Pete Stark Is Fighting for His Seat in Congress and His Opponent is Using His Atheism Against Him

Pete Stark is currently the only open atheist in Congress. In 2007, he went public with his non-theism thanks to urging from the Secular Coalition for America.

Pete Stark

On November 6th, he may be out of a job.

He’s running in a very close race against his challenger Eric Swalwell (also a Democrat). There’s no polling in his district to find out exactly where he stands but local press is saying that, for Stark, this is a “fight for his political life.”

So why should you care about Stark? Because he’s an atheist?

No. That’s never reason enough to vote for someone. You should care because Stark is a strong liberal and his record speaks for itself:

Stark first gained national attention as the “hippie banker” who, during the Vietnam War, put a peace symbol on the headquarters of the bank he founded in the East Bay. He was an architect of landmark legislation that allowed workers to extend health coverage for a time after leaving their jobs and required emergency rooms to screen and stabilize anyone who showed up at their doors, regardless of their ability to pay. He also played an important role in developing the 2010 Affordable Care Act, President Obama’s healthcare law.

He also has called for cutting the defense budget and creating a Department of Peace. He once voted “present” on a resolution wishing former President Reagan happy birthday. And he voted against etching the words “In God We Trust” into the U.S. Capitol Visitor Center, saying he didn’t believe in a supreme being.

Again, I’m not suggesting you vote for or support Pete Stark just because he’s an atheist, but Stark is also a good Congressman when it comes to issues regarding the secular community. He voted against expanding federal funding for religious schools in Washington, D.C. He has supported LGBT rights for a long time. Same with women’s rights.

Since many Democrats vying for public office agree on those issues, how can Eric Swalwell distinguish himself? Well, he decided to use Stark’s atheism against him. Last year, Swalwell issued a press release denouncing Stark for voting against reaffirming “In God We Trust” as our national motto:

Yesterday, the U.S. Congress voted 398-9 to re-affirm our national motto, “In God We Trust.” Since 1864, the phrase, “In God We Trust” has appeared on U.S. currency and in 1956 it was recognized as our national motto. Since the Civil War this inspirational motto has captured the spirit of our country and guided its people through world wars and the attacks of September 11.

“It seems like too often these days Congress can’t agree on anything. Yesterday, 398 Members agreed to re-affirm our national motto,” said Eric Swalwell, Dublin City Councilmember and candidate for Congress (CA-15). “Congressman Stark was one of nine members of Congress who disagreed. The Fifteenth Congressional District deserves a Member of Congress who is in touch with its people, can work well with others, and can honor our national motto.”

Swalwell may be a Democrat but he has no problem throwing Stark under the bus for voting against a meaningless resolution that was just there to promote God in government. That’s not the kind of press release you issue if you want votes from Secular Americans. Yes, campaigns can be brutal, but attacking Stark for a vote that was in our interests shouldn’t go unchallenged.

Meanwhile, thanks to attacks like that, Pete Stark is getting beaten when it comes to campaign contributions.

If we want political clout, it means we have to deliver in situations like this.

So if you’re in the 15th Congressional District, vote for Stark.

But if you’re not there, like me, you can still donate to Stark’s campaign. Please do so. This appears to be a very tight race and a last minute surge could help keep Stark over the top.

Also important: Imagine what it would mean for other politicians if a candidate was elected to office because of the support from the freethought community. It could even inspire other candidates to come out of the closet with their atheism.

About Hemant Mehta

Hemant Mehta is the editor of Friendly Atheist, appears on the Atheist Voice channel on YouTube, and co-hosts the uniquely-named Friendly Atheist Podcast. You can read much more about him here.

  • Girlkillsbear

    It’s a shame his career with The Beatles didn’t pan out, but I wish him all the best in this election.

  • Alexander

    So what you’re telling me is a bunch of religious people in congress agreed on something religious?

    The dude finds that groundbreaking… how?

  • Dan Marshall

    I’ve read about Stark before. It’s great to have someone in congress that isn’t afraid to openly share his views, and that works hard for the issues that affect the secular community. I just donated $20 since I won’t be able to vote for him. Thanks for posting this article. What a low blow by Stalwell, such a shame.

  • Jeff Akston

    I find it comedic that the progressive folks who act as if Citizen’s United is the the end of Democracy and rail for campaign finance reform continuously…….encourage people to make campaign donations to politicians who don’t even represent their district.

    I don’t know anything about his politics, but hopefully any tactic to use his lack of mythological beliefs against him, fails miserably.  

