Margaret at GAMPAC 2004

Margaret Downey was part of GAMPAC 2004, the following are the remarks of Ellen Johnson:

Good morning.

I want to thank all of you for coming here today.

Ellen Johnson Several years ago, I was here in Washington, DC to hear some of the testimony presented to the House of Representatives Committee on the Judiciary. That Committee was considering a possible constitutional amendment that would have allowed organized prayer in the public schools. At panel after panel, representatives from numerous religious advocacy groups testified on behalf of this legislation. Fortunately, the proposal was defeated.

That experience drove home an important lesson to me, though.

Here, in and around Washington, DC, every conceivable interest group has representation, a presence, a "seat at the table," so to speak. That phrase, incidentally, was often used by Ralph Reed, the former head of the Christian Coalition. He lamented the supposed absence of political influence fundamentalist Christians exercised "inside the beltway," and he set out to change that state of affairs. He often said that the so-called "people of faith" simply wanted "a seat at the table in the great discussion called democracy."

In fact, religious people of just about all faiths and denominations are here "inside the beltway" with lobbyists and organized political muscle, along with just about every other interest group you can think of. Gays are here, so is the National Rifle Association, the American Medical Association, major labor and industrial groups, ethnic organizations, movements claiming to speak on behalf of women - you name it. But conspicuously absent from this scene has been a segment of American which, until recently, has been largely ignored.

They are what we call "Godless Americans." We are Atheists, Freethinkers, Rationalists, and Secular Humanists.

Kaplan / Campbell
Woody Kaplan (left) and
Douglas Campbell

In 2001, a team of researchers under the sponsorship of the Graduate Center of the City of New York issued the results of a finding that sought to examine the religious landscape in the United States. It was the American Religious Identification Survey. Their efforts started with a blunt, simple question: "What is your religion, if any?"

They found that while in 1990 about 90% of the adult population identified with one or another religious group, just eleven years later that figure dropped to eighty-one percent. A seismic shift was taking place even within the religious community as well. Mainstream denominations were losing adherents; fundamentalist and evangelical groups were thriving.

Jeff Lewis
Jeff Lewis

But the most remarkable shift found by the researchers was the growth of a cohort known as "the seculars." They comprise nearly 16% of the population. And overlapping this group is another segment of Americans, those who, when asked about their religious beliefs and affiliations, listed "None - No Religion." This was chosen by 13% of the respondents. The math is simple and straightforward. If these results are applied to the population of the United States, somewhere around 30 million people have "no religion."

That figure exceeds the numbers in most Protestant denominations. The Presbyterians claim about 5.6 million adherents; the Mormons, according to ARIS, have about 2.7 million members in the United State. Seventh-day Adventists, only about 725,000. The Assemblies of God, the denomination to which Attorney General John Ashcroft belongs to, a bit over 1 million. The only religious denominations of cohorts LARGER than "the seculars" are the Roman Catholic Church with about 50 million adherents, and the Baptists, with 33 million. And remember, these figures are likely inflated. They count Baptismal and other enrollments, not regular church attendees. Even the most optimistic of the religious claim that only about 40% of Americans attend church regularly, and there are serious questions about the reliability of that figure.

But here's the real shocker. In the introduction to the ARIS survey,the researchers noted the following:

"Often lost amidst the mesmerizing tapestry of faith groups that comprise the American population is also a vast and growing population of those without faith. They adhere to no creed nor choose to affiliate with any religious community. These are the secular, the unchurched, the people who profess no faith in any religion."

And the ARIS researchers add that there is a widespread misperception that America has recently been, or is in the midst of a religious re-awakening. They note:

"In sharp contrast to that widely held perception, the present survey has detected a wide and possibly growing swath of secularism among Americans. The magnitude and role of this large secular segment of the American population is frequently ignored by scholars and politicians alike."

About a year after the release of the American Religious Identification Survey, and not too far from where we are now - right over on the Mall, in front of the Capitol Building - the "Godless Americans March on Washington" took place. There were over 3,500 of us there that day - small compared to other demonstrations, but remember, it was a first-time effort. Mobilizing a complexly diverse group of people, fiercely independent thinkers with a penchant for arguing and disagreeing, getting them to set aside labels and bucket loads of past organizational animosity and history, bringing them together in one place and making a political statement of it all - well, even I'd have to say it was close to a miracle. But we did it.

Later this month, "Godless Americans" will be over on the steps of the Supreme Court during the oral arguments in the NEWDOW case which seeks to eliminate the unconstitutional inclusion of the words "under God" in our Pledge of Allegiance. There are other cases, too, some won, some lost, many still to be fought.

Downey / Arnzen
Margaret Downey and
Christpher Arntzen

So, today, we take ANOTHER STEP by launching the Godless Americans Political Action Committee. And it is just that, a STEP. Every other group you can think of is knee deep in the American political process, endorsing or opposing candidates, lobbying for or against legislation, mobilizing a constituency. We hope to do something like that for at least a segment of those 30 million or so "Godless Americans." Our March on Washington is now our March Into The Voting Booth.

There are plenty of issues we don't and can't all agree on. Some political issues affect us as "Americans" but not "Godless Americans." But others do. We are concerned about the separation of church and state, which is to say, we are concerned about separating government from religious dogma. We think government should not promote, aid, "establish" or assist ANY one particular religious group, or ALL religious groups, or religion in general.

We don't want our tax money going to religious groups under any guise or color of law, whether it is the ill-conceived faith-based initiatives, or voucher schemes to aid religious schools.

We want a "level playing field" for private individuals, businesses and communities in respect to organized religion. We oppose the discriminatory "compelling interest/least restrictive means" test inherent in legislation like the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Person's Act. We want organizations that enjoy an incestuous relationship with the government to stop discriminating against the public by employing religious or sexual litmus tests.

We intend the use the Godless Americans Political Action Committee as a mechanism for mobilizing some of those 30 million non-religious citizens. Just like gun owners are speaking out on legislation that affects them, along with gays AND blacks AND women AND every other interest group in this country, we want our fellow nonbelievers to get used to speaking out on behalf of OUR interests.

We are a young movement. We are where the "religious right" was in the 1970s. Randall Balmer, an expert on the history of American evangelicalism, noted that three or four decades ago, the evangelicals were safely sequestered in their churches and prayer circles - withdrawn from the political world most of the time, waiting for the demise of all things. Today they are a political force to be reckoned with. We will gladly borrow a page from their book, and I am not talking about the Bible!

But our strategy has to be different, too. We are a diverse lot. Madalyn O'Hair, the founder of American Atheists, often said that organizing Atheists was like trying to herd cats, or butterflies - you get the picture. But while we have far to go, we have come far, too.

I'm proud to be standing here today announcing the formation of this Political Action Committee. And I'm honored to be joined by Jeff Lewis, GAMPAC's Political Director. Some of our board of advisors are here. Woody Kaplan chairs the Civil Liberties List, a federally registered PAC. Douglas Campbell is from Michigan and ran for the governorship of Michigan, openly as an Atheist.  Margaret Downey is the founder of the Freethought Society of Greater Philadelphia. Christopher Arntzen chairs the Gay, and Lesbian Atheists and Humanists.