Thursday, August 21, 2014

Humanist Political Power Part One: Local versus national organizations

Removing this cross will require local action
The “free thought movement” of atheists, Humanists, nones, naturalists and others exists at two levels of operation: Small local groups and large national/international groups. Conventional wisdom holds that large organizations and celebrity atheists stand at the top of, and lead, our movement while smaller local groups act as foot soldiers. This structure gives the appearance of our movement being hierarchical in structure, but that hierarchy is illusion. A moment’s reflection demonstrates that the opposite is true.

It is helpful to remember that when news media approaches a movement like ours from the outside, with an eye towards explaining what we’re up to to a public seeking to understand us, they will gravitate towards high profile celebrities and leaders of national movements. It is natural for outsiders to approach first contact this way: think of the endless cartoon space aliens demanding of some ordinary person to “Take me to your leader!” Hierarchy is often portrayed as a universal normative.

It is assumed that big movements are anchored by charismatic leaders with revolutionary ideas executing carefully constructed battle plans to advance some grandiose scheme. The truth is that local individuals get together in small activist communities and begin to agitate against the established social order, sometimes drawing on the resources and skills of national groups and celebrity atheists.

Most local groups start when a single individual has an idea or grievance. “I think that cross doesn’t belong on the court house steps” or “I wish I knew other people in my area who think the way I do” are the sorts of thoughts that lead one into action. Once actions are taken, for instance, writing a letter to the newspaper, testifying at a legislative hearing or starting a new group on Meet-Up, others may reveal themselves as sympathetic allies. One person becomes two, three, four or more. To the extent that this small group has the means and makes the effort to advance their case publicly, they have attained some small measure of political power.

Small groups, alone, have a small amount of power but by reaching out into the greater community, small groups can find allies. For instance, a small group of atheists or Humanists seeking the removal of a cross on public land will usually find willing allies in the local ACLU, and perhaps even among the American Baptists, who have a long history of supporting church/state separation. 

With such alliances groups can double or triple their political influence, because of the power inherent in coalitions. One person can be dismissed as a crank. A small group can be dismissed as a group of cranks. But coalitions, made up of many different people representing many different points of view that have nevertheless come to an agreement on one particular issue, are not so easily dismissed.

Most secular groups today start with someone having the idea to form a Humanist or atheist group, then contacting the American Humanist Association (AHA) or some other national organization about how to go about doing so in an official way. Affiliation with a national group does confer many advantages to a new group, such as easy access to 501(c)3 status, some financial, legal and organization resources and access to a wide range of advice on best practices.

Once the group is established and set up with the AHA, well, too often, that’s that. Because if local group organizers wait around for the AHA to tell them what to do or what issues to get excited about, they’ll wait for a long time, dry up and blow away. The same goes for other national groups, like the American Atheists, the Freedom from Religion Foundation or the Center for Inquiry: None of these groups can tell a local group exactly how to organize or what issues to get excited about. Local groups are self-directed.

National groups take on local issues when there is enough on the ground, local activism to make a difference. These large groups run on large donations, and they need victories to keep the donations coming in. They simply cannot afford to set up camp in some small backwater city to fight a multi-year battle over some violation of church/state separation. Worse, they can do little more than cheer from the sidelines if your Humanist group wants to take a stand against police brutality or for the legalization of marijuana because even though such issues have impacts on secular society, to a national organization these issues can open up charges of mission creep and dilute their effectiveness.

A cross on public property is only coming down when there is a local person involved that the court deems to have standing. For local persons to feel confident enough to step forward and make their case, they will need a local community with the political clout and media savvy to protect them. Without strong local groups, individuals can be left alone and unprotected. 

Further, without local infrastructure national groups are often powerless to effect change. Religious monuments, legislatures flouting the rules regarding invocations and teachers boldly teaching creationism are spread throughout the country, but without individuals willing to take a stand and local groups to support them, nothing will change. Real power rests entirely with local groups, who access the resources of national groups the same way one accesses a hammer to pound a nail. 

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