I’m sure there have been atheists in Congress before, but I can think of only one who was open about it: Pete Stark, a Democratic representative from Congress who served from 1973-2013—a long forty years. But he announced his atheism only in 2007, six years before he retired. Barney Frank (remember him?) a Massachusetts Congressman from 1981-2013, was also an atheist, but he admitted it only after he left office. (Frank was also gay, but was open about that when he was in office, which shows you where atheists stand!)
Frank was, like me, an atheistic Jew—something that Dave Silverman asserts is an oxymoron. Here’s what he said to the Religion News Service in 2014:
CS: You became the first openly gay member of Congress in 1987, but you didn’t reveal your nontheism until after you left office. Why?
BF: It was never relevant. I never professed any theology. And it’s complicated by my Jewishness. Obviously, being Jewish is both an ethnicity and a religion. I was concerned that if I were to explicitly disavow any religiosity, it could get distorted into an effort to distance myself from being Jewish—and I thought that was wrong, given that there is anti-Jewish prejudice.
For years I would go to temple, but I suddenly realized it doesn’t mean anything to me. So I decided, I’m not going to do this. I’m not going to pretend. During my service I never pretended to be a theist. It just never became relevant that I wasn’t, and I guess I was not as conscious of the discrimination nontheists felt. But I’ve always been opposed to any imposition of religion. I fought hard, for example, with other members of Congress to oppose any notion that a religious group getting federal funds could discriminate in hiring.
When I took the oath of office, I never swore and said, “So help me God.” But members of the House take the oath en masse, so nobody noticed. I’ve said that if I’d been appointed to the Senate, as I wanted my governor to do but he decided he had other plans, I would’ve had my husband hold the Constitution.
The subject just never came up. The only religious services I’ve attended for the last 20 years were funerals; I’ve attended more masses than a lot of my Catholic friends.
I think we all know that there are lots of “hidden” atheists in the government, but they won’t admit it (Trump is surely one).
Why put your nonbelief out of view? You know why. Americans demonize atheists, and I suspect that even many of the ‘nones’, who have no declared affiliation with a church, don’t like us, either. As an article in The Conversation noted:
This puts the country at odds with democracies the world over that have elected openly godless – or at least openly skeptical – leaders who went on to become revered national figures, such as Jawaharlal Nehru in India, Sweden’s Olof Palme, Jose Mujica in Uruguay and Israel’s Golda Meir. New Zealand’s Jacinda Ardern, the global leader who has arguably navigated the coronavirus crisis with the most credit, says she is agnostic.
But in the United States, self-identified nonbelievers are at a distinct disadvantage. A 2019 poll asking Americans who they were willing to vote for in a hypothetical presidential election found that 96% would vote for a candidate who is Black, 94% for a woman, 95% for a Hispanic candidate, 93% for a Jew, 76% for a gay or lesbian candidate and 66% for a Muslim – but atheists fall below all of these, down at 60%. That is a sizable chunk who would not vote for a candidate simply on the basis of their nonreligion.
. . . In fact, a 2014 survey found Americans would be more willing to vote for a presidential candidate who had never held office before, or who had extramarital affairs, than for an atheist.
We’re not trusted, and the article discusses why. One reason is the common misconception that if you don’t believe in God, you can’t be moral.
Here’s a plot from the Conversation article showing that only SOCIALISTS are less likely to be elected than atheists. (But what about Bernie?).
Now, though, Congressman Jared Huffman of California, a Democrat (of course only Democrats would admit such a thing) has also come out as an atheist. Again, he admits it now although he’s been sitting Congress since 2013, so nobody has actually runs initially for Congressional office stating that they’re nonbelievers.
Huffman announced his apostasy at the FFRF convention; click on the announcement below to read:
Rep. Jared Huffman, D-Calif., made his views on the nonexistence of God extremely clear at the Freedom from Religion Foundation’s recently concluded annual convention in San Antonio.
In his taped remarks welcoming convention-goers, he stated, “I feel like I have sort of become the surrogate representative for countless folks across the United States that identify as nonreligious. As many of you know, I am the token humanist in Congress. A few others are coy about how they describe their religious views but I’ve come right out and said it: I’m a humanist and I don’t believe in God.”
Well, he didn’t say the “a-word” but he is one. It’s weird how you can say you don’t believe in God and yet not call yourself explicitly an “atheist”. The article continues.
