BY AMANDA PHILLIPS
“Coming out” as the first openly nontheist member of the United States Congress, Representative Fortney “Pete” Stark (D-CA) quipped, “I’m pleased that I’m in Cambridge and not in Salem!” On September 20, 2007, Congressman Stark spoke publicly for the first time about his atheism to an audience of approximately 300 members of the Humanist Chaplaincy at Harvard, the Harvard Law School Heathen Society, and various other atheist, agnostic, secular, humanist, and nonreligious groups. The Boston Globe was also on hand to cover the event.
Stark, who is a Unitarian, is the highest-ranking American politician to openly declare that he is nontheist. Although Stark denies a belief in a god, he was quick to note that the Stark family does recognize a supreme being: Mrs. Stark.
Congressman Stark regaled the audience with anecdotes about his life and his background, noting that he “was born poor enough so that I never slept alone until I was married.” Before running for office, Congressman Stark was a successful bank executive, a member of the U.S. Air Force, and a leader of a Unitarian Universalist seminary. As Stark explained it, he was not at all interested in a supreme being, but was instead interested in people.
When Stark won his congressional seat in 1971, religion simply was not at the forefront of most people’s minds. Religion only surfaced on occasion, he noted, like when his congressional colleagues wanted to have ‘prayer breakfasts’. Religion began to enter the public debate more forcefully in the 1980s, which is, Congressman Stark speculated, when televangelists and politicians discovered that they could use religion to raise money and increase power.
Even with the apparent resurgence of religion in the public debate, Congressman Stark denied that religion has much impact in actual politics. The leading candidates all agree that they believe in a supreme being, Congressman Stark observed, but they all forget about it as soon as they are elected.
Religion does not often enter into discussions of the real issues, observed Stark. He characterized the main political debate as one where Republicans think that government is something from which we ought to be protected, and Democrats think that government is something to make our lives better. Religion may subtly affect the style, but not the subject of debate.
When asked abut how difficult it is for demonized atheists to “come out,” Congressman Stark noted that he does not think there is any evidence that atheists are demonized. Although some believers often exhibit an arrogance of certainty, Congressman Stark has never encountered anyone who was “nasty” about it. When someone asks him if he loves Jesus, he replies, “I don’t know, but everything I’ve heard about him is fine!”
Some audience members were skeptical about Stark’s optimism that atheists can be accepted by American society at large. As the Globe reported on Saturday, a recent Gallup poll showed that fewer than half of respondents said they would vote for a well-qualified atheist for office. More people were willing to support a woman, homosexual, Mormon, or a 72-year-old.
Despite his downplaying the importance of religion, however, Congressman Stark is notably the only atheist congressman in our history to “come out.” Although Americans are increasingly non-believing, many politicians remain leery of “coming out” for fear of public backlash. A representative of the Secular Coalition of America said that the group had spoken to 21 representatives who were nonbelievers, but not yet willing to go public.
Now that 20% of Americans age 18 through 25 identify themselves as having no religion, perhaps politicians will begin to break their silence.
Madison Kitchens, HLS ’10, commented, “In a time when the only religious test for office is that one have a religion, Congressman Stark’s candor is both surprising and refreshing. I hope that his example will embolden like-minded politicians to break the taboo themselves.”
More information about the university and law school groups and upcoming events can be found at www.harvardhumanist.org and www.hlsheathens.org.