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.
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.