Does Barney Frank Really Deserve to Be ‘Humanist of the Year’?

The American Humanist Association announced last night that former Congressman Barney Frank would receive its 2014 “Humanist of the Year” award:

… In 1987, Frank became the first member of Congress to voluntarily come out as openly gay, and in 2012 he married his longtime partner, becoming the nation’s first congressman in a same-sex marriage while in office.

After sixteen terms in Congress, Frank’s legacy as a champion of civil rights and financial reform, as well as his ability to simplify any issue at hand in a clever and witty way, will be sorely missed.

What the description notably leaves out — even though it’s probably why Frank was chosen to receive this award at all — was that he came out as an atheist this past August. The way in which he did it, though, makes me wonder whether he truly deserves this particular honor.

You might recall that Frank had appeared as a guest on Real Time with Bill Maher shortly after he was not appointed to take over John Kerry‘s Senate seat when Kerry became Secretary of State. After the “official” show ended and they taped the brief online-only post-show segment, Frank had this exchange with Maher:

Bill Maher: … you were in a fairly safe district. You were not one of those Congresspeople who have to worry about every little thing. You could come on this show, and sit next to a pot-smoking atheist, and it wouldn’t bother you…

Barney Frank: [Pointing back and forth to himself and Maher] Which pot-smoking atheist were you talking about?


Bill Maher: Ooh, you are liberated!

Barney Frank: No, I would tell you now… I regret… I had asked my governor to appoint me to the open Senate seat and he decided not to, and I was looking forward to having my husband Jim hold the Constitution, not the Bible, and affirm, not swear, that I was gonna be a wonderful Senator.

Bill Maher: You would’ve been a wonderful Senator…

In summary, Barney Frank came out as an atheist only after he left office, and he did it in a passive manner on the segment of Maher’s show that most of his viewers never even saw. For 32 years, Frank’s official religious affiliation was “Jewish,” but he kinda-sorta-wishy-washily came out as an atheist only after it was too late to have made a serious impact on society.

And now, months later, the AHA is declaring him their Humanist of the Year.

I want to make two things clear. First, I’m a huge fan of Frank. I support his politics and I’m thrilled he finally came out (of the other closet). If an LGBT group or liberal group gave him an award, I would totally get it. But it bugs me that the AHA is honoring someone who was perfectly happy to be known as an outspoken gay liberal, but who couldn’t admit during his decades in Congress that he was an outspoken gay liberal atheist.

Second, I realize we could have a long debate over previous award recipients. (Is this year’s winner, Dan Savage, really best known for his Humanism?) I’m well aware that these kinds of awards are often given to the biggest “name” the organization can get to appear in person, and Frank will certainly be a draw for people who are thinking about coming to the conference.

It’s worth noting that Congressman Pete Stark, who openly declared his non-belief in God while still in office, was given the Humanist of the Year award in 2008. That one made sense.

Ironically, the announcement of Frank receiving the award comes just days after the AHA’s Executive Director Roy Speckhardt wrote an essay for the Huffington Post suggesting that it was unethical to remain in the closet about your atheism:

… remaining silent won’t make the problem of prejudice go away. In fact, this silence causes a number of problems for the community to which nonbelievers find themselves members. By having significant numbers in the closet, it makes the demographic look smaller in numbers than it actually is, which makes it harder for the community to fight for equal representation.

… but even though Barney Frank remained silent for so long, it earned him the AHA’s highest honor.

Frank will receive the award at the AHA’s 73rd Annual Conference, June 5-8, 2014 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

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.