Atheist Pols: Come Out, Come Out Wherever You Are

Jennifer Michael Hecht has an article at Politico urging atheist politicians to come out of the closet and be open about it rather than hiding that reality in order to retain their political viability. Speaking of Barney Frank coming out as an atheist after he left office, she writes:

But while few seemed to care about Frank’s pot-smoking admission, atheists across the country—myself included—were disappointed that he hadn’t acknowledged his lack of religious belief sooner, when it could have made a real difference. We were left wondering why a man who served 16 terms in Congress and who bravely came out as gay all the way back in 1987 felt the need to hide his atheism until he was out of office. Was it really harder to come out as an atheist politician in 2013 than as a gay one 25 years ago?

Incredibly, the answer might be yes. For starters, consider that there is not a single self-described atheist in Congress today. Not one. It wasn’t until 2007 that Rep. Pete Stark, a Democrat from Northern California, became the first member of Congress and the highest-ranking public official ever to admit to being an atheist. (And even he framed it in terms of religious affiliation, calling himself “a Unitarian who does not believe in a supreme being.”) Stark was elected twice after this, but when the 20-term congressman lost his seat last year, it was to a 31-year-old primary challenger who attacked him as irreligious, citing, among other things, Stark’s vote against our national motto: “In God We Trust.”…

And what better time than now? Last week the Freedom From Religion Foundation illuminated an eight-foot-tall scarlet “A” in Chicago’s Daley Plaza, right between a manger and a menorah. In New York, a Times Square billboard sponsored by American Atheists asks: “Who needs Christ during Christmas?” Call it the War on Christmas if you want; it’s the best time of year to get our message out. What we need most is for more elected officials to come out of the shadows and admit what they (don’t) believe. We know there must be some closeted atheists in Congress—out of 535 people, simple math tells us so—and countless more holding state and local office. It’s time for them to show up and make a little noise. After all, ’tis the season…

I hope the atheists now in Congress will take that step themselves—and this time, not wait until they’re safely out of office.

Responding to this article, Isaac Chotiner says he thinks a well-established politician could win the White House after coming out as an atheist:

Hecht’s broader skepticism is not unreasonable, but I think she might not be sanguine enough. For starters, Americans have consistently accepted things over the past 15 years that were once deemed unacceptable. In 1992, the media behaved as if the American people would greatly care whether their president had smoked pot. By 2000, it was clear that both presidential candidates had smoked pot (and Bush had quite obviously done other drugs), and no one seemed to mind. By 2008, no one (minus Mark Penn) paid much attention to the fact that an untested politician had admitted in his book to doing cocaine. That same politician managed to do the once-considered-impossible by getting elected president despite the fact that his middle name was Hussein and he had a black African father.

A Gallup poll from 2012, meanwhile, showed that only 34 percent of Americans know Barack Obama’s religion. (Some people think he is Muslim; others are not sure.) If that’s the case—and there has been a lot of coverage of the president’s faith—isn’t it at least possible that an atheist could be elected? I agree that there will be challenges, and while it wouldn’t be smart to go after someone directly for their atheism, perhaps “values-based” attacks would have more currency. Moreover, I think this imaginary atheist politician would have to be someone well established—someone the American people felt comfortable with. But if, say, John McCain or Hillary Clinton announced that while they respected Christianity and faith, they no longer believed in God, well, I think they could still get elected. (Winning a Republican primary would be the problem for McCain.) And remember, despite my caveat about the politician having to be well-known and not at all mysterious, it was also assumed that the first black president would be someone “proven” like Colin Powell. Five years before his election, Barack Obama was virtually unknown.

I tend to share Hecht’s skepticism more than Chotiner’s optimism. I hope that changes someday soon. But let me also say this: I’m not going to vote for someone just because they’re an atheist. Whether someone is an atheist is pretty much irrelevant to me in that context. Atheism tells me what they don’t believe, but nothing about what they do believe.

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  • cottonnero

    All being an atheist politician tells me is that they don’t believe bullshit for religious reasons. It’s still possible to believe bullshit for many, many other reasons.

    And I think the Colin Powell/Barack Obama idea is right – I remember arguing that the first atheist president/significant politician would be someone already well-known before becoming a politician, who had already had “paying the price for being an atheist” factored into their popularity. Now I’m not so sure.

  • http://cheapsignals.blogspot.com Gretchen

    But let me also say this: I’m not going to vote for someone just because they’re an atheist. Whether someone is an atheist is pretty much irrelevant to me in that context.

    It’s relevant to me. Representation matters. I can’t imagine it ever making the decision for me one way or another, but it matters.

    But I care far more about having an atheist on the Supreme Court than in the Oval Office or in Congress. I want people who have had the experience of being an atheist in America to play a role in determining that our already existing laws and institutions violate the First Amendment by establishing religion.

