Time for a secular right

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As the GOP emerges from the woodshed and acknowledges its shortcomings, the center-right movement must address an important trend: America’s secularization.

It’s time for a secular right to emerge in a visible way like never before, in the name of both tolerance and practicality. In seeking tolerance, the GOP should support openly secular candidates and remove religious litmus tests. It should embrace our founding creed, e pluribus unum, since we are indeed a nation of many philosophies converging in one polity.

During the 2012 campaign, Mitt Romney’s standard deflection from talking about his Mormon faith was to say that Americans didn’t care about his particular brand of religion but they certainly did want “a person of faith to lead the country.” This rhetoric sits poorly with fence-sitting, secular independents who aren’t adamant that a religious person occupy the White House. They want someone who has the heart of a public servant, but not necessarily someone who is motivated by religious devotion.

Mr. Romney couldn’t seem to translate his religious volunteerism into compassionate conservatism: President Obama — who does not attend religious services regularly and has repeatedly given rhetorical nods to seculars — outscored Mr. Romney on empathy by nearly 10 percentage points, according to a post-election survey from the Public Religion Research Institute. It seems that for many voters, religiosity doesn’t equal generosity.

Embracing secular language and ideals (which coincide with conservative and even religious ideals far more often than the GOP realizes) makes political sense. Religiously unaffiliated Americans are the fastest-growing “religious” bloc, with 20% of Americans now claiming no organized religion, according to the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life. Electorally, this demographic trend translated to 25% of Mr. Obama’s total votes coming from the religiously unaffiliated. If Mr. Romney had been as concerned about courting the secular middle as he was about courting the religious right, perhaps he’d be preparing his Oval Office drapes.

Mr. Romney’s cautious, checklist-style campaign reflected the Republican worry that many white Protestants wouldn’t vote for a Mormon. Yet evangelicals fell in line, with 79% of Mr. Romney’s votes coming from white Christians. Many of Mr. Obama’s votes came from minority voters and the religiously unaffiliated, two demographic regions that are largely uncharted waters for the GOP.

To remain relevant in the 21st century, Republican leaders need to stop nominating candidates who engage in tone-deaf outbursts on social issues, a la Todd Akin and Richard Mourdock, failed 2012 U.S. Senate candidates who used religiously motivated, clumsy language seemingly excusing some cases of rape. These were bombshells that hurt Republicans among women and seculars; they were easily understood, visceral targets for the left to exploit and distract away from the more arcane debates over fiscal cliffs and debt-to-GDP ratios. To cite “Biblical principles” on a campaign trail as too many Republicans do, is grating on the ears of many moderate, secular voters. It is impossible to predict exactly what a candidate will say or do, yet party elders can do more to support candidates who don’t use the traditional religious buzz words or who choose to focus on civic and cultural endeavors rather than religious work in their home lives.

The center-right movement needs voices that are willing to lay out rational, non-religious arguments for conservative principles beyond just the fiscal realm. Conservative leaders need to be willing to accept the rise in gay marriage, which, as former Republican National Committee Chairman Ken Mehlman argues, promotes community stability and family values.

John F. Kennedy, who broke religious barriers by serving as the nation’s first Catholic president (albeit as a Democrat), has an applicable answer to folks who worry that courting seculars would somehow rob them of their own convictions: “Tolerance implies no lack of commitment to one’s own beliefs,” he said. “Rather it condemns the oppression or persecution of others.” Republicans are quick to defend religious groups that feel threatened by policies that encroach on religious liberty; they should apply similar vigor toward protecting the cherished American right to freedom of conscience unconstrained by religious dogma.

In the shifting political landscape, it is clear that secular voters will continue to become a more powerful voice. The question is whether Republicans are willing to listen and engage.

Carrie Sheffield is a freelance writer in New York City and former D.C.-based political reporter.