Should Atheist Politicians ‘Come Out’?

Henry_IV_en_Herculeus_terrassant_l_Hydre_de_Lerne_cad_La_ligue_Catholique_Atelier_Toussaint_Dubreuil_circa_1600Writing in Politico, Jennifer Hecht laments the absence of any ‘out’ atheists in senior elective office.

On Real Time with Bill Maher last August, Maher asked his guest, newly retired Rep. Barney Frank, if he felt liberated now that he was a private citizen. Frank said he did, since he no longer gets phone calls saying someone screwed something up and he has to “unscrew it.” Maher pressed on, saying, “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.” Frank shot back: “Which pot-smoking atheist were you talking about?” Then he pointed back and forth to Maher and himself.

The audience loved it. Maher doubled over in laughter and delight. But while few seemed to care about Frank’s pot-smoking admission, atheists across the country—myself included—were disappointed that he hadn’t acknowledged his lack of religious belief sooner, when it could have made a real difference. We were left wondering why a man who served 16 terms in Congress and who bravely came out as gay all the way back in 1987 felt the need to hide his atheism until he was out of office. Was it really harder to come out as an atheist politician in 2013 than as a gay one 25 years ago?

Incredibly, the answer might be yes. For starters, consider that there is not a single self-described atheist in Congress today. Not one. It wasn’t until 2007 that Rep. Pete Stark, a Democrat from Northern California, became the first member of Congress and the highest-ranking public official ever to admit to being an atheist. (And even he framed it in terms of religious affiliation, calling himself “a Unitarian who does not believe in a supreme being.”) Stark was elected twice after this, but when the 20-term congressman lost his seat last year, it was to a 31-year-old primary challenger who attacked him as irreligious, citing, among other things, Stark’s vote against our national motto: “In God We Trust.”

Indeed, the same year that Stark came out, the Secular Coalition of America was able to identify only five atheist public officials in the entire United States. After Stark and a Nebraska state senator, the third-highest ranking atheist was a school-board president from Berkeley, Calif.—this despite the fact that, according to a 2012 Pew report, 6 percent of Americans say they don’t believe in a higher power. That leaves at least 15 million Americans without any elected officials to represent their point of view….

Hmmm, “representing their point of view”? There are many things that I might hope for from legislators. Agreeing with their thoughts about God is a very long way down the list.

When it comes to this sort of thing, I’ve always thought that the late Henry IV of France (1553-1610) was onto something when he explained (apocryphally at least) why he had converted to Roman Catholicism on ascending the French throne. “Paris,” he supposedly said, “is worth a mass”. Going through a (to him) presumably meaningless ritual was no big deal if it paved the way to power.

What mattered was what he did with that power. And what he did was to be a good king, with achievements that included crushing the fanatics of the Catholic League, and promulgating the Edict of Nantes, which granted a good degree of religious tolerance to France’s Protestant minority.

And so it should be here. If it takes a little hypocrisy for a good sound godless politician to get elected, so be it. Bring on the prayer breakfasts!

But one real cost to this silence it is the role that it has played in the rise of the assumption that those on the Right (except Randians and some of those wacky libertarians) are by definition religious, something that is by no means the case, as visitors to this site must surely know.

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20 Responses to Should Atheist Politicians ‘Come Out’?

  1. “Pascal was the first and perhaps is still the most effective voice to be raised in warning of the consequences of the enthronement of the human ego in contradistinction to the cross, symbolizing the ego’s immolation. How beautiful it all seemed at the time of the Enlightenment, that man triumphant would bring to pass that earthly paradise whose groves of academe would ensure the realization forever of peace, plenty, and beatitude in practice. But what a nightmare of wars, famines, and folly was to result therefrom.”
    ― Malcolm Muggeridge, The End of Christendom

  2. “So the final conclusion would surely be that whereas other civilizations have been brought down by attacks of barbarians from without, ours had the unique distinction of training its own destroyers at its own educational institutions, and then providing them with facilities for propagating their destructive ideology far and wide, all at the public expense. Thus did Western Man decide to abolish himself, creating his own boredom out of his own affluence, his own vulnerability out of his own strength, his own impotence out of his own erotomania, himself blowing the trumpet that brought the walls of his own city tumbling down, and having convinced himself that he was too numerous, labored with pill and scalpel and syringe to make himself fewer. Until at last, having educated himself into imbecility, and polluted and drugged himself into stupefaction, he keeled over–a weary, battered old brontosaurus–and became extinct.”
    ― Malcolm Muggeridge, Vintage Muggeridge: Religion and Society

  3. Ray says:

    “If it takes a little hypocrisy for a good sound godless politician to get elected, so be it. Bring on the prayer breakfasts!”

