An Interview with Wade King — President, SSA of Clemson

Scott Douglas Jacobsen: What is family background — geography, culture, language, religion/irreligion, and education?

Wade King: I grew up in Greenwood, South Carolina, a medium-sized town surrounded by even smaller towns. Most of my family came from more rural areas of the country, such as Estes Park, Colorado. Most would say my family is the typical rural, white, southern, Christian family. As far as religion goes, my family practiced an old-school form of Southern Baptism in the in the 1990s and 2000s. However, my immediate family broke away due to issues such as gay marriage and race, and joined more laid-back churches such as NewSpring. I kept away from church most of my life, using my education as an excuse. It helped in the long run, as I became the first in my family to go to a 4-year university.

Jacobsen: What is the personal background in secularism for you? What were some seminal developmental events and realizations in personal life regarding it?

King: I started becoming skeptical at around the age of seven, stopped going to church by middle school, and became an agnostic atheist in high school. My schools and community lacked any sort of secular community, so most of my experiences were internal. The whole process began due to my introduction into social issues and communities that these issues affected. By elementary and middle school, I was well aware of LGBT+ issues, abortion, secularism in schools, etc. High school science classes really cemented my beliefs.

Jacobsen: You are the president of the SSA of Clemson. What tasks and responsibilities come with the position? Why do you pursue this line of volunteering?

King: As president of SSAC, I perform most, if not all, administrative duties for the group. I also share responsibility for all other aspects of the organization, including financial organization, social media, outreach, and event participation with my fellow officers. I do all this in order to help build a community of secularists and people who are accepting of secular values.

Jacobsen: What personal fulfillment comes from it?

King: I have always thought that the area lacked a strong secular community. Community is important for sharing ideas, networking, and other’s personal wellness. A community can more easily bring change than a fragmented set of small groups. This is my higher level of fulfillment I get from this. It also doesn’t hurt to make some friends in the process. All of our members have built some form of friendship with other members and even participate in other secular groups in the upstate.

Jacobsen: What are some of the more valuable tips for campus secularist activism?

King: I hate to sound cliché, but balance is the key. You need to be able to plan well, but also be flexible enough to change with the tides of the community. You need to be able to be kind to those who do not share your beliefs, but don’t let them run over you or others. You need to have some degree of focus, such as my focus on community-building, but also be able to focus on other aspects of secularism, such as science, social issues, government, activism, etc. I have missed many opportunities because I wasn’t willing to add new events to our semester schedule; or because I wasn’t confident enough to hold an extended conversation with certain people; or because I focused too much on building a community and didn’t get enough guest speakers to talk about science and government.

Jacobsen: What have been some historic violations of the principles behind secularism on campus? What have been some successes to combat these violations?

King: Clemson University, being one of the larger and more advanced public universities in the south, has had its fair share of incidents. Most are the typical religious imagery around campus, professors enforcing religious beliefs onto students, and non-student religious groups using school funds. However, the most significant recent and well-covered issue on campus involved our football team’s head coach, Dabo Swinney. The first incident dates back to before I even attended Clemson. The Freedom from Religion Foundation accused Swinney of promoting Christianity to his players by holding events with religious themes or venues and by allowing the team’s chaplain to proselytize the players. Considering Swinney’s position as a state employee, this was a huge problem for the FFRF, who had help from SSAC and other local groups. In the long run, Swinney suffered few consequences, given his success in the football team’s performance the past few years, and secular groups suffered a new stigma of aggressiveness and a lack of respect for important personnel on campus.

Jacobsen: What are the main areas of need regarding secularists on campus?

King: For individual secularists, community and social activism are perhaps the most needed aspects in their lives. While students are generally accepting of secular individuals, most large groups on campus have religious ties or activities that exclude secularists. I would very much like to think we provide a strong community for them. However, with secular issues branching into other communities, especially LGBT+ and racial justice groups, many hope to see social progress come to Clemson’s campus. Outreach is currently SSAC’s largest area of need. While our group’s ties remain strong with each other and with other secular groups in the area, we are still small. As mentioned earlier, we still suffer from a stigma that even prevents other secularists from joining.

Jacobsen: What is your main concern for secularism on campus moving forward for the next few months, even years?

King: I very much like to think I am making the correct decision in focusing on building a community for secularists. I feel much of it has been accomplished, so the next few months or semester will have more of a focus on science, social issues, and intellectual discussion and debate. However, the main focus will still be community since we do not want to lose our new, stronger connections. The next few years will be up to new officers and members as our current members graduate or pursue other goals. I am hopeful that our new focus will once again be activism as new secular and related issues arise in our world.

Jacobsen: What are the current biggest threats to secularism on campus?

King: Our biggest concern has to be the chapel that is planned to be built on campus. Luckily it has faced tough criticism over the past couple of years, but it has started flying under the radar due to the university’s willingness to be accommodating towards non-Christians in the building of this chapel. SSAC’s faculty advisor is one of the heads of the program overseeing its construction and assures us that it is much more of a inter-faith center. SSAC plans to have extended discussions and dialogue about this in order to cement our general positions on the matter. Currently, the consensus is that the chapel should be given a better label to avoid religious connotations and/or favoritism and to encourage acceptance and community.

Jacobsen: What are perennial threats to secularism on campus?

King: Faculty and administrative favoritism for religious activities and organizations always remain in our watchful eye. Long-time faculty are especially tricky to deal with, and it doesn’t help that they have formed their own organization for this purpose.

Jacobsen: What are the main social and political activist, and educational, initiatives on campus for secularists?

King: SSAC is the only group exclusively dealing with these issues, as our campus lacks initiative on these issues. Usually we must collaborate with other local secular groups, such as Piedmont Humanists and Foothills Humanists, and with other activist groups, such as Clemson’s Sexuality and Gender Alliance and FEM Club.

Jacobsen: What are the main events and topics of group discussions for the alliance on campus?

King: Our most recent and favorite discussions have centered around science and sociology of religion. Quantum physics and evolutionary biology are common topics given that some of our members are graduate students in physics and biology. While none of us are majors in sociology or religion, many of us have related hobbies and we have had discussions on cult behavior and the pros and cons of religion in society.

Jacobsen: How can people become involved and maintain the secular student alliance ties on campus?

King: If your campus has any sort of online portal for student organizations, that is the best place to start. Clemson has a Tiger Prowl every year for organizations to recruit new students and members. Attending these sort of events makes it easy to meet leaders personally and build a relationship from there. Maintaining these relationships should be easy as long as the group’s leadership remains serious about SSA and its values.

Jacobsen: Any feelings or thoughts in conclusion?

King: I have already said plenty, but I don’t think I can stress this enough: SSA is not the only resource young secularists have to participate in activism. Other local groups and national organizations exist. Getting involved with them is just as important. This is why I value community so much. Getting to know others who agree (or even disagree) with you is a powerful tool for social change. Use it frequently, and use it wisely. Also, thank you for this opportunity, Scott.

Jacobsen: Thank you for your time, Wade.

Original Publication in Humanist Voices.

Scott Douglas Jacobsen

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