    But I’m not donating money to someone who isn’t my representative.

  • Gus Snarp

    I’d be willing to support almost any candidate whose ideas aren’t totally anathema to my own simply on the grounds that he’s being attacked for opposing “In God we Trust”.

  • Steven Bloomfield

    Donated. Thanks for the heads up.

  • Pedro Lemos

    Dude, you got it all wrong. This is the guy that invented that cool iron suit as is also a genius billionaire playboy philanthropist.

  • Andrew Wilson

    I know we shouldn’t vote for someone just because they are atheist but considering he is the only atheist it is almost worth voting for him for that reason alone.

    It’s surprising how U.S. many senators don’t get the separation of church and state thing nowadays. Hell, even Reagan said it was important.

    p.s. I’m British, so we don’t really have the issue of only one atheist in parliament but If we did I’d vote Tory if they were the only atheist standing.

  • Coyotenose

     Right, because $20 donations from private individuals = millions from corporate sponsors.

    You also seem to be unaware that every seat in the U.S. Congress matters to everybody.

  • Gus Snarp

    I can understand your reticence to donate to a candidate who doesn’t represent you, and I mostly share it. But it’s standard practice now, candidates from every political viewpoint are begging for money from outside their states. And of course, their votes in congress affect every one of us in the end. 

    But the comparison to Citizen’s United misses the point. The problem with Citizen’s United isn’t out of state contributions, it’s unlimited political spending by corporations. These are different things, with different impacts.

  • Samoore0

    Just donated $50 to his campaign and challenge my fellow atheists to do the same!


  • Liam

    Yes, he’s the only open atheist in congress.  That’s laudable.  His tendency to fly so far off the handle he lands somewhere in the Orion Nebula?  That’s tough to handle.  When even Daily Kos refers to “More lunacy from Dem Rep. Pete Stark”, you know there’s something terribly wrong.  American atheists can do better in terms of a congressional standard bearer.

  • Michael Harrison

    I was a bit curious, so I went looking. I found the following:

    So there’s more to the story. That said, if Stark’s been making so many mistakes, why did his opponent feel the need to attack him on the grounds of his skepticism?

  • allein

    I love the implication that not agreeing with a meaningless resolution about a motto means he can’t work well with others (what is this, his kindergarten report card? “Does not play well with others”).

    (Also, voted “present” on a happy birthday resolution made me giggle.)

  • allein

    Also also, I wonder what reasons the other 8 who voted against “In God We Trust” gave.

  • Felyx Leiter

    I posted a rebuttal on his page (and you know you want to, too!!).  Regardless of what one thinks of Congressman Stark or his policies, a divisive statement like that serves only to belittle and further marginalize atheists (and polytheists, for that matter), and someone who encourages that viewpoint is clearly incapable of fairly representing all his citizens (and the citizens of the country at large).

  • Leo Buzalsky

    Example of his “tendency to fly so far off the handles”? And links?  I’ll go ahead and help you out a little on that:

    Examples of better?

  • Leo Buzalsky

     By the way, that’s not to say we can’t do better in the future. But I want to know what’s better in the here-and-now.

  • Gringa

    Agree, it reads as if to say “We don’t want someone who actually stands up to the majority.  We need a sheep who just goes along to play nice.”

  • C Peterson

    Citizens United has seriously damaged democracy in the U.S. Campaign finance reform is desperately needed. But what any of that has to do with private citizens making campaign contributions is unclear. I don’t know of any reform plans by anybody suggesting that openly declared, private donations should be eliminated.

    Congressmen represent everybody, not just their districts. It’s completely appropriate to support the campaigns of people you believe in, whether or not they are in your district or not. The vote of every Congressman affects your life.

  • Antinomian

    No, you’re thinking of his step-brother Tony..

  • 3lemenope

    Congressmen represent everybody, not just their districts.


  • Aaron

    Why not just have his son put his suit on and blow away the competition?

    Seems logical to me :D

  • Baal

     I’d love a federal law that says all federal seats based on a vote within a single State had to arise from natural persons of that State with say a cap of 1 Million Dollars (h/t dr.evil) per election or primary.  That’s not the case and weirdly (because it’s irrational) advertising works so the $$ matters.

  • C Peterson

    Are you serious? A Congressman is elected by his constituency, and has a responsibility to represent their views, but they also represent every person in the country- implicit in their oath to defend the Constitution, and empirical in that their votes affect people in every district.

  • Liam

    Feel free to peruse the controversy section of his wiki page.