    Which, of course, makes it suck for me that I can’t vote for SCOTUS justices. But on the plus side, neither can most of my other fellow Americans.

  • jamessweet

    Chotiner makes a more compelling case than I would have expected. I still think he’s overly optimistic :) but I was surprised that my reaction was more of a “Hmmm” than scoff.

  • tomh

    @ #2

    I care far more about having an atheist on the Supreme Court than in the Oval Office or in Congress.

    Absolutely agree. I hope you are young enough that you may live to see the day. At my advanced age there is no hope.

  • pianoman, Heathen & Torontophile

    “…I’m not going to vote for someone just because they’re an atheist.”

    I understand Karl Rove is an atheist, and I couldn’t think of a single scenario where I would be persuaded to vote for him were he running.

  • http://nigelthebold.com/ Avo, also nigelTheBold

    Hell, I can think of a slew of atheists I wouldn’t vote for. There seem to be a lot of libertarian atheists.

  • eric

    I care far far more about a congresscritter being secularist than being atheist. Secular government is the policy representation I want. Sorry Gretchen, but I respectfully disagree with you – I care no more about being personally represented by someone who shares my religious beliefs than I care about being personally represented by someone who likes my favorite football team. How my congresscritter spends his/her Sundays is entirely up to them, so long as they show up for work on Mondays reperesenting my policy interests in government.

    Having said all that, it would be a very good thing if atheism did not have a political stigma, for the simple reason that it’s grossly bigoted and unfair to a large section of the population. So…

    …IMO there’s enough gerrymandered districts that it should be possible for at least a few atheists on both sides of the aisle to come out of the closet without significant risk to their careers (okay, well, at least on the Dem side). For the districts in which the margin is narrow, I think I’m going to stay realpolitik on this issue and say I’d rather have a secularist in the closet and in offce than out and out. Yes, I know, that may not be the best for my long-term interests. But I think we probably only need a few out-of-the-closet atheists to really get the ball rolling, and so I think starting with just having some from “safe” districts come out strikes a good balance between my long-term interest in changing public attitudes and my short-term interests in having secularists in office right now – even if they are stealth secularists.

  • david

    I don’t want politicians to “come out” as anything at all. Whatever their belief, I wish they would just keep it to themselves. That way, everybody can cast their votes on merit, rather than on tribal affiliation.

    Dreams are cheap.

  • doublereed

    Atheism tells me what they don’t believe, but nothing about what they do believe.

    Of course it tells you what they believe. Something similar to what Karl Marx and Ayn Rand both believe.

  • uzza

    Problems arise from there being two incompatible definitions of “atheism”: A) disbelief in gods, and B) denial of gods. The skeptical community wants people to self-identify as ‘atheists’, by which they mean (A), one who disbelieves in gods. However, it seems clear the majority of English speakers adheres to the B) definition, god deniers, anti-god, anti-theists, or the ever-popular god-haters.

    Since that description doesn’t fit their beliefs (or nearly anybody’s) people go to great lengths to avoid the label, as when Rep. Pete Stark described himself as “a Unitarian who does not believe in a supreme being”.

    The general public hears both parts of that as agnostic, but not god-hater. Skeptics hear the last part as precisely definition (B) of atheism, and interpret it as a person hiding in the closet or being afraid to acknowledge their true beliefs. Actually, they have described their position accurately, and in rather more detail than if they simply used the ambiguous term atheist without indicating whether they meant the specialized jargon of the skeptical community (A), or the more common (B) definition.

    Words constantly change their meanings and such situations are not uncommon. Time, and regular processes of semantic shift, will determine whether atheist emerges as a synonym for anti-theist, or for agnostic, or for something else entirely. In the meantime we will do well to remember that words don’t always mean the same thing to everyone, and heed Voltaire’s maxim “first define your terms”.

  • grumpyoldfart

    An atheist President of the USA? Not this century.

  • Jordan Genso

    But I think we probably only need a few out-of-the-closet atheists to really get the ball rolling, and so I think starting with just having some from “safe” districts come out…

    As a candidate for state rep in Michigan, I am out-of-the-closet since my policy is to be as honest and transparent about any question asked of me and my policy preferences. Of course, I’m not going around saying “hey, look at me, I’m an atheist”, but it wouldn’t surprise me if the media runs a story about it next fall before the election.

    And I am in a district that is considered “safe”, but it is the Republicans who consider it as such.

  • matty1

    Actually there are things Marxism and Randism(?) as ideologies have in common that I as an atheist would reject and hope others would too. Both seem to me to overemphasise politics and economics over other forms of human interaction and to inspire an “ends justify the means” attitude in adherents. Honestly I think some Christians are closer to ethical Humanism than either Marx or Rand.

