On Monday, March 12, the Secular Coalition for America announced that Congressman Pete Stark (D-CA) is the first openly nontheistic congressperson in history.
Congressman Stark has served in Congress for California’s 13th District since 1973. He is currently a senior member of the Ways and Means Committee and the Chairman of its Health Subcommittee. He graduated from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and received his MBA from the University of California, Berkeley.
I spoke with SCA’s lobbyist Lori Lipman Brown about how all the pieces came into place to make this event possible.
Some background: The contest began last October. People were invited to submit the name of “the highest level atheist, humanist, freethinker or other nontheist currently holding elected public office in the United States of America.” The person who could identify this official (if the official was willing to “out” his or her self publicly) would win $1,000. The contest ended on December 31, 2006.
Of all the nominations received in this time, some of these nominators mistakenly assumed that if an elected official understood and upheld the Constitutional separation of church and state, that they were likely nontheist. According to Brown, “In fact, many theists understand the importance of this guiding principle in our Democracy, and therefore ally with us on many issues.”
Once the nominations were received, the staff of the SCA sent the named public officials a letter explaining the contest and requested a response as to whether the person (1) was a nontheist who would allow the SCA to announce this fact, (2) was a theist, or (3) felt that this was not a question they wished to discuss in the context of an elected position. In many instances, follow-up phone calls were made when warranted, and in the case of Congressman Stark, there were face-to-face meetings with his staff.
In all, only four individual allowed the SCA to identify them as out nontheists.
The other three nominated themselves, and while they are not as “highly ranked” as Congressman Stark, they should be commended for publicly coming out as a nontheist. Those individuals include: Terry S. Doran, president of the School Board in Berkeley, California; Nancy Glista on the School Committee in Franklin, Maine; and Michael Cerone, a Town Meeting Member from Arlington, Massachusetts.
(Isn’t it amazing that only one person elected to a national office has felt safe to come out as a nontheist? I want to believe there are more people who fit the non-religious mold and will admit just that in the wake of Congressman Stark’s announcement.)
The process of reaching the elected officials explains the long delay between the end of the contest and the announcement. Contacting all those that were nominated took much longer than expected and some nominees would not reply at all. Of those nominees who chose the third option (not discussing it), the Secular Coalition for America did not delve any further. “We were not trying to ferret out who believes what, or put people into the position of choosing between denying their actual beliefs or dealing with societal prejudice and its fallout,” explained Brown.
Congressman Stark’s staff is optimistic that his response might help publicize some key church/state issues. And atheists everywhere hope that this announcement will not affect his future campaigns. According to Brown, “Given his distinguished years of service, I would hope that Congressman Stark’s constituents would not be as likely to discriminate against an elected official or a candidate based on their beliefs as might some Americans.”
Brown also added:
Too often, Congress members pretend we don’t exist or behave as if we are not part of the fabric of our society. We hope this will stop — or at least slow — the rhetoric we too often hear in politics; that is, that all Americans agree that there is a god.
We hope this [contest] will point out the double standard imposed on those who hold a minority belief. Politicians and elected officials are constantly encouraged to proudly proclaim their belief in a deity, but public figures; especially in elected office are told to shut up about their nontheistic beliefs. In fact, when the President of the Secular Coalition for America [Herb Silverman] was invited to do a nontheistic invocation at a meeting of an elected body in South Carolina, members walked out before he began. We, of course, are expected to be polite and participate in theistic invocations.
The numbers should point out how underrepresented nontheists are in elected positions compared with our society in general.
And we hope that a number of nontheistic elected officials who were not nominated will step up and also be counted among the out nontheists who have won the vote of the constituencies they serve despite widespread discrimination against nontheists by voters generally.
While today’s announcement will surely result in a large number of emails being sent to the SCA’s staff, up to this point those emails have been overwhelmingly positive. Most people were thrilled that this contest was happening. The amount of negative mail received since the contest was announced has not been more than is usual for the SCA. Of course, that may change by next week…
I’m sure words of encouragement and thanks would be appreciated by Congressman Stark, so call him or send him your messages! And while you’re at it, let Lori Lipman Brown and the SCA know you appreciate their efforts for making this possible.