “god” or mentions of faith of any kind were made during the Iowa Democratic Party’s annual Wing Ding fundraiser on Friday, August 14 in Clear Lake, Iowa.
Other than during the Pledge of Allegiance at the beginning of the event, I was unable to make any snide or sarcastic comments on social media about religion as I live Tweeted about candidates and speakers. No one thanked a supernatural entity for anything, no one called for everyone to bow their heads and pray, no one lamented the lack of god in schools or daily life as the reason for all society’s ills, no one asked their god to bless America or the crowd as they finished their speeches and remarks. I actually asked a couple of bloggers and journalists I was sitting with during the evening if I had somehow blacked out and missed these kind of references. But no, in the middle of northern Iowa—arguably the most conservative part of the state (I mean it is U.S. Rep. Steve King’s stomping grounds)—religion was left out in the cold.
What didn’t get left out of the speeches and remarks were issues that many atheists do care about: marriage equality—an issue of particular poignancy in Iowa where the state Supreme Court ruled it legal in 2009 and then voters recalled three of the justices; the Black Lives Matter movement; climate change; and women’s health choices.
The event drew a sold-out crowd of 2,100 in the Surf Ballroom, the venue where Buddy Holly performed his final concert in 1959. The headliners this night were four Democrats vying to be the party’s presidential nominee: former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley, and former Rhode Island Gov. Lincoln Chafee. I was not able to speak to Sec. Clinton; Secret Service made that impossible even though she stayed for the whole event—sitting in the audience after her remarks.
As I jockeyed with other media folks in the “pit”, an area between the stage and the crowd, to take a picture of Clinton, a security person rushed me and yelled at me to get out of the pit. I reared back a bit and asked why. He said I wasn’t media and didn’t belong there. I held up the large, unwieldy MEDIA badge hanging around my neck and said, “Yes, I am.” He replied, “You don’t look like it.” Now, maybe it was that I was using an iPhone to take pictures (but so were bloggers and other media) or maybe that I was wearing a shirt that had #AtheistVoter across my chest, or maybe at age 38 I still look like a college kid (I wish), whatever it was, I am not sure what media “looks” like. I don’t fault the guy for being vigilant--I’m just not sure what made me stand out as different.
Sen. Sanders left immediately after his speech. I followed him through the ballroom, much like a puppy, trying to get him to answer the question “why should an atheist vote for you?” But he wouldn’t answer. I asked his assistant if I could at least get a picture and that request was granted. My selfie collection with presidential hopefuls continues to grow. I don’t doubt that Sen. Sanders is the most likely candidate on the Democratic side to be open to the atheist community. I would hope that if enough of us tell him we are here, Sen. Sanders will be as open and committed to supporting our issues as he is to so many others.
Gov. O’Malley was surrounded by a crowd after the event ended; folks asking for pictures and autographs. One couple said they drove from Wisconsin to see and hear him. I introduced myself to the governor and shook his hand. I asked him why atheists should vote for him. Before he could answer, a woman next to me said, “Hey we’re all friends here.” And literally pushed me back. The governor didn’t answer my question. I waited a bit until the crowd thinned down, and tried again with a different question. “Governor, if you are elected president will you take the oath of office on the U.S. Constitution or some other instrument.” He frowned and said, “Probably the family bible as I have for all my swearing-ins.” This time, one of his campaign people stepped between me and the governor.
Now, I had met the governor before while working for the Secular Coalition for America in 2011. When I have interacted with him as an atheist lobbyist he and his staff were gracious and open to listening to our community. I think we need to press the governor on being more responsive to our community as he makes his case for being the Democratic candidate.
I think many people in our community underestimate and are underinformed about Gov. Lincoln Chafee. This is the governor who refused to call Rhode Island’s holiday tree a Christmas tree. He supported the federal court’s decision backing then-high schooler Jessica Ahlquist’s suit to remove a religious banner from her school. In 2014, he declared May 1 to be a statewide National Day of Reason. He keeps his thoughts about his religion to himself, going so far as to skip church on his gubernatorial inauguration day to avoid any church-state issues. He believes he must represent all people while in office. So when I asked him what instrument he would take his oath of office on: the U.S. Constitution or the Bible, Gov. Chafee said he has used a family Bible previously out of tradition but that it was a good question that “I’ll have to think about.”