    To be fair, most of it is telling painful truth to an audience not willing to listen, but “You think you are big enough to make me, you little wimp? Come on. Come over here and make me, I dare you. You little fruitcake.” (to a colleague on the Ways and Means committee)   “You get the fuck out of here or I’ll throw you out the window.” (during a taped interview)

    Also, he took someone’s endorsement of his opponent with his customary level of aplomb:  

  • 3lemenope

    Are you serious?

    Yes. I’m also a political scientist.

    A Congressman is elected by his constituency, and has a responsibility to represent their views…


    …but they also represent every person in the country- implicit in their oath to defend the Constitution…


    I do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; that I take this obligation freely, without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion; and that I will well and faithfully discharge the duties of the office on which I am about to enter.

    Nowhere in that is it implied that a representative represents every person in the country. All that it says, and it says it explicitly, is that a representative has a duty to support and defend the structure of government that is described in the Constitution and defend it against adversaries. That structure of government as it applies to the lower house of Congress is one of direct local representation, intended as those particular constituents’ representatives to the national body. 

    …and empirical in that their votes affect people in every district.

    You’ve got this exactly backwards. The whole point of a representative schema is to aggregate local opinions on issues of broader importance. Of course what they do affects everyone; their purpose is to add the voice of their constituent’s desires to the conversation and act in their place as emblematic of their will (as distilled by election and other means), such that when the decision is made that affects everyone, their local opinion would have been part of the universal result. 

  • Jomnize

     1. A representative’s vote support the views of people outside their constituency, when that vote aligns with the interests of people both in and out of that constituency.

    - If a representatives votes to uphold the motto ‘In God We Trust’, his vote represents the majority opinion of his constituency (I hope), but it also supports people who want to the motto to hold across the entire nation.

    2. The Constitution is applicable to the entire nation. It’s not as if he’s defending it solely within the interests of the area he represents.

    That’s all C. Peterson was saying. When you’re finished being angsty over having a degree that’s useless outside academia and as a stepping stone into specialized Master-level degrees, you should work on your reading comprehension. Arguing semantics, humping a thesaurus . . . these activities don’t make you (or make you seem) intelligent; just pointlessly hostile. :)

  • Richard Wade

    I posted this on Swalwell’s website:

    I have always voted for Democrats because they support my views on issues, but I will never, ever vote for you, and I will donate and work against you, because by attacking Pete Stark for his religious views shows that you are cut from the same cloth as the bigoted, pandering demagogues that make up most of the Republican Party. There is no difference between what you’re doing and attacking an opponent because he is Jewish. Shame on you. You have a serious character flaw that makes you unworthy of the public’s trust.

    I’ve also donated to Pete Stark’s campaign.

  • Liam

    They’re both Democrats…?

  • Richard Wade

    Yes, they are. Because California now has a “top two open primary” system, the details of which I don’t fully understand, a district can end up having to make a final choice between two candidates from the same party rather than from opposing parties.  I dread the day I have to choose between two Republicans.

  • Gwen

    Dublin, CA is a very RED city. Until now, no one has given a damn about Stark’s atheism. I’ll be voting for him in November. I still remember that he came to my high school to talk to the students in 1973!

  • C Peterson

    We’ll just have to fundamentally disagree. The role of an elected representative is to vote in the assembly in a way that balances all of the interests of his constituency with those of the country as a whole. That is not possible without recognizing that he represents every person, not just those in his district. He has to understand that he makes decisions about what is best for his constituents, based on many factors… not simply what the majority of them want.

    A Congressman who does not consider himself responsible to every person in the country is not qualified for his job. And every person in the country has a right to take a personal interest in the election of representatives in any district, and to be actively involved in the support (or not) of representatives outside his own district.

  • rlrose63

    What a weenie.

  • Echo Whiskey

    Just dropped $20 his way…hope it helps.

  • Liam

    I’m aware of the system, despite being a Canuck. I just felt like your post implied Stark was a Republican.

  • C Peterson

    But… a representative whose vote always aligns with the majority opinion of his constituency is almost certainly a terrible representative. The whole point of having a representative democracy is so that representatives can make the best decisions on behalf of their constituents and their country, regardless of popular opinion.

    A representative who voted against “In God We Trust”, despite that being at odds with most of his constituents, would be doing his job properly, both by defending the rights of a minority within his own district, as well as in defending the Constitution according to his own interpretation.

    If we expect representatives to always vote along with the majority opinion of their constituents, we might as well just have a direct democracy and be done with it.

