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.