Jonathan Engel, J.D. is the President of the Secular Humanist Society of New York. Here we talk about Election Day and American democracy.
*Interview conducted November 2, 2020.*
Scott Douglas Jacobsen: This will be published after the election, so consider this something like an in-the-moment interview with a retrospective publication date. So, we are on the cusp of closing elections in the United States. It is an exciting time for some and a terrifying time for others. It is a time of potential celebration, depends on your political orientation and social views. In New York, in the secular community, how are the conversations happening around President Trump, around presidential candidate Joe Biden, and around the election at this time?
Jonathan Engel: In terms of the secular community, say yesterday, I had a meet-up with a bunch of secularists here in New York. And in fact, the week before, I had a Zoom meeting with a bunch of people from the secular network of New Jersey. And clearly, people who are secular tend to favour Joe Biden, even Joe Biden is religious himself. And Democrats pay lip service to a lot of religious malarkey, as I would say. By the same token, they are not the extreme religious fanatics, generally speaking, that you find on the right that you find among Republicans. And Trump, of course, has no religion whatsoever. But he said, there is religious right in this country who have supported him. So, he’ll give them anything he wants, including Justice Amy Coney Barrett on the Supreme Court, who is a real religious fanatic. You look at Trump, the Trump administration, serious religious fanatics, the attorney general, the vice president, the secretary of state. You’re not going to get anything like that under a Democratic presidency.
So I’m sure, almost all secularists that I know are supporting Biden. But as for our apprehensions, we have the same apprehensions that every other person who’s not on the Trump team has, as well as the Trump Kool-Aid has, in this country. If I could know that this was going to be your relatively free and fair election tomorrow and that every vote would be counted as in a normal election, I’d be feeling pretty confident right now that Biden would win. And I feel that way. But I just don’t know what you can call it – mischief, except mischief is what my five-year-old kids get into. I don’t know what criminality would be more like it that could happen with Trump. Again, there’s one thing about Trump. There is absolutely nothing you can say about him in which a rational reply would be, “Oh, no, he wouldn’t do that.” So, people here are apprehensive, even those who feel that Biden is going to win and then feel fairly confident about that, there’s still a lot of apprehension because of what Trump might do in order to win the election. Also, a lot of people are still traumatized from four years ago going into the elections thinking, “Wow, I’m going to watch it here, the first female president of the United States,” and wound up, shell shocked. So, that feeling doesn’t go away in four years. In fact, you get flashbacks of it because then you’re reminded of it. So, there is a lot of fear and apprehension in many ways here in the secular community.
We know that separation of church and state is in many ways on the line. Again, it is so ironic because it is unlike Trump himself, religious – he doesn’t care. I can’t imagine him worshipping God; he would think that God should be worshipping him. So, he doesn’t care. But he has thrown the keys to the kingdom, so to speak, to the religious fanatics in this country. And what they will do with it, if he gets four more years, then it is very frightening.
Jacobsen: Even though Joe Biden is a Catholic, what is the form of his Catholicism making secular people more comfortable with him than another candidate who would not have been Trump while still religious in a way less appealing to them? Because I’m aware that differences exist between, on the one hand, hierarchs and laity in the Roman Catholic Church, as well as between the laity in the Catholic Church; something like ordinary believers on the one hand, versus more hardcore adherence to the faith, on the other, which comes with different social and political consequences because the faith is so marginalized even in such a long and large history in the United States as a whole.
Engel: As a secularist myself, I feel fairly comfortable with Biden. My understanding is that he’s a pretty religious guy. Does he go to church every Sunday? I don’t know. Which is in a way reassuring, he’s not throwing that in anybody’s face or anything else like that. I go back to thinking about this country when Jon Kennedy was running for president in 1960. He became the first then, as far as I could think of, still the only, Catholic; the only non-Protestant to be president of the United States. When he was running, one of the things that was being used much against him at the time was, “Oh, he’s a Catholic. He’ll be a tool of the Pope.” There weren’t so many secularists worried about him being a tool of the pope, and turning this into a theocracy or something. It was more like Protestants who were anti-Catholic and anti-papacy at the time. And they were worried about it. It is interesting, just as a quick aside, because in modern America right now, extreme right-wing Catholics and extreme right ing Protestants make common cause for the most part. But that wasn’t so much the case back then. But in any event, Kennedy gave a famous speech in which he said, ‘I’m Catholic, but I’m not taking orders from the pope. I take orders from the American people.’ And he very much strongly affirmed the separation of church and state in that speech.
