BREAKING: Kyrsten Sinema Is Not an Atheist

Back in the summer, I put up a post about how Kyrsten Sinema was poised to win her Democratic primary in the race for Congress. At the time, I described her as a “bisexual nontheist” because, well, that’s what I had heard.

The LGBT blog Towleroad described Sinema as a bisexual. But when you look at that post, there’s really no evidence for it. (***Edit***: While that post didn’t really give much evidence, Sinema’s sexuality has been mentioned in many other places.)

What about her nontheism, though? That’s what I cared about. What evidence did I have to back that up?

Well, for one, I’d seen it mentioned on other blogs. Also, Sinema had received an award from the Center for Inquiry for the “Advancement of Science and Reason in Public Policy.” She was also present at the opening of the Secular Coalition for Arizona:

Based on all of that, I thought it was safe to assume she was a non-theist (regardless of which specific label she used).

Over the past week, though, I’ve had good reason to question that.

Whenever I asked representatives from the Secular Coalition for America how they knew she was a non-theist, they referred me to news reports or blog posts… which inevitably linked back to my own post. Oh boy… Politico later quoted the SCA on Sinema’s non-theism, too, adding fuel to the fire.

When Religion News Service reporter Kimberly Winston reported on the race, she did the same thing — referring to Sinema as the person who would replace Stark as the “sole atheist in Congress.”

Now, it looks like Sinema’s Communications Director Justin Unga is trying to set the record straight. When I inquired about this via email, he sent me the same message he must have sent Kimberly Winston because she updated her piece with a clarification:

While Sinema’s campaign was initially unavailable for comment after Tuesday’s election, spokesman Justin Unga said Friday that Sinema does not consider herself a nonbeliever, adding that she prefers a “secular approach.”

“Kyrsten believes the terms non-theist, atheist or nonbeliever are not befitting of her life’s work or personal character,” Unga said in email. “She does not identify as any of the above.”

Unga added in his email to me:

She does not identify as any of the above, nor does she choose a label to describe what she believes is deeply personal for every individual.

Ok… that’s fine. I don’t care about her label and it doesn’t take away from Sinema’s support for church/state separation. But if she’s not an atheist, that means we have a Congress with no non-theist representation. That’s a story we need to be talking about… but we’re not, because we all think that when Sinema’s victory is officially called — something that hasn’t happened yet — we will have an atheist in Congress.

But we won’t.

Furthermore, I’m really disappointed by how Unga phrased his comment:

“Kyrsten believes the terms non-theist, atheist or nonbeliever are not befitting of her life’s work or personal character.”

“Not befitting”? Why the hell not? How do any of those terms detract from her character or life’s work? They’re not dirty words! You can be good without god!

I hope that’s just a gaffe on the part of Unga and not a sincere belief held by Sinema, but until someone gets a chance to talk to her on the record about these issues, who knows how she really feels.

I apologize for not being more cautious in my initial reporting on Sinema’s beliefs. But let’s set the record straight: Sinema may agree with many of our secular values, but she is not an atheist/non-theist/any-of-the-above. So we need to stop saying that. I hope she wins, but with Pete Stark out of the picture, we just lost a true voice for our community in Congress.

***Update***: Unga sent me a fuller explanation of where Sinema stands on this issue:

Kyrsten believes the terms non-theist, atheist or non-believer are not befitting of her life’s work or personal character.  She does not identify as any of those. 

Though Sinema was raised in a religious household, she draws her policymaking decisions from her experience as a social worker who worked with diverse communities and as a lawmaker who represented hundreds of thousands.  Sinema is a student of all cultures in her community and has learned that responsible stewards must consider all faiths with respect and dignity.   She believes that a secular approach is the best way to achieve this in good government. 

Sinema has earned the mutual respect and admiration of faith communities in AZ, though she does not consider herself to be a member of any faith community.  Many of the groups that supported her campaign are communities of faith.  Sinema’s campaign is endorsed by Jewish, Muslim, Christian and non-denominational organizations that support her because of her principled drive to help her fellow man and fellow woman by passing legislation that helps every individual grow and thrive — regardless of their background or religious affiliation.  She has the backing of the pastors and ministers of some of the largest community churches in the area.

It doesn’t change much for me. I’m glad she’s not offended by the “secular” labels, but the fact remains that no member of Congress (or hopefully-soon-to-be member of Congress) currently says that he/she doesn’t believe in a god.

In an election with so many historic firsts, the one group that seems to be taking a step backwards are atheists.

***Update 2***: The Sinema campaign said the same things to Mark Oppenheimer of the New York Times, though Oppenheimer puts it in a broader context of a politician who eschews all labels altogether… to me, that simplifies things too much. It avoids the question of whether or not she believes in God:

Although raised a Mormon, Ms. Sinema is often described as a nontheist — and that suits the activists just fine. A blogger for the Secular Coalition for America wrote Thursday that while he was still dispirited by the loss of Representative Pete Stark of California, an open nonbeliever, he was “emboldened” by the apparent victory of Ms. Sinema, “an open nontheist.” Her nonbelief, the blogger, Chris Lombardi, wrote, “was not used to slander her as un-American or suggest that she was unfit for office.”

But a campaign spokesman rejected any simple category for Ms. Sinema.

“Kyrsten believes the terms ‘nontheist,’ ‘atheist’ or ‘nonbeliever’ are not befitting of her life’s work or personal character,” the spokesman, Justin Unga, said Thursday in an e-mail. “Though Sinema was raised in a religious household, she draws her policy-making decisions from her experience as a social worker who worked with diverse communities and as a lawmaker who represented hundreds of thousands.”

Furthermore, Ms. Sinema “is a student of all cultures in her community,” Mr. Unga said, and she “believes that a secular approach is the best way to achieve this in good government.”


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.


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