The Congressional Nontheist Is Revealed

Following up on my earlier post, the Secular Coalition for America has made good on its promise and has revealed the name of the first openly nontheistic member of the U.S. Congress: Democratic representative Pete Stark, a seventeen-term House member representing California’s 13th district.

I didn’t expect a nontheist to be a supporter of George W. Bush, and I’m glad to say that isn’t the case. On the contrary, Rep. Stark seems to have his priorities in exactly the right place: he is a member of the Congressional Progressive Caucus with a consistently excellent voting record, a strong supporter of civil rights and the environment and an outspoken opponent of the Iraq war and religious intrusions in government. He is rated only 7% by the Christian Coalition, a strong plus in my book.

For his brave willingness to identify as a nonbeliever, Rep. Stark deserves our praise and our support. Although his seat is probably not in danger, especially since he will not face another election for two more years, we can be sure that the forces of religious bigotry will attempt to use this as a weapon against him. More importantly, we can be sure that other politicians who are still in the closet about their lack of belief will be carefully watching what unfolds, and deciding whether to announce their own atheism based on the reaction he gets. Rep. Stark is by far the most powerful and senior elected official ever to identify as an atheist, and this by itself is a milestone for us. But if he gains support and laurels for his trailblazing courage, he could inspire many others to step out as well. It would show the hostile religious right that we are becoming a force to be reckoned with, and teach other politicians that they can no longer insult us without consequence. On the other hand, if this move harms his political career, it could frighten other atheist politicians into hiding themselves for another generation. It is crucial that we in the thriving community of freethinkers respond in the right way.

The Secular Coalition has an action alert to send Rep. Stark an e-mail of support thanking him, and I urge all my readers to do this. But more importantly, I encourage all my readers who can afford it to make a contribution to his re-election campaign, as I have. We nonbelievers should view this as an investment in our future. Pete Stark may be the first; we must ensure that he is not the last.

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.

  • John P

    A good thing in his favor is his 17 terms in Congress. Obviously, his constituents think enough of him to re-elect him for 16 terms, and given his time in office, they already know him quite well. They may already know, or at least suspect his non-theism, or at least it’s a non-factor for them. It will be hard to attack him from the outside.

  • http://www.patheos.com/blog/daylightatheism/ Ebonmuse

    As you say, I doubt it will be possible to unseat Rep. Stark on these grounds alone. His constituents are obviously comfortable with his voting record and this one additional fact probably won’t sway them.

    However, now that I’ve thought about it a bit, I’m pretty sure I know what the religious right will do: they’ll use Stark’s nonbelief as a weapon to attack other Democrats. They’ll drum up some manufactured outrage and try to either claim that the Democratic party as a whole is so corrupt and immoral that they want more atheists to be elected to public office, or circulate some sort of bogus astroturf petition demanding that other Democrats denounce him (or, more likely, both). I should have seen that coming earlier: it’s the same divide-and-conquer, guilt-by-association strategy they always use. William Donohue has done this once already; after harassing John Edwards’ campaign until he persuaded Amanda Marcotte and Melissa McEwan to quit, he then harassed the other Democratic presidential candidates’ campaigns to demand that they denounce Edwards for hiring them in the first place. It’s their standard modus operandi, and it works on progressive politicians who have no spines.

    None of this changes anything, though. The first office-holding nontheist to step out was bound to be attacked, no matter when that happened. All this means is that, in addition to supporting Stark, we progressives have to be vigilant and support any Democrat who’s under pressure from religious bigots to dissociate from him (or chastise any Democrat who does). Standing up to bullies is the only way to defeat them; keeping quiet and hoping they overlook you never works. Fortunately, we have plenty of time for this smear to lose its effectiveness before the next election.

  • http://del.icio.us/sporkyy Todd Sayre

    Do you think they’ll form a new House Un-American Activities Committee to root out the godless sympathizers and collaborators?

  • MKateS

    I have just sent a contribution to the Congressman’s Campaign. Thanks for the link.