So as for Joe Biden, my understanding is he’s somewhat religious. But I also know that, for example, he favours legalized abortion rights. So, that is a big litmus test for a religious person, especially a Catholic; he is in favour of legalized abortion rights. And I don’t think he’s in favour of forcing religion on anybody. I think he understands the separation of church and state. It is interesting. I would have looked at any one of those debates if someone had asked the question about the separation of church and state, but they didn’t. And generally speaking, I’m more comfortable even with some of the more religious members of the Democratic Party. I think they understand that this is a wide-ranging party. Not only, but there are also a lot more non-Christians, either Catholics or Protestants, in the Democratic Party than in the Republican Party. The Democratic Party has Muslim members of Congress and many more Jewish members of the House and the Senate. There are a few Republicans in the House or the Senate who are not Protestant or Catholic. But as for Democrats, there are lots of them. So, it is a more diverse base of support. And I think Biden understands that.
There is a, for example, just giving people; there is a Freethought Caucus in the United States Congress, which has 13 members. All of them are Democrats. And only one of them, the guy who started it, Jared Huffman from California, is an outright non-theist. The rest of them, either they don’t talk about it or whatever, and I was pleased. A woman who I don’t always agree with, a Muslim woman who in Congress from Michigan, her name is Rashida Farid, she joined the Freethought Caucus, which I thought was fantastic. And she said, ‘Listen, I’m a Muslim. I’m still a practicing Muslim. But I believe in the separation of church and state. I believe in using science and research and evidence in order to for us to devise solutions to our challenges.’
So as long as a person believes that: separating church and state, belief in science, if they’re religious themselves, I can live with that. I’m going to have to live with that topic. I don’t have much choice. So, I don’t even know what religion Kamala Harris is. I know that her mother was Hindu and her father, I believe, was Protestant. He was from Jamaica. And I know she’s married to a Jewish man, so I don’t even know if she practices or what she practices. I don’t know. And to me, that’s a wonderful thing. I don’t want to know, that’s a your-own-time thing. When you’re in the government representing me, your religion, I don’t want to hear about.
Even though, yes, Joe Biden is a practicing Catholic, etc., but me, as a secular person, I am comfortable with him. I am comfortable with the Democratic Party. Yes, they could do better, but I’m fairly comfortable with them. But then you look at the other side, you realize there’s no choice at all. And again, the irony there is they are led by a totally non-religious person. But it doesn’t matter because, Trump, anybody who likes Trump, Trump will do anything for them. All they have to do is say nice things about him and that’s it, even during the Election in 2016. He was asked, ‘Why are you saying such amazing things about Putin? The guy’s a KGB thug, who’s a dictator. Why are you saying such nice things about him?’ And Trump’s reply, basically, ‘He says good things about me.’ So, that’s it. If Trump has the support of the extreme religious people in this country, which includes Jews too, he extreme religious Jews in New York City, then they tend to support Trump. So, Biden is a religious person. But I am comfortable with him being president, that he will observe and defend the separation of church and state.
Jacobsen: After the election, we have another issue. The issue being, or the deal is, a significant chunk of the American population 10 fingers, 10 toes supported policies, behaviours, and speeches of current President Donald Trump. Those often were against many of the standards, attitudes, and standards of evidence of the secular community – human rights activists, of humanists across the country. Yet this has been whipped up over four years. The kettle will not turn to ice right away. It is still at a boil. So, the question, after election, what now?
Engel: Boy, nervous about that. I was watching – I wish I could remember her name – a reporter. I think she’s with Showtime. Jon Heileman is the guy who produces it; he’s one of the reporters there. But in any event, she was talking to some guy who was in a militia in Georgia, a rightwing militia. And basically, what he said, he was expecting and prepared for violence no matter who wins, because he said: If Trump wins over the left – who are so violent, which they’re not, but they’ll probably start something. And if Biden wins, then it is illegitimate. Biden can’t win and this is what Trump has been telling these people and some of them believe him and that he cannot lose by any legitimate means. If he loses, it means it was stolen. And this guy, standing there with this assault rifle, because this is the glorious United States of America where everybody has an assault rifle, not me, by the way, but in New York City in that year. In lots of other places, they’re saying, “We’re ready to march.”
Now that we’ve got a lot of tough talk from guys like that, it was one of these guys at the end who said, ‘I was a free man yesterday. I’ll be a free man tomorrow.’ But when they actually come up against armed cops who are trained and who are serious, it does tend to peter out, but there is reason to be concerned about the immediate aftermath of there being violence. And then there’s the long-term answer of this, that we still haven’t confronted. Some people say, “Oh, the problem is Trump. And when he’s gone, we can go back to normal.” But I think a lot of people, including me, are apprehensive about that, because the problem isn’t just Trump. I’ll tell you one thing. I have been shocked. And again, there are so many things that have shocked, but not surprised, me about the last four years. And one of those things is that, right now, I am shocked that there has been not a single Republican leader who has stood up and said, “OK, look, folks, we’re going to have a free and fair election because that’s what we do here. And then the winner will be the winner. And that’ll be that.” They’re not saying this.
