THE BLOG
08/05/2016 12:16 am ET Updated Aug 05, 2017

Did WikiLeaks Reveal I Was a Shill For Hillary Clinton?

No, but it might look that way.

In a Wiki-leaked email, Democratic National Committee CFO Brad Marshall appeared to want someone to ask Bernie Sanders if he believed in God, as a way to hurt Bernie's campaign. However, that email was written in May and I asked the question in February, before the South Carolina primary.

During the Q&A in a Sanders forum in Charleston, I commented, "I don't think you are the only Jewish socialist in the country who believes in God, so I'm hoping you will do for atheists what Barney Frank did for LGBTs and be the first senator to acknowledge being an atheist." Sanders paused for a moment, looking uncomfortable because of the audience's applause, and answered, "Not gonna happen." Sanders stressed that he was a Jew. (This is not an atheist disavowal. In fact, 52 percent of American Jews do not believe in God.)

I did not ask my question to help Hillary. In fact, I supported and voted for Bernie in the South Carolina primary. I asked because one of the best ways to change atheist stereotypes is to have respected leaders come out of the closet.

What many of us like about Bernie Sanders is that he is an honest politician with consistent core values. However, his God statements seem to have evolved. When asked last October on Jimmy Kimmel Live whether he believes in God, Sanders replied, "What my spirituality is about is that we're all in this together and it's not a good thing to believe that as human beings we can turn our backs on the suffering of other people."

What does God have to do with that humanistic response? He has also said that God means different things to different people, and to him it means all of us are connected and all of life is connected. Sanders became properly outraged when he learned that DNC CFO Brad Marshall tried to hurt his campaign by branding him an atheist, and said, "I am not an atheist."

Even if Sanders defines "God" in a way that he can call himself a believer, he does not believe in a supernatural being who directs his life or has anything to do with an afterlife. In other words, Sanders lives as an atheist so he could easily call himself one, but many people view being an open atheist as political suicide, perhaps for good reason.

A June 2015 Gallup poll found that 40 percent of respondents said they would refuse to vote for an atheist candidate, the highest disapproval rate of any group in the survey except socialists. The good news is that the "never-atheist" percentage continues to decrease with every new survey. Also, according to a 2015 Pew survey, the fastest growing faith demographic in the country is the one claiming no religious affiliation, now at about 23 percent overall and 36 percent among those ages 18 to 24.

After Sanders denied he's an atheist, I was especially disappointed when he didn't acknowledge that atheists are also fine and decent Americans. He most certainly would have done so had he been "accused" of being a Hindu, Buddhist, Muslim, or any other religious or ethnic minority. And I have the same complaint about other public figures who ignored the anti-atheist slur.

The theme of the Democratic Party Convention seemed to be inclusion. The platform made a commitment to "protect religious minorities and the fundamental right of freedom of religion." Notably absent at the convention was the word "atheist," an important constituency that the Democratic Party consistently ignores. A 2014 Pew report showed that 28 percent of Democrats are religiously unaffiliated, compared with Catholics (21 percent), evangelical Protestants (16 percent), mainline Protestants (13 percent), and historically black Protestants (12 percent).

One of the most interesting comments among the speeches at the convention was Hillary Clinton's, "I believe in science." What made it interesting was that it needed to be said in 2016 and that it drew significant applause. Perhaps that indirectly was a nod to atheists and others who live in a reality-based universe. A noteworthy post-convention comment came from Sarah Silverman, a Bernie Sanders supporter. When asked if there was anything she had wanted to say in her speech that the DNC wouldn't allow, I expected it to be a phrase from her "colorful" vocabulary. Not so. She said she was not allowed to say, "I've been with this possibly agnostic Jew." Sarah is open about not believing in God, but she did not mention that in her convention speech.

Atheists, agnostics, humanists, and others who get their ethics and values from non-religious sources have been silent for too long, but times are changing. On the opening day of the Democratic National Convention, the Secular Coalition for America hosted a Secular Democratic Reception for nonreligious delegates and attendees. It was an opportunity for nonreligious Democrats to learn about ways they can advocate for church/state separation, science-based policy, and increase the visibility of nontheists in their local Democratic parties. Some state secular caucuses have formed, and more are expected to take part in future state party platforms. I hope that all political parties will become less inclined to demonize or ignore our growing and increasingly organized communities.

We are a country of religious and non-religious people who should be judged on what we say and do rather than on our professed religious beliefs. There are good and bad people of all religions and none. In fact, I'm planning to vote for a liberal Methodist (Hillary Clinton) rather than for a likely atheist (Donald Trump), who I can't imagine believing in a power higher than himself.