    The “Secular Right,” as with the left, in seeing hypocrisy as evidence of soundness, shows itself to be grounded in mendacity, and consequently hermetically sealed off from reality.

    The left vs. the “Secular Right” is a difference without distinction. The practitioners of each are, by their own definitions, frauds.

  4. Tom O'Reilly says:

    It’s interesting to notice the rise in articles relating to atheism. Not only in this publication, but across the board. It is clear that “atheism” is the next frontier following homosexuality.

    Today, it is politically incorrect (perhaps even unlawful in some states) for an individual to discriminate against a homosexual based on their sexual preference. Tomorrow (if not even later today) the same rules will apply to atheists.

    The Modernist bishops of the Catholic Church have sat by and watched all of this happen over the last 50 years and said nothing. They concern themselves with “feeding the poor” and “immigration reform” and “global warming” and so many other socially popular hot-button issues, instead of concerning themselves with leading all souls to salvation––the singular mission of the Church given to us by Jesus Christ.

    But while they may bask in glory today on this earth, in the next life there will be a mighty accounting by God. And to whom much has been given, much will have been expected.

  5. CJColucci says:

    Isn’t it great when somebody proves your point for you?

  6. Narr says:

    In modern America, the only atheist politicians who will come out are those who don’t want to be re-elected. The Constitution forbids religious tests for public office seekers, but (alas from my p.o.v.) the voters can impose their own–and they do.

  7. Narr says:

    For Tom O’Reilly: get with it, man. Atheists already have the same rights and protections (on paper anyway) as all citizens of the country do. You can’t deny me a job, a loan, or anything else on the basis of my religion or lack thereof. Console yourself with your revenge fantasy.

    For Ray: how does one person’s sardonic opinion prove that a whole movement (if we can call it that) is fraudulent?

  8. Andrew Stuttaford says:

    Ray, that’s a very clear misreading of what I wrote. I am obviously not saying that such a politician would be sound *because of* his hypocrisy.

    What I am arguing is that if it takes a bit of hypocrisy (in this case attending–without believing in their theological ‘truth’–some essentially harmless rituals that form part of the warp and woof of our society)to get elected, I have no objection. If that’s what it takes to get a good candidate elected, that’s what it takes…

  9. Susan says:

    It really would be interesting to know how many of our current elected officials are atheists, agnostics, or simply indifferent to religious matters. I suspect many of them are.

    But I agree with Mr. Stuttaford. If a good candidate has to effect belief in order to be elected, then…that’s the cost of doing business.

    As a side note, I once asked a southern friend why southerners, in particular, were so concerned with knowing whether a candidate was devoutly Christian. She replied that southerners regarded devoutness (devotion?) as an indication of good character.

  10. Ray says:

    Mr. Stuttaford,

    “I am obviously not saying that such a politician would be sound *because of* his hypocrisy.”

    Fair enough. Your remarks should be accurately characterized.

    The “Secular Right,” as with the left, in viewing hypocrisy as not being an impediment to soundness, shows itself to be grounded in mendacity. And the practitioners of each group are, by their own definitions, frauds.

    Justifying mendacity signifies an attitude of profound contempt, disdain, and disrespect for others.



  11. Susan says:

    Ray, a certain amount of hypocrisy greases the wheels of civilization. We all engage in it. Have you ever lied and said a dinner was good when it was awful, so as to spare the feelings of the cook? Or said you liked a birthday gift when you actually hated it? If you did, you’re mendacious and hypocritical. But…you’re also being kind.

  12. Ray says:


    Social conventions of the type you cite are fully understood to be meaningless. So there is no deception involved.

    But to seriously attempt to mislead is a horse of another color. It disrespects those victimized by the deceit. It causes people to make choices they would have made differently, absent the deception. It’s an attack on their freedom. It destroys the possibility of genuine communication, a very serious thing given that man is a social animal.