And so, the long-term prospects for this country are uncertain, even if Biden wins, because there are 40% of the people who have been drinking the Kool-Aid for the last four years. People who believe either he’s done a great job or that this is a hoax, not real. I honestly don’t know. But the fact that those people will still be here, even if the state of New York manages to put Trump into an orange jumpsuit, those people will still be here in this country. And that’s a long-term problem that I don’t know the solution to. And in some ways, I’m not even thinking about that much because I’m like, “Let’s get through the next couple of days, let’s get through it.” Because, Trump could just even some way legitimately win re-election, in which case, give me a bit of liberty under the doormat because I’m going to be sleeping in your bathroom pretty soon (in Canada).
Jacobsen: How are you feeling personally about it?
Engel: Nervous, I pay something for last time, because every day is felt like it has taken a year, to get to this point. It has been such a slow drag. I am nervous about it. On the one hand, it is easy to fall into, “Oh, that can’t happen here.” I’ll tell you a little story. I’m a big jazz fan. I have been going to concerts. I have had a subscription to the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra for over 20 years. And right after the 2016 election, I was at one of the concerts. I was sitting next to a gentleman from Germany. We were chatting before the show and at intermission. And this is not that long, maybe a few months after the 2016 election. First of all, I was like apologizing, “I’m so sorry that we’re flipping this person on the world, including you.” And he said, “Oh, it’ll be OK. It is America. America always comes through, it’ll be OK.” And then he said, “Hey, listen, any country that could produce music like this, is always going to be OK. And I just said, “Thank you. I appreciate your good wishes.” But in my mind, I thought back to 1935 or so. It is like, “Hey, there are a lot of people in Germany,” but then we’re like, “OK, this is the land of Beethoven. We’re civilized people. We’re not going to fall into barbarity.” And to the best of my recollection, they did.
So, personally, I do feel nervous. I’m wondering, where the people are going to wind up taking a stand here. We’ll find out within the next couple of days, even wind up speaking to you next week from today. And there won’t be a world anymore, in which case, that’ll be that. I don’t think anything like that quite yet, but I do think so much is on the line. In 4 years, you can do a lot of damage, which he has. In four more years where he feels unrestrained, the damage would only multiply.
Jacobsen: Jon, thank you so much for your time today.
Engel: Thank you, Scott. Listen, you take care of yourself and hopefully we will right the world at least a little bit in the next couple of days. Take care, Scott.
Scott Douglas Jacobsen is the Founder of In-Sight Publishing and Editor-in-Chief of In-Sight: Independent Interview-Based Journal (ISSN 2369-6885). Jacobsen works for science and human rights, especially women’s and children’s rights. He considers the modern scientific and technological world the foundation for the provision of the basics of human life throughout the world and the advancement of human rights as the universal movement among peoples everywhere.
*Associates and resources listing last updated May 31, 2020.*
Canadian Atheist Associates: Godless Mom, Nice Mangoes, Sandwalk, Brainstorm Podcast, Left at the Valley, Life, the Universe & Everything Else, The Reality Check, Bad Science Watch, British Columbia Humanist Association, Dying With Dignity Canada, Canadian Secular Alliance, Centre for Inquiry Canada, Kelowna Atheists, Skeptics, and Humanists Association.
Other National/Local Resources: Association humaniste du Québec, Atheist Freethinkers, Central Ontario Humanist Association, Comox Valley Humanists, Grey Bruce Humanists, Halton-Peel Humanist Community, Hamilton Humanists, Humanist Association of London, Humanist Association of Ottawa, Humanist Association of Toronto, Humanists, Atheists and Agnostics of Manitoba, Ontario Humanist Society, Secular Connextions Seculaire, Secular Humanists in Calgary, Society of Free Thinkers (Kitchener-Waterloo/Cambridge/Guelph), Thunder Bay Humanists, Toronto Oasis, Victoria Secular Humanist Association.
Other International/Outside Canada Resources: Allianz vun Humanisten, Atheisten an Agnostiker, American Atheists, American Humanist Association, Associação Brasileira de Ateus e AgnósticoséééBrazilian Association of Atheists and Agnostics, Atheist Alliance International, Atheist Alliance of America, Atheist Centre, Atheist Foundation of Australia, The Brights Movement, Center for Inquiry (including Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science), Atheist Ireland, Camp Quest, Inc., Council for Secular Humanism, De Vrije Gedachte, European Humanist Federation, Federation of Indian Rationalist Associations, Foundation Beyond Belief, Freedom From Religion Foundation, Humanist Association of Ireland, Humanist International, Humanist Association of Germany, Humanist Association of Ireland, Humanist Society of Scotland, Humanists UK, Humanisterna/Humanists Sweden, Internet Infidels, International League of Non-Religious and Atheists, James Randi Educational Foundation, League of Militant Atheists, Military Association of Atheists and Freethinkers, National Secular Society, Rationalist International, Recovering From Religion, Religion News Service, Secular Coalition for America, Secular Student Alliance, The Clergy Project, The Rational Response Squad, The Satanic Temple, The Sunday Assembly, United Coalition of Reason, Union of Rationalist Atheists and Agnostics.
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