  • Flynhigh30

    I went to go make a contribution but unfortunately as a Canadian I’m not able to.  Good luck to Stark.

  • David Starner

     What does the party matter? Some, but I’d rather have a choice between two people who have a chance of winning then let one party choose a winner for the entire election. Even if the party election system is open, fair and honest, that’s still a wasted public election and probably doesn’t make people feel that the system cares about their vote.

    But I have been there. In Oklahoma, one election, I got to choose between two Democrats fighting over who supported Bush better. I voted independent, who got 5% of the vote, and I later found out was running on the grounds that the Government should remove the chip they installed in her head.

  • Mogg

    Seeing as young Tony doesn’t seem to be donating to Dad’s campaign fund, maybe they’re not talking, or something.

  • DougI

    Stark is perhaps one of the most progressive Representatives in Congress.  He was up to be the head of the Appropriations Committee but since he was so progressive the corporate Democrats threw him out after his first day because they were frightened he might actually bring some sense back into Congress.

    When he first announced his Atheism I sent him some campaign cash.  He sent me back a handwritten letter.  In that election the fundies were trying to get him out of office using the Atheism issue.  Obviously it failed.  Then he was running against a Rethuglican, now he’s running against an opportunistic Democrat who just wants to be in office for the sake of being in office.  Guess I’ll send Stark some money again.

  • DougI

     Sounds like they’re upset with Stark because he’s a Democrat with a spine.

  • Georgina

    Not being an American, I am unable to vote. However, may I suggest an organised protest against Swalwell for obvious contempt of the United States Constitution.

    Article VI, paragraph 3:

       “The Senators and Representatives before mentioned, and the Members of the several State Legislatures, and all executive and judicial Officers, both of the United States and of the several States, shall be bound by Oath or Affirmation, to support this Constitution;
    but no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States.”

  • mofoman2000

    The national motto is not “In God we trust,” it is “E Pluribus Unum,” Latin for “Out of many, one”.

  • Darrell Ross

    You have the facts right. The top two vote-getters in the primary election face off. 

    The Republican brand is pretty much dead in California. Well, the lunatic fringe religious one anyway. California is too diverse for the lunatics.

  • chicago dyke, Blonde

    eek. i am loathe to agree with peterson, but come on: elected congresscritters have a great deal to do with what happens to people outside of the district that elected them. Crazy Eyes Bachman sits on the intel committee. which in turn has a great deal to say about what happens in the war on terra. which in turn affects a huge number of people, including me as a taxpayer and thousands of people in uniform and millions of people who are potential drone bombing victims. that’s one example. there are zillions of others. 

    congressional reps vote on so many things that have an impact on all our lives, it’s sort of silly to say they ‘only’ represent the people in their district. 

    which is my way of saying: i don’t have any problem with sending someone outside my state some cash/support/endorsement. and it’s a totally different situation wrt to Citizens U.

  • Griffin

    The Constitutional and it’s protect of freedom of religion. I would guess.

  • Stev84

     That was the unofficial motto before they replaced it during Red Scare to make a statement against the godless Evil Empire. They took an inclusive motto and replaced it with an exclusive one.

  • rklau

    You’re right, Stark’s record does speak for itself:

    Full disclosure, I got involved with Eric’s campaign as I learned more about Rep. Stark’s record. Rep. Stark’s baseless accusations in this election cycle (against Eric, against journalists, against other politicians), his refusal to debate Eric, his misleading campaign mailers, not to mention the fact that he hasn’t even lived in California in more than 20 years: this is not a man who’s fit to represent his district.

  • C Sitzes

    Progress is made by heretics, not by the status quo. If it were not for a famous heretic, the sun would still be going round and round the earth. 

    I am donating 50 bucks of my monthly retirement funds to Pete Stark. I hope others will join me. What a message we can leave for all the hypocrites out there.

  • Vincent

    I’m glad I was out of Oklahoma for the Bush years, but before that I voted in an election in which one candidate for Governor called for imprisonment of homosexuals – and I think he got double digits, the highest percent an independent ever got.

  • Marcus Byrne

    I’m a military veteran. Love my country. Would love to run for office someday but there is nowhere that I could run where I could be elected because I am an atheist. I also realized that I’ve never, in the 7 times I’ve voted (On/off year elections) I have never voted for someone who shares my views, openly, on the world’s creation from Big Bang to the creation of man through a process of evolution. Never. Not one candidate. I have voted in Indiana and Texas so there is no way…

  • Ferenc Szabo

    It is shocking that out of 535 Congresspeople, he’s the only open atheist.  I suspect that more are, but they are simply afraid of the largely religious electorate which by definition will have at least some irrational and delusional thinking behind their decisions.

