Behind the Scenes of Congressman Pete Stark’s Announcement

Pete Stark

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.

So, won the contest? In fact, there were two people who nominated Congressman Stark. As the official rules had said, this contest was never a “race” to out an elected official and the earlier submitter was not automatically the winner. A coin was flipped to determine who received the money, and the winner was not notified until this afternoon in order to preserve the secrecy of the announcement. The winner, who lives on the West Coast, will be named shortly.

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.

  • Prokop

    A coin flip to determine the winner seems like a terrible way to resolved. I would have gone with ‘first come, first serve’ or a prize-split over giving the prize out randomly.

  • Siamang

    This is a very positive action. I love the way this was conducted, including the SCA’s respectful and classy approach.

    Good on them.

  • Karen

    Ditto, Siamang. This contest was really well done, and I appreciate that they took the extra time to follow up each nomination carefully and respectfully. I also applaud Stark, Doran, Glista and Cerone for their courage and honesty. (Not too surprising that they all come from the “liberal” coasts, is it?!)

    The estimate about how there “should” be 50+ nontheists – if elected officials mirrored the U.S. population – was eye-opening. I hope this will be a first step in a long march toward more nontheists running and being elected, and some already in place feeling free to “come out of the closet.”

    I suspect that this will be something of a test case. If Stark (et al) get little or no negative reaction, others will be less afraid to be honest in future. If, however, they get a big backlash, that could keep a lot of people in the closet for a long time.

  • Secular Planet

    I’m glad to see the news about Starks, but I find really depressing that only 3 other politicians (out of thousands upon thousands!) agreed to identify as nontheist! Two school board members and one town council member? Crikey!

  • Professor Chaos

    I hate to rain on everyone’s parade here. While I’m excited about this, and I commend Stark for coming out, I’m horribly, horribly disappointed to find out that a 75-year old, 35-year incumbent is the mystery man. He’s obviously comfortable with outing himself only because he has nothing to lose. I guess you have to start somewhere, but I was hoping for a little bit more than a guy who cannot have any further political aspirations.

    Further, I’d be a bit more comfortable with someone who wasn’t so polarizing. Stark is notoriously uber-liberal and, according to his wikipedia page, he has been voted “the most liberal member of Congress for two consecutive years.”

    If this had come out of nowhere, I’d be ecstatic, but with all the buildup to the announcement, I’m left feeling more disappointment than joy.

  • Ebonmuse

    Here’s my letter to Pete Stark:


    Dear Rep. Stark:

    I’m writing to thank you for being the first member of Congress to go on record as not holding a god-belief. With our democracy menaced by religious fundamentalists of all stripes, we need more reason, not more faith, to follow in the tradition of America’s founders and to safeguard our nation from those who would do it harm. Your brave announcement shows character and integrity and is a great step forward for that cause. Bravo!

    Thank you as well for your long service in defense of the progressive principles that all good citizens should hold in common. On matters from the Iraq war to protecting the environment to the separation of church and state, you have consistently cast the right votes to safeguard the liberties both of American citizens and of human beings around the world.

    For far too long, the stereotype has been propagated that people without religious belief are immoral and dangerous. We must fight these slanderous characterizations, not just by speaking out against them but by identifying ourselves to the public so that we may disprove them by example. Your courageous announcement may well pave the way for more politicians to follow in your footsteps and is a major step toward giving the non-religious the important place at the table of society’s discourse which we deserve.

    Thank you again for your courage and leadership. It will not go unmarked or unrewarded.

  • The Unbrainwashed

    I’m a little confused by the term “no god-belief.” Why aren’t we simply using the term atheist? Is he not an atheist or are the negative connotations of the word atheist causing the SCA to refrain from using it?

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  • FreeThinker

    Thanks for posting this “behind the scenes” look at today’s momentous announcement. Let’s hope more congresspeople “come out” soon!

  • Brian Parra

    The Unbrainwashed said,

    March 12, 2007 at 2:56 pm

    I’m a little confused by the term “no god-belief.” Why aren’t we simply using the term atheist? Is he not an atheist or are the negative connotations of the word atheist causing the SCA to refrain from using it?

    Yes…”Atheist” has a negative connotation in common use and is undesirable to some (not me) and it may be that Stark himself refused to use that word, and thus we pussy foot around it out of respect for him. However, their is nothing incorrect about “no god belief” as that is the literal definiton of atheist a=without, theism=belief in god.

    Akin to saying something is “not symetrical” instead of “asymetrical.”

  • Mike C

    I tried posting this before but it must have had too many links and never made it up. I wanted to say that I was amused by this comment:

    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.”

    Of course theists understand “separation of church and state”, we invented it! This separation has long been a core principle of the Anabaptist and even the Baptist traditions of Christianity. Thomas Jefferson got the phrase from a bunch of Baptists in the first place. It’s only been recently that some Baptists have forgotten this noble heritage.

    IMHO, Separation of Church & State is as much for the protection of the Church as it is for the State. As Tony Campolo has said, “Mixing Church and State is a lot like mixing ice cream with horse manure. It’s not going to hurt the manure at all, but it’ll ruin the ice cream.”

    You all can decide for yourselves which you think is the manure and which you think is the ice cream. ;)

  • Professor Chaos

    More like mixing horse manure and pig manure, to me.

    But nice post :) It’s a shame more AmeriChristians don’t share your philosophy.

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  • Beau H. McLendon
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  • Ustun Inan

    It is an “anti American” and “anti Democracy” to confuse people and make them believe that You are either to obey to a master who claims to speak for God,and do what he says;hate who ever he says to hate,support who ever who says to support, steal businesses and money from non obeyers and give it to people who obeys them, OR you are denying the existance of God.
    That is the idealogy the terrorists use recruite suicide bombers who kills Jews and Westerners. We must STOP them operating in our Country,
    We must all obey the law atheist or not.

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  • Norm

    Pelosi, Kennedy, and Kerry identify…or should I say hide behind the Catholic Faith only because that’s where their voter base lies. None of the trio can truly be conisidered Catholic when all three legislate against Catholic Doctrine…a true definition of hypocrisy! But definetly atheists!

  • Frank Galmish

    I’m really impressed!!!-NOT!!!! Gee a congressman that doesn’t believe in GOD what’s news is that he is honest when so many of them say that do but don’t live it-not that I’m of fan of any Democrat as they are the party of DEATH with their abortion stance and stem cell research,

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  • Chris

    ‘I’m of fan of any Democrat as they are the party of DEATH with their abortion stance and stem cell research,”

    As opposed to to lying about iraq and killing hundreds of thousands of civilians! Dear god, a stem cell might be in danger somewhere. You better go rescue it!

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