No God Is No Problem For Local Congressman
March 30, 2007 5:03 PM
What does Pete Stark, a 34-year veteran of the House of Representatives, have in common with Sigmeund Freud, Isaac Asimov and Ronald Reagan, Jr.?
A publicly held belief in atheism, as shown in a statement given by his office, in which he said, “I am a Unitarian who does not believe in a supreme being. Like our nation’s founders, I strongly support the separation of church and state.”
And by joining such a group of so-called nonbelievers, Stark has gone where no member of Congress has gone before: publicly admitting a lack of belief in a god. He is the highest ranking elected official ever to announce his atheistic belief in what many call a “Christian nation.” Stark’s unprecedented political step could be considered evolution in the separation of church and state in the country.
“It’s a sign of the times, good for him,” said Christina Hilfiker, a 27-year-old SF State senior. “Hopefully, they won’t focus on him being an atheist, but focus more on his policies. That’s what they should be focusing on.”
Stark is an 18-term Democrat that represents California’s 13th District, which envelopes a large portion of the East Bay, and he is now among a group of individuals whose beliefs are socially taboo in America.
“He’s from a safe district… we’re not talking about a born-again Christian from the South,” said David Tabb, political science professor at SF State. “I think we have an over-inflated view of the level of religiosity among voters.”
Tabb, who has taught at SF State for 35 years, called Stark a “maverick” and compared him to the late Senator Paul Wellstone from Minnesota. He said that Wellstone was “consistently more liberal than his constituency, but people trusted him as being a trustworthy politician… and I think that’s probably the case for Stark.”
A 2006 Newsweek poll found that only 37 percent of Americans would willingly vote for a presidential candidate who doesn’t believe in a higher being. This statistic fell from 49 percent in a 1999 Gallup poll, which at the time revealed that American voters would rather elect a president who is openly homosexual than one who lacks a theistic belief.
And while the House of Representatives currently has three openly homosexual members, Barney Frank, Tammy Faye and Jim Kolbe, Stark is the only figure in Congress to admit his lack of belief in a god.
“For liberals and many Democrats, it would be not particularly interesting or surprising, and politically of no great significance,” said Gerard Heather, political science professor and former chair at SF State.
“The issue as a politician is what is in the best interest of the public. This would put him at a distinct disadvantage in the South, for example, and in certain midwestern states, but not so much on either coast. I think it’s an anomaly.”
Stark, who does not face a reelection campaign until 2009, has been relatively well received in his announcement, according to his office. Much praise for his pioneering act has come from constituents and advocates alike, who are hoping that his announcement will pave a more tolerant path for nontheists in America.
“I hope that it helps people to rethink their prejudices about voting for someone who doesn’t share their religious belief,” said Lori Lipman Brown, director of the Secular Coalition for America, a nontheist advocacy organization. “I think there’s a tremendous misconception about those who don’t hold a god-belief.”
Brown analyzed Stark’s announcement by the numbers, saying that one out of 535 Congressional members does not represent what she estimated to be about 10 percent of Americans who hold a nontheistic belief.
“Being an atheist is what being a Catholic was when John F. Kennedy was first starting out in politics,” said Megan Caluza, a special education graduate student. “Basically you just have to prove that that’s not going to color everything that you’re doing in regard to your constituents.”
Brown also cited a University of Minnesota study that concluded that individuals that do not believe in a god are the “most distrusted minority,” and noted that religion in politics is affecting civil laws, marriage contracts and leading to abuses of faith-based initiatives.
“If [religion] became irrelevant in voting, that would be great,” said Brown.
While some underscore the importance of Stark’s belief at different levels than others, it is clear that Stark’s action is not one without recognition and effect.
“A politician has to use his conscience, and if his conscience tells him to go to religion, then he should. On the other hand, a politician has to live in the real world, as long as he has the best interests of the people he represents in mind,” said Jacob Needleman, who has been a professor of philosophy at SF State for 45 years. “I’m sure it affects people’s opinion of him, when someone says he’s one thing or another. To come out and say he’s an atheist is going to have an effect.”
Brown elevated the issue of qualifications and goals of a politician above implications that a candidate’s personal religious beliefs might have.
“My question of any candidate isn’t ‘what do you believe in?’ It’s ‘how will you represent me?’”
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