    I could go on, but you get the drift.



  13. Narr says:

    To Susan’s Dec 19 observation about southerners’ view of piety as an indicator of trustworthiness: I’ve always considered that a near-universal human propensity, not some weird Southern thang. It has just lasted longer in the South than in other parts of the country.

    It has always struck me as a basic tenet of faith in all the major religions (at least the monotheistic ones) that everyone outside one’s particular circle is worthy of suspicion ON THAT BASIS ALONE. Thus, public declarations of belief are just attestations of harmlessness and good intent.

    President Obama has written that the truth and value of religion were revealed to him in his community-organizing days. My take is that what was revealed to him was the utter impossibility of getting elected to anything without a public adherence to one of the name brand faiths.

  14. GTChristie says:

    In answer to the headline question, “should they?” — the answer should be no. Stating religious beliefs, including unbeliefs, does not belong in the political sphere at all. Every expression of that by a politician, for or against, mixes religion with politics (and by extension, government). To me, that in itself is a hole in the dyke between church and state that nobody can plug with a thumb.

  15. Susan says:


    First, my compliments on the extended metaphor.

    Of course, you’re right. But, unfortunately, the question inevitably arises. I don’t see it dying down any time soon.

    One of the four Tea Party candidates primarying Lindsey Graham has announced that he will be running on a platform of “constitutionalism and Christianity.”

  16. Ray says:

    Merry Christmas and a Happy 2014!



  17. Steve Cardon says:

    @Ray. Your high idealism while laudable, is impractical. Politicians cannot be elected without practicing a degree of hypocrisy regardless of their religious, philosophical, or sexual orientation… just as you (or anyone else) cannot be self-righteous or absolutist on any issue without being hypocritical, because we all fall short. Drawing personal distinctions on when you think it is or isn’t harmless is all well and good, but it is your own distinctions.

    I find it more harmful to allow the religious politicians to maintain a monopoly on decisions being made, because Atheists want to stand on their principles, and announce themselves beforehand thus guaranteeing they will not be elected.

    Should politicians who are Atheists be able to feel they can be open about it and still get elected? Of course, but we are not there yet.

  18. Ray says:

    Mr. Cardon,

    Perjury and fraud carry legal penalties. People are insulted when lied to. This suggests that “high idealism” is not uncommon and not so easily dismissed.

    Calling mendacity “impractical” would be a poor legal defense. And you’d have to do a lot better than that with someone you lied to.

    To say, as you do, that “Atheists want to stand on their principles,” and at the same time that deceit is justified to get elected, begs the question – “what principles?”

    To fall short of standards is one thing, to be comfortable with dismissing them is another.


  19. Steve Cardon says:

    @Ray. I never said there was comfort in dismissing standards, I said essentially that if you want to get absolutely nowhere, be unwilling to play the game to an extent.

    You said “Social conventions of the type you (Susan) cite are fully understood to be meaningless. So there is no deception involved.” So now you set yourself up as some kind of arbiter of which lies are meaningless, though if that were true why tell them in the first place?

    A lie is a lie, for you to say no deception is involved is not accurate… or however you wish to describe it. If you lie when youtell someone your really like a gift, they are likely to believe you.

    You do it to be polite, and make yourself more appealing to others. Well… welcome to the world of being a politician. They will obscure all manner of personal beliefs and feelings so as not to insult, or alienate those they wish to vote them into office.

    So you apparently want to prosecute for fraud, a politician who withholds his atheism from the larger public, or pretends to believe in God. If there is separation of church and state, why is that more of crime to keep that personal than when you lie to you friends to make yourself better liked?

  20. Steve Cardon says:

    @Ray (Addendum). A person who is incapable of being disingenuous smoothly and convincingly is unqualified to be a politician. If you believe that a man could rise to national office while being completely honest in answering all questions about his beliefs and attitudes, you are naive in the extreme. His opponents would use his answers to systematically siphon voters away from him.

    If you want to make sure no girl will marry you, be sure to tell her honestly of every dark though, bad deed or intention, you have ever had.

    Self-righteousness about being unswervingly truthful only set you up for being an even bigger hypocrite. I believe that to be axiomatic.

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