I broke my rule on entering my own name in the Google search engine this week. People from childhood friends to people more recently acquainted and made part of my life collectively clutched the pearls and asked, “Jamila, what happened? How did YOU get to talk at CPAC? Have they looked at anything you’ve ever said?”
Let’s start at the beginning.
I sit on the board of American Atheists. They are the rights organization dedicated to the separation of State and church founded by Madalyn Murray O’Hair. They’re brash and smart. And they listen when I talk. (Come to the convention this April in Memphis. It’s going to be a great time!)
Last year, AA had a booth at CPAC, because using the phrase my friend Greta Christina taught me, cheering to the pep squad isn’t what the organization had in mind. AA was interested in reaching out to like minds in a place atheists aren’t often found. Also, AA President David Silverman wanted to attack the notion that conservatism and Christianity are one in the same. David’s use of the word “attack” was reported and quickly raised the ire of CPAC 2014 leadership. The group pulled American Atheist’s booth in the convention hall and argued that AA was only interested in being disruptive to the event. This wasn’t the intent at all in what AA was doing! We simply wanted to get in front of the ten thousand or so attendees at the event and be seen. David, Public Relations Director of American Atheists, Danielle Muscato, and I paid the attendee rate and stood a hotel corridor and handed out buttons and the cards that would have been displayed at the yanked booth.
So this year, David the tenacious, again tried to register a booth at the conference. And a meeting was called. Dan Schneider, the Executive Director of the American Conservative Union, sat down with David Silverman and I, and we spent hours going over the motivation of American Atheists, and what were our aims. Admittedly, I went in prepared for a fight. I made a point to say, “CPAC telling me ‘We don’t like your kind ’round here!’ doesn’t sit well with me.”
My raised hackles were soothed. My concerns about a number of issues- education, poverty, national security, the intrusion of religion into politics and into the lives of atheists, I talked about a bunch of this stuff! And Schneider heard me. And we found many points upon which we agree. And there were parts on which we didn’t. But I didn’t take lightly that I was asked to talk about what it would take to get my vote.
The American Atheist booth was still not accepted, BUT a compromise was agreed. Republican policy expert and atheist, Edwina Rogers organization, the Secular Policy Institute would have a booth at CPAC. American Atheists would be permitted to share space in that booth. And I would lay out the numbers case to all of CPAC about why secular conservatives actually have a place in the modern GOP.
So I gave my speech. I had four minutes to talk about why getting rid of religion in the GOP must happen. I called myself conservative and I said “I am part of a growing Republican family” that has to face the facts of demographic (and other) change in this country.
And people did come by the booth! Many signed up for their annual membership- free for one year for all who signed up at the conference. This is the progress that excited me and American Atheists. We got to show up. We weren’t kicked out. We had a number of good conversations. And we’ll be back next year, too!
But make no mistake, if or not AA had a booth at CPAC, there were plenty of atheists at the event already! Many of them came up and introduced themselves. And we made some good progress with those who let us know that they weren’t atheists, but their children, grandchildren and partners did identify as such.
Now, here’s where I take off my board member cap and speak only for myself.
I find it odd that people care what is my personal political bent. People claim to feel some betrayal that I identified myself as a part of a growing Republican family. (I can’t help the family I was born to, and I happen to love my GOP relations!) Folks are losing it because I demanded of 50% of our (alleged) two-party system that I should want to vote for them. Hell- I even invoked evolution of party ideals! There’s tape of me saying “The law is change or die!”
I refuse to be painted into a box on the topic of political identity, because such a box that would be fitting for me doesn’t exist. Forgive me while I appropriate some language here, but I’m personally “political-fluid.” I’m neither red nor blue. I’m purplish. And there are other streaks of green and black and plaid in there! I’m no slave to fashion, to religious thinking or political thinking.
I’m a conservative on issues of economics, immigration, and a few others. I’m socially liberal and I often agree with voices who exist on either/both sides of the political spectrum. The problem in this modern era is that folks define themselves based on one label or another, and often refuse to hear anything outside of their own viewpoint. That ain’t me. While I’m also not a senator’s son, I become restless and bored in echo chambers. I am a Freethinker. I am free to think. And I do this a great deal.
I believe there’s a lot of work needed right now to improve this country, and as the mother of a young child, I have literal skin in the game.
Folks, the US as I see it, is a house divided. Moreover it’s a house divided and on fire. And I don’t care who points out where are the exits that I may not see. I am not going to burn because someone I disagree with on some issue saw something that I missed. I want to preserve this Union. I want to get government back to the business of governing and have it remove itself from private affairs.
It is unacceptable to me that a family risks losing their 10 and 6 year old children because the parents permit the kids to walk alone from park to home in a 15 minute trip. It is unacceptable that the education outcomes in Mississippi (and most of the US) are what they are. It is unacceptable that the over-criminalization of African-American people and communities is discussed at the policy level only in terms of ending the protests and conflict that surround the issue. It is unacceptable that corporate interests are more important to many of our elected officials than the concerns of human people not corporations as “people” or money as “people.” I think smaller government is a good idea and we can begin by getting politics and religion out of medicine and research.
I went before a group who invited me. I talked policy with people who are looking for a way to appeal to more voters. And I found a number of people who agree with me. We have points of disagreement as well, but I’ve never been one to swear allegiance to one way of thinking and I will never promise to refuse common ground with folks who see the world differently from myself.
Some folks would never set foot at CPAC. It’s their right. Others think that my feminist sisters and I getting down at NOW conferences is a leap too far. I’ve attended too many Congressional Black Caucus events since living in DC for me to remember, and I’ve had people tell me I’m wasting my time to go to those as well.
I am willing to work for the improvement of this country in which I live. I’m willing to share ideas with folks who want to do the same with me.
I’ve been a critical thinker from the times the nuns who taught me in elementary school encouraged me to ask more and better questions. That’s what I do. I’m not ever going to NOT ask hard questions and think about difficult subjects.
One never grows if one never stretches. My appearance before CPAC was me making an attempt to stretch across to people who didn’t know they had a damn thing in common with a black, atheist, feminist, liberal, conservative, fan of hooks, Orwell, Hitchens, and Guy-Sheftall.
Look up, if you might, the legacy of the recently deceased Senator Edward Brooke. He was the first Black man elected to the US Senate as a member of the GOP since reconstruction. He died this January, and is sorely missed by many. He was a Republican who worked for fair housing, abortion rights (and tried to get funding for poor women!) and a bunch of other issues too. Today, I bet his party affiliation would have been dependent upon where he resided, and not his political beliefs. I think that’s a problem.
I’m not a pastor. I don’t preach. And certainly not to the converted. I had four minutes to lay out one specific case about the numbers of growing non-religious.
I believe I served us well.