Jonathan Engel, J.D. is the President of the Secular Humanist Society of New York. Here we talk about changes in the secular New York community with COVID.
*Interview conducted July 25, 2021.*
Scott Douglas Jacobsen: Okay, we are back after an approximately three month and three week hiatus with Ask Jon. So, the Biden/Harris administration has been in for about six months or so, since inauguration. With that transition — and six months seems like a reasonable time to begin asking some of these questions — what has been the feeling in New York state over time? What has been the change in the conversation within the secular community there?
Jonathan Engel: Well, a lot of it is just ‘wait and see.’ Although, yes, it has been six months and the Biden administration started off kind of like gangbusters, because one of the first things they did — it was a real emergency they were responding to — was a big package of relief. Economic relief for small businesses and for individuals who had all taken big economic hits due to COVID. So, that started off really well. They did it without any Republican votes. They did it by a process in the Senate that’s called Reconciliation. The United States Senate has a lot of really weird rules. Included in those rules is the filibusters. Which means, if a bill is proposed, essentially, if 40 members of the Senate were opposed to the bill, vote to cut off the bait on the bill, the bill just goes away. It gives the minority a tremendous amount of power. Since they passed that through a budget process called Reconciliation, which means a straight 50 or 51 votes is good enough. Only budget matters can be passed that way. Right now, one of the things we’re sitting on here; we’re sitting on a lot of different things. There’s two different voting rights acts that Democrats want to pass. There’s immigration reform. There’s this whole infrastructure package. The bottom line is: things seem stalled right now. It got off to a fast start. Part of the issue has been that Biden and some other top democrats — for some reason I can’t quite figure — they’re looking for what they call bipartisanship. “Oh, we want to get some Republican votes.” This is essentially Charlie Brown, Lucy and the football.
Engel: It’s what it is. It happens all the time. The Democrats are Charlie Brown. They probably keep saying, “Yeah, if you just talk to us, and give us some of the things we want, we’ll vote for this bill and we’ll have this bill that’s bipartisan.” And then they negotiate and they negotiate, and the negotiations drag on, because Republicans are just trying to run out the clock anyway, and then when it comes time to actually vote on the bill, it’s time to pick up the football, and leave the Democrats flat on their backs, just like Charlie Brown. There’s also some question here. I know as a democrat and a liberal in New York. I’m wondering: What the heck is going on? Why is it that only Democrats have to be bipartisan? When Trump won in 2016, the Republicans had the House and the Senate, and Mitch McConnell didn’t say, ‘Oh, we wanna get bipartisanship,’ on anything. What he said was, “Elections have consequences.” Which was his way of saying, “We won, so we’re going to do whatever we want.” And then Democrats get in and it’s like, “Oh, we need to have some Republican support,” et cetera. So, right now, there’s a lot of frustration among people like me, on a number of fronts. In terms of the Biden administration, a lot of people like me are kind of frustrated. I understand how tough his situation is, but I’m tired of him thinking that Lucy is going to hold that football this time. This time she’s gonna really hold it. And it never happens that way, and it’s time to stop trying to make it happen that way. It’s time to take the Mitch McConell attitude, “We won, we’re going to do whatever we want.” As time passes, it gets a little bit and a little bit more frustrating. I think they got off to a good start and he’s done a number of really positive things, but he’s hung up on this “Oh let’s try and get some Republican votes” thing. And again, it’s like Charlie Brown, “I’m hung up on: I’m gonna kick that football, one of these days she’s gonna hold it and I’m gonna kick it,” and to the best of my knowledge that’s never happened. And since Charles Schultz has been dead for the last ten years or so, I don’t think it’s going to.
Jacobsen: What have you been impressed with by Biden? Those particular things that he’s done in policy, or in actions or in statements beneficial to the equality of the Secular community. I want to emphasize the idea is never superiority of any Secular group. It’s about equality, because there are so many areas in which Secular Americans, either by the attitude of the public or policy that is explicit, are discriminatory against the Secular community in the United States.
Engel: I haven’t seen very much to be honest. For people like me for whom secularism is really important, where separation of church and state is really important, I think some of us are just caught on the really huge issues. I mean, we’ve got life and death issues here. In case anybody hasn’t noticed, the world is on fire. Half of it. Half of it is flooded, half of it is on fire. Which is amazing to me, I’m always saying this to my wife, we’re always talking about how 15 years ago we saw the movie An Inconvenient Truth. Everything they said is happening. Everything. The extremes of heat. We’re focused on that. That’s life and death. We’re focused on the COVID situation, which is not on a good path right now. It is not getting better, it is getting worse. Focusing on that, and voting rights. There are so many hair-on-fire things going on that I think we are reluctant to come to Biden and say, “Look, it would be nice if you mention the phrase ‘separation of church and state’ a couple of times.” Everybody in the country right now knows what a devout guy Joe Biden is. He’s a devout Catholic, he’s a devout Catholic! They use that as a shield, when Republicans call us ‘Godless,’ which is something that we should be proud of, but that’s not the way it works here. And they use that as a shield, “Oh look at Joe, he’s so devout, he’s so devout!” And I don’t really give a damn, but he has not been good on secular issues so far, but I’ve been crowded out by all the hair-on-fire emergencies we’ve got going now. So that conversation really isn’t happening all that much, unfortunately. It’s an important issue to me. I know it’s an important issue to a lot of the people I know, but it’s just been crowded out. A lot of us are on the horns of a dilemma because on one hand, we think, “Yeah, it’s important to us, it’s an important issue, and we’re an important constituency to Biden and to the Democratic party, I’m talking about secular people. But a lot of us are like, “Well, you know, I’ve got to give the guy another grape now,” because he has all this other insanity to deal with. So, that’s really where it is, and it’s a little bit frustrating and a little bit disappointing, but I also find it a little bit understandable, considering again, the huge crises in climate and COVID that are happening right now in the country.