  • http://www.patheos.com/blog/daylightatheism/ Ebonmuse

    I found an article that might have given us a hint, if we’d come across it sooner: a press release from American Atheists about a 2000 House vote in favor of keeping the Vatican’s special “observer” status at the United Nations. The vote passed 416-1.

    The lone dissenter? Pete Stark.

  • John P

    See? That confirms what I said above, that his constituents probably knew, suspected, or really didn’t care one way of the other, because he felt comfortable being a lone maverick in a vote that would naturally bing attention to his views.

    Extrapolate that across the country. I’ll bet there are other pockets of progressive toleration that would allow other non-theists to be elected. They may have to take a “don’t ask; don’t tell” stance the first election, but thereafter, they could be accepted.

  • John P

    See? That confirms what I said above, that his constituents probably knew, suspected, or really didn’t care one way of the other, because he felt comfortable being a lone maverick in a vote that would naturally bing attention to his views.

    Extrapolate that across the country. I’ll bet there are other pockets of progressive toleration that would allow other non-theists to be elected. They may have to take a “don’t ask; don’t tell” stance the first election, but thereafter, they could be accepted.

  • schemanista

    My mind continues to boggle at the way the religious dominate public discourse in the United States. It seems ironic to me that a country which intentionally created a separation between church and state should come to this.

    We just don’t have it that badly in Canada. Not that believers don’t have a lot to answer for, but Canadian politics don’t have this constant threat of theocracy.

    I hope I don’t sound smug, but I can’t imagine what it’s like to live “down there”.

  • schemanista

    My mind continues to boggle at the way the religious dominate public discourse in the United States. It seems ironic to me that a country which intentionally created a separation between church and state should come to this.

    We just don’t have it that badly in Canada. Not that believers don’t have a lot to answer for, but Canadian politics don’t have this constant threat of theocracy.

    I hope I don’t sound smug, but I can’t imagine what it’s like to live “down there”.

  • anti-nonsense

    wow Schemanista is another Canuck?

    Yeah things are a lot less worse up here then in the US, the fundies are a *much* smaller percentage of the population, except in certain areas.

    Unfortunately the currently governing party gets a large amount of it’s dedicated support from the religious right, a lot of the rest just came from people that were PO’d at the Liberals in the last election. But they aren’t nearly as brazen, they don”t get away with abject blatant insults towards homosexuals and crap like that like the Replubicans do.

  • anti-nonsense

    wow Schemanista is another Canuck?

    Yeah things are a lot less worse up here then in the US, the fundies are a *much* smaller percentage of the population, except in certain areas.

    Unfortunately the currently governing party gets a large amount of it’s dedicated support from the religious right, a lot of the rest just came from people that were PO’d at the Liberals in the last election. But they aren’t nearly as brazen, they don”t get away with abject blatant insults towards homosexuals and crap like that like the Replubicans do.

  • schemanista

    wow Schemanista is another Canuck?

    You mean you just can’t “tell”, eh? ;o)

    For me, I find it ironic that Canada, with no explicit separation of church and state is a far more secular country than our neighbours. We never aimed for the “melting pot”, instead we’ve been content with a cultural salad and I think our country is stronger for it.

    Not that I’m trying to put the United States down, or say that Canada is some kind of atheist utopia. We have our own messes to clean up, and Mr. Harper’s “base” is not part of the solution, it’s part of the precipitate.

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

    For me, I find it ironic that Canada, with no explicit separation of church and state is a far more secular country than our neighbours.

    I’ve heard a theory in a couple of places (might have even been here, I forget) that the fact that the US could never set up an official state religion made religion operate like a free market, with churches trying to outgrow and outcompete each other, so they become more assertive over time.

    Compare that to, say, England, or until recently Sweden, where the state religion doesn’t need to do anything to stay there, so it just stagnates until it becomes a background tradition.

    Ironic is definitely the word for it.

