Pete Stark: The Reaction

It has now been over a week since U.S. Representative Pete Stark announced his nontheism, and so far the reaction from the religious right has been surprisingly tepid. As far as I know, none of their heavyweights have responded – not frothing bigots like William Donohue, not advocates of intolerance like James Dobson, not the cult-controlled Washington Times, not even the many fundamentalist fanatics that still remain in Congress. I confess myself surprised. But although the major propaganda arms of the religious right are remaining silent, there have been some responses from lesser lights of dominionism, such as a group I’d never heard of until now, the Christian Seniors Association.

This is not to say that the CSA’s response was mild. On the contrary, it puts on full display all the obsessive, mindless hatred usually displayed by religious extremists toward anyone who does not share their theocratic beliefs, and contains numerous flagrant lies about Stark in particular and church-state separation in general.

“It is sad but not surprising that the current Congress has produced this historic first – one of its members has denied God,” said CSA Executive Director James Lafferty. “The liberals in Congress want to throttle any school child who bows his or her head in prayer…

This nasty, vile accusation puts the habitual mendacity of the religious right in plain view. Public school students, and even public school teachers, are absolutely free to pray on school grounds on their own time. This is the rule, this has always been the rule, and no one I know of is proposing changing this rule. What we oppose, and what the First Amendment prohibits, is school employees leading students in coercive state-sponsored prayer.

It is beyond belief that the religious right cannot grasp this simple distinction. The only remaining alternative is that they know the truth would impair their efforts to demonize their enemies and whip their followers into a frenzy, and so instead they choose to lie about it – deliberately, persistently, and repeatedly. The overt accusation that progressives not only want to ban individual prayer but want to use violence against students who pray is too loathsome to even dignify with a response.

“…but they want to establish a right for liberals to bash Christians and berate God around the clock.”

Excuse me? Liberals want to “establish” a right for atheists to express their disagreement with Christianity? We already have that right, contained, in case Lafferty has forgotten, in a document called the Constitution, in a section called the First Amendment. Is he perhaps not aware that he is living in the United States of America and not in a medieval theocracy?

“We have long recognized that all of this hot air about ‘separation of church and state’ has been a veiled effort to intimidate and silence religious voices in public policy matters.

The only religious views which are impeded by the First Amendment are those religious views which claim that it is the bearer’s sacred right to force his religious beliefs on other people and coerce them into acting as he sees fit (and even advocates of those views are free to speak out; they are simply not free to write those beliefs into law). The only reasonable conclusion is that Lafferty’s bitter complaints about the law established by our founding fathers is because those are precisely his beliefs.

“It is time for religious members of Congress to push back. A simple declaration of a belief in God by members of Congress on the House floor will be greatly informative for the American people…

“That would be the day that religious Americans stood-up to the liberal bullies who are so determined to use the power of government to silence prayer and every other religious expression of free speech.”

When did Rep. Stark, or for that matter any atheist, ever say that they wanted to “silence” prayer? Though some Christians have repeatedly indicated their determination to use the power of government to coercively establish prayer, atheists as a whole are very much in agreement: we believe that prayer is an ineffectual superstition, incapable of affecting anything other perhaps than the feelings of the person who prays, but we have never tried to prevent people from praying as much as they see fit in their capacity as private citizens. The only thing we stand against is coercive, government-sponsored, government-established prayer.

If not for the hatred that so obviously suffuses them, Lafferty’s complaints would be hilarious. He has concluded that the five hundred and thirty-four members of Congress who have not claimed to be atheists are (somehow) being harassed and oppressed by the single one who has. Even more laughably, he seems to think that religious expression has been silenced in Congress. On the contrary, religious expression is overflowing in halls of Congress. Does this vote ring any bells, Mr. Lafferty? Is a 99-0 Senate vote supporting the religionization of the Pledge of Allegiance not enough for you, or do you think we need still more elaborate and theatrical declarations of piety to counter the one-man atheist horde battering at the gates?

Somehow, the mere statement “I do not believe in God” – a candid expression of a personal viewpoint, nothing more – has been translated into Lafferty’s persecution-seeking mind into some sort of vicious attack on him and his beliefs. Plainly, he feels extremely threatened by the idea that even one congressperson might be an atheist, so much so that he demands a theistic pile-on just to soothe his jangled nerves and reassure him that atheists will remain a powerless and marginalized minority.

There is a lesson here, especially for those media figures who have voiced the view that Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris and other outspoken atheists are being too impolite, too “controversial”, and that our viewpoint will never find favor until we learn to state it in a way that does not offend anyone in the religious majority. Rep. Stark’s declaration, for all the courage it took, was as simple and plainspoken a statement as one could imagine. He did not attack anyone’s views. Yet even so, he still provoked a gang of hostile religious bullies to insult and demonize him. The lesson is that we atheists should not be ashamed of who we are, and that we should ignore the response by fundamentalist bullies – because it will be the same in any case – and state our position plainly. That, in the long run, will win us far more support and respect than trying to be sufficiently meek and mild so as not to cause offense.

There have been two other hostile responses, which I will treat more briefly. First, from the ultra-right-wing John Birch Society:

Stark’s stand formally separates him from the Declaration of Independence that mentions a deity in four of its passages. He evidently denies its assertion that there are “Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God” and that the rights enjoyed by all are granted by a “Creator.” That these core beliefs of the Founding Fathers constitute our nation’s philosophical base cannot be denied.