Jacobsen: What is John Rafferty saying about all this?
Engel: Oh, that’s an interesting question. In the Secular Humanist Society, we’re just trying to keep our heads over water. We lost membership over the course of the COVID lockdown. A lot of people kept touch with us by our live events, and I’ve been conducting a Zoom happy hour every Sunday at 5:00 for a while now to try and keep base with people. And of course, I’m in touch with John. I talk to him a lot, and right now as an organization we’re just trying to keep ourselves together and keep ourselves viable. And at the same time, we’re dealing with something a lot of people are dealing with right now, we’re going back tentatively, gingerly, to live events, et cetera, and we’re sitting here trying to plan for the next number of months. My feeling is that we should plan, we have to, but have to do so with the understanding that “the best laid schemes o’ mice an’ men, gang aft agley.” We really don’t know. I mean, my wife is a schoolteacher. What’s going to happen in September? Well, right now, the plan is all schools open, all schools in-person. This is all dependent on where the disease goes, and right now I don’t know where the disease is going, and nobody does. For me, it’s a feeling of very great uncertainty. I’ll give you an example. I love music, I love live music. One of the things I miss the most during the lockdowns was going to concerts. I usually go to ten or twelve live concerts a year, plus club dates and stuff like that, and I have to tell you. I’m buying tickets to shows, but I’m saying to myself, “I’m honestly not sure I’m going to be going to them.” Fortunately, most of the venues I’m buying at are very clear that you must show proof of vaccination to get in, but even so I’m saying to myself, “Am I actually going to be going to the show in October that I have tickets for?” And the answer is, “I don’t know.”
Jacobsen: Have you had any correspondence with any of the other leadership of the other secular organizations in New York? What have been the other concerns for them?
Engel: Not that much. I mean, it’s funny because John Rafferty suggested we do a panel with some of the other secular organizations in New York. I’ve gotten in touch with Gotham Atheists quite a bit. We’re all just trying to feel our way back into our live events. We always used to do, once a month, a Sunday brunch and conversation at a local restaurant. Last Sunday, a week ago, we had our first one that we’ve had in a year and a half. We had pretty decent attendance, we had somewhere between 20 and 25 people, so that went pretty well. We’re planning to do it again in August, we just hope that we’ll be able to. That’s basically what’s going on. Everyone’s taking tentative baby steps toward beginning to open up, looking and seeing what’s happening. Of course, the issues are still there, the issues are for us: separation of church and state, being one of the most important, recognizing the right to be secular, and also believing in science and not in dogma. This is really tough in this country and it’s come out a lot in the COVID issues. Here we are, the richest country in the world, vaccines are available for every single person in this country, not a problem, you can get it easily. Yet, we’re only at maybe 15% vaccinated, which is absolutely frightening, and a lot of it has to do with religion and religious beliefs. I read an article in The Times yesterday — and by the way, one of these days we’ll talk about Staten Island, Staten Island is the weirdest of the New York City boroughs by a large margin — there’s a story, and because it’s also a mostly politically conservative borough, whereas all the rest of boroughs in Manhattan are very politically liberal. I mean Trump only got 30% of New York City vote in 2020, but almost all of that came from Staten Island. Here’s a guy who actually works swabbing people at a testing site, who has not been vaccinated in Staten Island, he’s not vaccinated, he said, “I need more results. If the FDA is still studying it, that means it’s a conversation. Until it’s 100%, you don’t have my vote. I believe in Jesus, I pray a lot. I’m going with that.” This is still New York City. I know it’s Staten Island, but it’s still New York City. If that’s what it’s like here, what do you think it’s like in the Bible Belt, in Arkansas and Tennessee where their infections are exploding? We live in this society where it’s taboo to say, “That person’s religious beliefs are hurting him and his community.” It’s absolutely taboo… I’ll say it, I don’t care. For any person who is a person of influence, an elected official or whatever, that type of talk, although it is patently true, is still taboo. Again, that’s the religiosity of the United States and the American people is another thing holding us back from our recovery from COVID.
Jacobsen: Jon, as always, thank you so much.
Engel: Oh, it’s a pleasure, stay cool!
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.
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