  • Sastra

    eric #7 wrote:

    Sorry Gretchen, but I respectfully disagree with you – I care no more about being personally represented by someone who shares my religious beliefs than I care about being personally represented by someone who likes my favorite football team.

    And I would make the same comparison if people thought that belief in God said no more about a person’s honesty, wisdom, compassion, and depth of character than does their preference in sports. But the United States is very far away from that point.

    I’m with Gretchen — because as I understand it her argument assumes that all other things being more or less equal it is better to vote for the atheist candidate than his or her worthy opponent. Note the emphasis; it’s critical to the thought experiment.

    Seems to me that the election of an outspoken member of a despised minority would make a difference to the public perception of atheism. I’d compare it to the decision to vote for an actual black candidate instead of endlessly stipulating that as long as the person running for the job is “not a racist” it doesn’t matter how endlessly caucasian the winners are. In a perfect world, maybe. Not the one we have.

  • http://polrant@blogspot.com democommie

    All of the other stuff aside, I think that Barney Frank’s coming out was not a choice he made out of anything other than political pragmatism.

    The Gobie Scandal was not one that could be swept under the rug and Frank knew, from what had played out when Gerry Studds came out during the Congressional Page scandal that being gay, even in one MA’s more conservative districts was not a political kiss of death–but being seen as corrupt and venal was.

    I know nothing about either of them as human beings, both were good legislators for their districts and Frank was a champion of many without a political voice of their own on the national stage.

  • eric

    Sastra @14:

    And I would make the same comparison if people thought that belief in God said no more about a person’s honesty, wisdom, compassion, and depth of character than does their preference in sports. But the United States is very far away from that point.

    Whatever people might think about what belief says about character, IMO the empirical evidence would support the conclusion that belief doesn’t correlate with character.* Theists are just plain wrong when they say being a theist makes you a better person or god-belief is needed to be good. But the flip side of that coin is also true – being a theist doesn’t generally make you any less likely to be honest etc… There are going to be some cults that are exceptions to this general rule – i.e., membership correlates with some specific moral or immoral behavior – but in general, its just not true that you can use a person’s religious affiliation (or lack thereof) to accurately gauge their character.

    It would be nice if we lived in a world where belief in a false god correlated with venal behavior, but we don’t. Get over it. Humans are so good at compartmentalizing religious belief that someone’s dedication to the ‘Prince of Peace’ is utterly disconnected from their policy stance on war and the justice system (I’m not saying that christians are more hawkish than they should be, I’m saying you can’t tell whether someone is a hawk or dove just by knowing they’re christian). I have no doubt that Jordan is a stand up guy (good luck with your run!), but he’d probably be a stand up guy if he was christian, jewish, or muslim too. And those guys and women he’s going to be debating against are the same – their sect affiliations are not a good indicator of their ethics, either.

    So, that’s why I don’t care about religious affiliation in my candidates. Sure, I agree Sastra that other voters might think it matters in terms of a candidates’ ethics. But I’m not that foolish. It is as reliable an indicator of candidate honesty etc. as their football team preference. OTOH, if you were trying to make the point that electing atheists is good because it will help eliminate a negative stereotype, I agree. That’s why I suggested a middle-ground approach in @7 – be open when you can and always be honest, but if highlighting your atheism is going to cost you an election, better in the closet and in the senate than out and out.

    *Or may be we should borrow from Gould’s response to the sexist and racist ‘bell curve’ on this, and say that the within-group variation is so much bigger than the between-group variation that it is complete nonsense to make a generalization based on group.

  • Ichthyic

    But the flip side of that coin is also true – being a theist doesn’t generally make you any less likely to be honest etc

    I disagree. In fact, self-forcing belief and calling it “faith” is an inherently dishonest practice. If you mind can rationalize away that dishonesty, then it can rationalize away others just as easily.

    …and a creationist is born!

  • Ichthyic

    ..what’s more that inherent dishonesty can, and does, have an effect on the children raised by those peers that have embraced that dishonesty.

    http://www.sciencemag.org/content/316/5827/996.abstract

    this is hardly the only REVIEW on the subject, let alone the fact there are dozens and dozens of papers both in psychology and sociology detailing the problem.

  • Ichthyic

    It is as reliable an indicator of candidate honesty etc. as their football team preference.

    fail analogy is fail.

    complete fail.

  • Ichthyic

    be open when you can and always be honest, but if highlighting your atheism is going to cost you an election, better in the closet and in the senate than out and out.

    in a country where authoritarianism is heavy, you think that lying to your constituents is the way to affect change?

    you’re nuts.

    glad you weren’t around when African Americans were struggling for their civil rights.

    or women.

    in fact, come to think of it, I’m not even ok with you being around now. you are the part of the problem identified by MLK:

    I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action”; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a “more convenient season.”

    think about that.

  • dingojack

    Two words: Julia Gillard.

    😀 Dingo