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.

  • Hugh Kramer

    Just out of curiousity, how many other candidates this year have the stature or name recognition of Barney Franks?

  • primenumbers

    I’d vote for Hemant.

  • Jonas

    Sorry, I don’t necessarily see this an an issue. — His award is ‘Humanist’ of the year. — *NOT* ‘Atheist’ of the year.

    Sure he’s an Atheist, and didn’t come out about it, shouting from the rooftops, in a big deal. — But the key is Humanism, not Atheism.

    Had he been known for being an Orthodox, or Ultra Orthodox Jew, rather than a liberal one, then sure he might have had a view less supportive of the ideals of Humanism.
    But in the end, he’s both an atheist, and humanist who’s done a lot for civil rights for all. — (and happens to be Gay himself)

    • Chakolate

      I agree. Frank spent a lot of time in the House championing legislation that actually helped people – he’s always been a Humanist.

      From the Humanist Manifesto III, there are 7 ‘tenets’ of Humanism:

      -Knowledge of the world is derived by observation, experimentation, and rational analysis.

      -Humans are an integral part of nature, the result of evolutionary change, an unguided process.

      -Ethical values are derived from human need and interest as tested by experience.

      -Life’s fulfillment emerges from individual participation in the service of humane ideals.

      -Humans are social by nature and find meaning in relationships.

      -Working to benefit society maximizes individual happiness.

      -Respect for differing yet humane views in an open, secular, democratic, environmentally sustainable society

      Nowhere in there does it say you have to be an atheist to be a Humanist, and you certainly don’t have to be an out one.

  • cary_w

    I see your point, but…

    I have a dream. I have a dream that one day we will be able to just be who we are, without having to “come out” as anything. That someday there will be no need to tell everyone we are gay, straight, atheist, believer in God or anything. That people will just be people, treated with respect and dignity, people whom we can all assume believe in reality and have common sense, until they prove otherwise. I have a dream that someday we will all be able to revel in the beautiful traditions of our ancestor’s faith, without it being assumed that we still believe in sky-fairies or magic. Culture and religion are too intertwined to be completely separated. Just because Frank identifies himself as Jewish, should not mean that he has to believe in God. He shouldn’t be expected to give up all the music, food, holiday celebrations and stories of his ancestors just because he understands the real world enough to know those stories aren’t literally true. Sure, it would have been good for the “atheist cause” if he had come out while still in office, but he shouldn’t feel like he has to, just like a gay celebrity shouldn’t have to come out as gay. People should be judged on how they treat others and the views they express, not the label they identify themselves with. Someone like Frank deserves to be recognized for his humanitarian efforts, and not whether he identifies himself as “Jewish”, “atheist” or both.

    • getz

      Of course, the reward is from a humanist organization recognizing him for being “humanist of the year”, so I don’t know if it’s the best thing to defend while bringing up your dreams of label crushing.

      When labels lose their significance, we don’t get a world where people don’t need to use them, we get one where they are free to use them as casually as they are any other nouns or adjectives. Where mentioning you’re gay has no more significance than mentioning you like pizza. As it is right now, people may mention it with that same degree of significance, only for another to decide it summarizes their identity and project that attitude onto them.

  • mysticl

    On the face of it I’d say no and I LIKE Barney Frank. He didn’t come out as a non believer until he left public office which isn’t exactly courageous in my opinion although to be fair he had other coming out issues to deal with which were JUST as courageous so maybe he didn’t want to overkill the coming out thing and felt more passionate about being a visible homosexual in public service. However Hugh Kramer in a post below has a point as do others … the award is for HUMANISM not ATHEISM and in truth Barney Frank’s celebrity as a former member of congress is a factor as well. By this award he can put a known and respected “face” to the label Humanist and that isn’t a bad thing. So although I think he probably doesn’t “really” deserve it, he is probably still a good choice … it’s a conundrum!

    • regexp

      Frank’s entire life is full of not making brave decisions. He’s a politician and an opportunist and wasn’t that effective of a legislator. As someone who is gay – I’m personally insulted that this guy is frequently gone to as a “representative” of gay men and women.

  • UMJeremy

    I think your concerns about an 11th hour Humanist being given an award parallel those in the Christian mindset when it comes to deathbed conversions. Some are frustrated that those who choose a lifetime of piety are written in the same Book of Life as those who convert after a lifetime of non-piety. But those who are truly evangelical celebrate both lifetimes because they both end up in the same place of eternal salvation.

    Perhaps for the humanist viewpoint, Barney Frank has now been written into the book of human history as a Humanist. He is part of your mindset and culture, even close to the end of his political life. He will be written into history as supporting the Humanist causes. Is that not something to celebrate?

    While both mindsets lament what “could have been,” it seems that each person matters to each movement. But those that celebrate the longtime activists and the recent “converts” or “affiliates” alike seem to be a more nuanced understanding of the movement’s goals than those who lament the unfairness or injustice or lack of strategic motivations of this decision.

    Disclosure: I’m a United Methodist clergyperson. I am presenting the mindset that I see as a parallel, not promoting its validity.

  • Keane

    “I’m well aware that these kinds of awards are often given to the biggest “name” the organization can get to appear in person…”

    True. And why it’s kind of hard to care.

  • trivialknot

    Would you like to propose an alternative member of congress who did come out while in office? As I understand, there was only one, and he already got an award.

  • Feral Dog

    The fact that a douche like Dan Savage won such an award is far more damaging to the Humanist movement than a liberal gay atheist admitting the last descriptor after it can’t affect his political career ever could be.

  • John Barleycorn

    Well, I’d rather they give the award based on Humanist Values rather than simple labels.

    That said, I don’t agree with Dan Savage as recipient. Yes, I agree with him politically. Yes, the Santorum thing was funny as hell. (But humanist? No.) Yes he’s done a lot for homosexuality. But…he’s also got an unpleasant streak of misogyny that should have immediately disqualified him.

    • starskeptic

      I agree – what difference does it make as to when he declared his atheism or how?

  • Richard Wade

    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.

    This points out a big flaw in the criteria for awarding “Humanist of the Year.” Big name equals big publicity, equals big draw, equals big convention ticket sales. It’s like casting a famous movie star in a part for which he is not well suited, but his name will guarantee bigger box office profits.

    There must be many people who are quietly working to promote Humanist values and who are very effective at making the situation better, and I’m sure the AHA is aware of them. But they don’t want an unknown hero, they want a star.

  • Nemo

    I agree with what someone said below: Frank has tried to benefit humans while in office. And despite his labels, he acted as an atheist in his position with his political views would have.

    • midnight rambler

      That’s why I don’t blame him for keeping quiet about being an atheist. At the same time, I don’t think he really deserves an award for it.

  • Sami Hawkins

    So this year’s ‘humanist of the year’ is a man who argues I’m being whiny and irrational if I object to being called a ‘tranny’, next year’s ‘humanist of the year’ is the man who booted us out of ENDA.