  • Barry Evans

    A shame that a decent man who has real integrity and supports equality for all is being vilified because some people think being a non-believer means having no morality, and makes him unfit as leader. Americans keep forgetting their country’s founding fathers were deists, who believed in separation of church and state and that religion should have no place whatsoever in politics.

  • Mary Howerton

     Well, since what they do affects everyone, as you admit, why shouldn’t everyone want to have a say in what they do? Shouldn’t this be obvious to you?

    And, as everyone already said, Citizens United is completely different.

    So what are you trying to argue again?

  • Emily Dietle

    Applause to all of you leaving comments on @facebook-23417637:disqus SwalwellForCA15 website!

    Emily Dietle commented

    1 min ago

    · Flag

    It would behoove you to not alienate secular voters, especially over
    time-wasting resolutions like this one. Pete Stark is a fellow Democrat
    & throwing him under the bus is shifty. I’d trust him over your
    political ‘strategy.’ We’re all in this together & we should
    remember who the real opposition is (it starts with an ‘R’).

    Vincent Lyon commented

    18 hours ago

    · Flag

    Would you attack Stark’s religious convictions like this if he were Jewish? or Buddhist? or Catholic? Why do you think religious bigotry is the key to success?
    You are spitting on Article 6 of the Constitution and I hope you lose badly.

    Lowell Skelton commented

    2 days ago

    · Flag

    Who’s out if touch? A history lesson: The phrase “In God We Trust” appeared on COINS
    during the 1860s. It did not appear on paper currency until the 1950s.
    This dubiously “inspirational” motto certainly didn’t help the
    Confederacy, which actually enshrined god-belief in its Constitution, as
    opposed to the utterly godless secular Constion of the United States.
    Forced piety apparently didn’t help the Confederacy, and foul attacks on
    Pete Stark for upholding the true American values of religious freedom
    hopefully won’t help you. This certainly proves that you can’t work
    well with others because you’d rather sling mud than focus on real

    Staks Rosch commented

    3 days ago

    · Flag

    Hey, I’m an atheist and I vote… just not for you. How can i vote for
    anyone who wants to force their religion on everyone else through the
    legislative process. The First Amendment, Ever heard of it?

    Doug Ittner commented

    3 days ago

    · Flag

    Good for Rep. Stark for standing up for all Americans and shame on you
    for appealing to bigots and bigotry to advance your political agenda.
    I’m not in your district but I’m sending a donation to Stark in the
    hopes that he beats a bully like you.

    Charles Beltman commented

    3 days ago

    · Flag

    This is the kind of tactic and attitude I expect from Republicans. Maybe you’d feel more comfortable with them.

    Richard Wade commented

    3 days ago

    · Flag

    I have always voted for Democrats because they support my views on issues. but I will never, ever
    vote for you, and I will donate and work against you, because by
    attacking Pete Stark for his religious views shows that you are cut from
    the same cloth as the bigoted, pandering demagogues that make up most
    of the Republican Party. There is no difference between what you’re
    doing and attacking an opponent because he is Jewish. Shame on you. You
    have a serious character flaw that makes you unworthy of the public’s

    Mark Palmer commented

    3 days ago

    · Flag

    Have you stopped using this disgusting tactic yet? How dare you criticize another for SUPPORTING EQUAL TREATMENT? Hindus, atheists, pagans, and many more non- and poly-theistic Americans are Americans too.
    If you criticize Stark, don’t be pro-bigotry while you’re at it.
    Focus on policy rather than slinking and scraping to bigoted
    Christians. I know that many Christians are good people and will oppose
    you because of your stance on this. Although “In God We Trust” is the new American motto, it is nevertheless very un-American.

    Tom Howell commented

    4 days ago

    · Flag

    It is deplorable that you are using Mr. Stark’s non-belief as a
    political talking point. Perhaps members of Mr. Swallwell’s campaign
    should aquatint themselves with the Constitution:

    “The Senators and Representatives before mentioned, and the
    Members of the several State Legislatures, and all executive and
    judicial Officers, both of the United States and of the several States,
    shall be bound by Oath or Affirmation, to support this Constitution; but
    no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any
    office or public trust under the United States.

  • pilgrimO

    um, I thought in god we trust didn’t appear on the money until 1956?

  • Randy

    Pete Best. Richard Starkey (Ringo Starr).