  • lpetrich

    Sociologist Steve Bruce, in his book “God is Dead: Secularism in the West”, criticizes the hypohtesis that Shishberg had mentioned, the “supply-side” hypothesis. He points out that the societies with the strongest religions tend to be very uniform in religion, and he looks back to medieval England and all the resources devoted to the medieval Church, even things like the selling of indulgences. The Church could help get you into Heaven — for a price. That’s the sort of thing that one sees in the more strict Islamic societies — they have only one sect of Islam dominant, instead of several sects competing.

    And the examples cites, the UK and Sweden, have plenty of freedom of religion, so that someone discontented with the state church can always find another church more to their liking. In the UK, you don’t become a second-class citizen if you belong to some church other than the Church of England; a good fraction of the population has other religious affiliations.

    Steve Bruce also finds cities to be less religious than rural areas, despite the greater choice of religions usually available in cities.

    He considers the question of why the US is so exceptional, and concludes that it’s due to the US having long been a patchwork of areas that are relatively homogeneous in religion. The southeastern “Bible Belt” is an obvious one, as is Mormonism in Utah and nearby; some northern Great Plains states are largely Lutheran, and northeastern states are largely Catholic.

  • stillwaters

    Representative Stark has received both a Thank You letter and a financial contribution from me. I have heard that he has received hundreds of emails, all of them positive. I don’t think this will, in any significant way, effect his chances of re-election, granted that he will run again. And I’m certainly hoping he will – as the first open non-believer running for Congress. Then, after he wins, he will be the first open non-believer to be elected to Congress. Trifecta!

  • stillwaters

    Representative Stark has received both a Thank You letter and a financial contribution from me. I have heard that he has received hundreds of emails, all of them positive. I don’t think this will, in any significant way, effect his chances of re-election, granted that he will run again. And I’m certainly hoping he will – as the first open non-believer running for Congress. Then, after he wins, he will be the first open non-believer to be elected to Congress. Trifecta!

  • http://www.patheos.com/blog/daylightatheism/ Ebonmuse

    Here are two articles with some voters’ feedback on Stark’s announcement:

    Two Cents

    California Lawmaker Becomes Highest-Ranking Official To Say He’s a Nonbeliever

    I was pleasantly surprised by the high percentage of positive and supportive reactions in both of them. It may well be that atheism has already become less taboo than we realize.

  • James Bradbury

    It may well be that atheism has already become less taboo than we realize.

    I heard an interview with Richard Dawkins promoting his recent book in which he said that he’d wanted to write The God Delusion for a long time, but until recently his publisher/agents had told him not to bother because it won’t sell in America. Perhaps this change in attitude is a backlash against Bush, who provides an obvious example of why being religious doesn’t make you a good person.

    In Britain it seems to me that until recently the main taboo is to have really strong beliefs. Some say that compared to the UK, the US has everything bigger, better, worse and more extreme. I can’t argue that “burglarized” is not a bigger word than “burgled”. ;)

  • Drew

    In response to the “free-market” hypothesis for US religiosity: I find the societal explanation more persuasive. That is, the US does not have the type of social safety net that all other wealthy democracies have. Although other factors also play a role – education level, urbanity (versus “rurality”), etc – I think the type of medical care in the US is really a bigger factor than ‘no established religion.’ As a British Columbian I can’t imagine what it must be like to live in a place where fervent religion is always in your face. Cheers.

  • Drew

    In response to the “free-market” hypothesis for US religiosity: I find the societal explanation more persuasive. That is, the US does not have the type of social safety net that all other wealthy democracies have. Although other factors also play a role – education level, urbanity (versus “rurality”), etc – I think the type of medical care in the US is really a bigger factor than ‘no established religion.’ As a British Columbian I can’t imagine what it must be like to live in a place where fervent religion is always in your face. Cheers.

  • James Bradbury

    Once again we’re playing catch-up with the States… ;)

    UK politician comes out atheist.

  • James Bradbury

    Once again we’re playing catch-up with the States… ;)

    UK politician comes out atheist.