During the Wing Ding, I wandered through the crowds quite a bit to find the candidates and take pictures. I wore a blazer at the start of the evening, but the A/C couldn’t keep up with the heat and warm bodies, so I ditched it and that made my #AtheistVoter shirt very visible. As a woman, I am used to some attention to my upper chest, but the number of smiles, thumbs up, and requests for pictures of my chest area have to be attributed to the shirt. I received no negative feedback from anyone: no sneers, no comments, just polite interest to outright enthusiasm.
In addition to the Democratic presidential hopefuls, the Wing Ding featured Iowa candidates for U.S. House and Senate seats in 2016. I caught up with a few and asked them a range of questions. To reiterate—none of these candidates mentioned god or faith from the stage when introducing themselves or their candidacies to the crowd.
Rob Hogg wants the Democratic nomination to run for the U.S. Senate, the seat that Republican Chuck Grassley currently holds. Hogg is a senator in the Iowa Legislature. (Full disclosure: I knew Hogg when I was legislative counsel for the Iowa Legislature; Hogg didn’t remember me though.) I asked Hogg “why should an atheist vote for you to go to the U.S. Senate?” He said, “No one has ever asked me that before.” I told him that was the point and that I hoped he would be getting the question a lot more in the future because there is a large atheist population in Iowa. His first response was a bit glib: “Because you believe in peace, prosperity, and environmental stewardship.”
I asked Hogg where he stood on the issue of separation of religion and government. His response was measured: “I support the First Amendment. My personal faith should not be used to impose it on others.”
The second Democratic candidate who is running for the nomination for the U.S. Senate seat is Tom Feigen. He is a former state Senator. I asked Feigen if he wanted atheist votes in the primary and/or general election. Feigen said, “I want votes from people of all theistic backgrounds and people who have no faith, but I don’t know that I will be courting the atheist votes.”
My second question was “What is your position on the separation of religion and government?” Feigen said, “Completely separate, “ while motioning his hands away from his body. He added, “I am on the Iowa interfaith committee.”
My final question was whether he would take the oath of office on the U.S. Constitution or on a different instrument. Feigen said, “The Bible.” I asked him why, and he said because that is what everyone does. I told him that wasn’t true and added “But if you are taking an oath to uphold the Constitution and it the supreme law of the land, what message are you sending to anyone who isn’t Christian? And what is it about the Bible that makes it better than the Constitution?”
Feigen responded, “I never thought about it that way. You’ve given me something to think about.”
Two women who have announced that they are running for U.S. House seats made special impressions. Monica Vernon is the Democratic candidate running against the Republican incumbent Rod Blum in Iowa’s 1st Congressional District. Vernon used her short time at on stage to address the 1st Amendment Defense Act, which has been introduced in Congress and is supported by Blum. It is a so-called religious liberty bill that if passed would allow employers to fire employees who get pregnant, who are LGBT, and who use contraceptives among other things. I wasn’t able to speak with Vernon but I was heartened to hear that she has protested Blum’s support of this bill and defends women’s health choices.
Last but not least, I spoke with Kim Weaver who is taking on Republican Steve King in Iowa’s 4th Congressional District. Weaver said, “Yes” when I asked if she wanted atheist votes. So I asked where she was on the issue of separation of religion and government. Weaver said her mom had discovered that some of their ancestors had come to the United States because of religious persecution, and Weaver strongly believes that everyone has the right to believe or not to believe. She added, “Laws should not be based on religious views. Whose religion are we going to choose? Christianity? Which version?”
I asked Weaver if she was elected would she take her oath of office on the U.S. Constitution or on the Bible. She didn’t even hesitate: “On the Constitution.” She thanked me for coming and talking to her and asked for my card. Folks, I think I have a girl crush.