Contrary to this silly and unsupportable hyperbole, I do deny that any set of religious views constitutes the “philosophical base” of America. Some of the founding fathers were conventional Christians; others were deists and rationalists. More importantly, all of them came together to create a system where no set of religious beliefs could use the power of the law to coerce others. As Thomas Jefferson wrote:

“The legitimate powers of government extend to such acts only as are injurious to others. But it does me no injury for my neighbour to say there are twenty gods, or no god. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.”

If anything is the philosophical base of America, it is the idea that government should be of the people, by the people and for the people. One may notice that God is nowhere mentioned in that set of clauses.

Before he passed into eternity, Karl Marx insisted that “Humanism is really nothing else but Marxism.” Longtime U.S. Communist Party leader Gus Hall boasted that he represented “another Humanist association, the Communist Party.” Congressman Stark has placed himself in very interesting company.

What seems to have escaped John McManus is that these claims are false. Communism is not a humanist ideology, but rather elevates the state to the position of supreme power. By contrast, humanism puts supreme value on the dignity and liberty of every individual human being. It is remarkable that an organization founded for the explicit purpose of preventing the infiltration of Communist spies into the American government would then turn around and take the claims of Communist leaders at face value when it is convenient to do so.

And finally, some purportedly humorous commentary from the right-wing rag WorldNetDaily:

Pressed to explain what Stark meant by “narrow religious beliefs,” Bashford replied, “That means anything the congressman doesn’t like. That’s the beauty of having no ultimate, transcendent authority.”

Because, of course, the right-wing religious conservatives have in no way invented a god who agrees with everything they say and confirms all their own preconceptions and prejudices.

With that unpleasantness behind us, let’s turn to some of the more positive fallout regarding Rep. Stark’s announcement:

In town hall meetings in Newark and San Leandro on Saturday, the 35-year congressional veteran received only cheers and applause when a speaker brought up a survey this week that named Stark as the highest-ranking politician in America who was willing to admit he doesn’t believe in God.

…Since the survey results were released, Stark has been bombarded by letters, phone calls and e-mails, almost all thanking him for making his position public.

The response astounded the 75-year-old Stark, a dyed-in-the-wool liberal who’s received plenty of nasty mail over the years.

“The attention is amazing,” he said. “I don’t know what the guys who put out the press release did, but I’d like to hire their PR person to run my next campaign. I have been inundated (with responses) from literally all over the world.”

Of the 500 or so responses Stark has received, all but about 25 have been supportive.

(Some of those responses may well have come from readers of Daylight Atheism, and if so, I applaud you! And if not, why haven’t you written a letter of support yet?)

Since Rep. Stark himself appears to be nonplussed by the response, let me offer some advice: I doubt this overwhelming positive reaction was due solely to the efforts of the Secular Coalition for America (though they certainly deserve credit for orchestrating this entire story). I believe it is a true surge of grass-roots support, coming from ordinary nonbelievers who are encouraged and relieved to find that a notable public figure shares the same position they hold. It is about time for a politician to finally be willing to speak out and say that the emperor has no clothes – to say what so many of us have been thinking for so long.

I have yet to understand why the religious right has been so quiet. Perhaps this event is not on their radar yet and the full-scale attack is still to come. However, I find another possibility tantalizing: maybe they’re worried that attacking Pete Stark would draw more attention to his announcement and increase his support. The idea of any congressperson, much less a senior, multiple-term incumbent, being an atheist must be very unsettling to the religious right, and the prospect that attacking him might only win him more support from the public must terrify them. Their lack of response may be an attempt to quietly bury this story, in the hopes that the next atheist to come along will be more easily intimidated and marginalized.

About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Broken Ring, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • http://blog.dmcleish.id.au Shishberg

    It is time for religious members of Congress to push back. A simple declaration of a belief in God by members of Congress on the House floor will be greatly informative for the American people. Members who wish to expand could use the ‘special orders’ portion of the House calendar to elaborate but a simple “I believe in God” will suffice.

    I’d almost like to see this happen. It might surprise them to find members other than Stark who aren’t willing to do it.

  • http://thegreenbelt.blogspot.com The Ridger

    A young man I work with came into my office and, with a big grin, punched the air and crowed, “We’ve got a congressman!” It’s amazing how good this one man – this one good and moral man – has made so many of us feel.

  • http://www.mog.com/sporkyy Todd Sayre

    Stark’s stand formally separates him from the Declaration of Independence that mentions a deity in four of its passages.

    Members of Congress do not affirm (or swear) an oath to uphold the Declaration of Independence. When was the last time someone questioned the Declaration of Independenceality of a law?

  • valhar2000

    The idea of any congressperson, much less a senior, multiple-term incumbent, being an atheist must be very unsettling to the religious right, and the prospect that attacking him might only win him more support from the public must terrify them.

    I don’t think so; it seems to me that these guys are fully aware of the awesome power they do have. You are probably right, though, in supposing that they don’t think that attacking him will be more bebenficial to them than using that time and money to attack other people.

  • http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=djeGqNVXjZE John

    Old Congressman Pete Stark…of 35 years plus in Congress is not only an atheist, but he is just an ‘old fart’ so to speak who wants to piss off the world. He rants and raves at his constituents and is not a nice guy…he’s not a “poster child” that any organization would want to represent them…atheists or otherwise. Check out where he denigrated a constituent who just returned from an overseas deployment to Kosovo…the soldier wrote his congressman (Pete Stark) and got this angry insulting voicemail back. (See the link to the Fox News video below).
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=djeGqNVXjZE


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