Huffman has been a stalwart defender of secularism in Congress, as a founding member and co-chair of the Congressional Freethought Caucus. Its mission statement is “to promote public policy formed on the basis of reason, science, and moral values; to protect the secular character of our government by adhering to the strict constitutional principle of the separation of church and state; to oppose discrimination against atheists, agnostics, humanists, seekers, religious and nonreligious persons, and to champion the value of freedom of thought and conscience worldwide; and to provide a forum for members of Congress to discuss their moral frameworks, ethical values, and personal religious journeys.”
The caucus currently has 17 members, more than quadruple its size since its establishment four years ago.
CBN News (a Christian site) adds this:
This revelation isn’t entirely surprising considering past statements and advocacy. A 2017 article proclaimed Huffman wasn’t “sure” if there was a God. He said he used to ignore questions about his faith but has changed course in recent years.
“I don’t believe in religious tests, and I don’t believe my religion is all that important to the people I represent, and I think there’s too much religion in politics,” he told the Post at the time. “For those reasons, I felt good about not even answering it.”
Huffman became more vocal, though, crediting former President Donald Trump and others who were relying on Christianity in policy-making; thus, he, too, started speaking up. Rather than embrace the “atheist” label, though, he called himself — much like in the most recent video — a “humanist.”
“I’m not hostile to religion, and I’m not judging other people’s religious views,” Huffman said in his Post interview. “I suppose you could say I don’t believe in God. The only reason I hesitate is — unlike some humanists, I’m not completely closing the door to spiritual possibilities. We all know people who have had experiences they believe are divine … and I’m open to something like that happening.”
So here are the lessons. If you want to be a politician who actually gets elected:
- Never call yourself an “atheist”; you can say you’re a “humanist” or even a “nonbeliever”
- Only reveal your atheism after you’ve been in office for a while.
- Never say anything bad about religion: antitheism is a non-starter.
But there is something good in this, too, of course. A guy can openly declare he’s an atheist now and even get re-elected (like Pete Stark) after you’ve admitted it. But first you have to have been in government for a long time and kept your mouth shut.
Second, there’s a Congressional Freethought Caucus, and I didn’t know about that. It’s small, though: the FFRF says this:
Other members of the Congressional Freethought Caucus include Rep. Dan Kildee, D-Mich., Rep. Jerry McNerney, D-Calif., Rep. Mark Pocan, D-Wis., and Rep. Jamie Raskin, D-Md. FFRF hopes that additional representatives will join their lead.]
Not a lot of people, but Democrats all!
44 thoughts on “Man bites dog!: Congressman Jared Huffman declares he’s an atheist”
This article reminds me of a bon mot I found in an issue of ‘the Economist’ magazine : ‘Hillary Clinton invokes God more frequently in public than the average Western European bishop’.
PM Ardern of NZ was born into a Mormon family. She has publicly stated she repudiated Mormonism because she couldn’t agree with its anti-homosexual, anti-abortion, and anti-contraception stances. Nothing about disbelief on theology over gold plates transported in flying saucers from alien planets to Earth etc. PS Where’s the thread on the deeply held religious beliefs of the Orangeutan? That’s pertinent as he’s running for president again. All those profound videos of the Donald praying in the oval office with those God-fearing evangelical pastors.
Bon mot this: Barney Frank looked disgusting–nipples protruding–in his blue shirt before Congress. Very very disrespectful.
I know, I know, this is a serious website. 😂
Thus passes the self-proclaimed “Values Voters” from “the Party of Personal Responsibility.”
Trump has littered the landscape with plenty of solid clues that he really doesn’t believe — anyone remember his comment about attending church and “eating my little cracker”? Does that sound like a believer?
It’s also been widely reported that behind closed doors, he expresses amazement and distaste at some of his fervent followers’ religiosity.
These people who think he’s “sent from god”… I don’t even know what to think.
On the negative stereotypes about the very name for atheists, I am reminded of the comedy film by Julia Sweeney many years ago where she describes that when she came out as an atheist to her mother, her mother cried: “An atheist!? Oh I don’t care if you don’t believe in God, but an atheist!!?”
You beat me to it Mark. I think I first read about that in Dawkin’s ‘The God Delusion’ (IIRC).
For a long time after I stopped believing in God, I refused to call myself an atheist. I thought it had an activist connotation to it. i.e. not only do you not believe in God, you want to make everybody else stop believing in God.
Eventually, I realised that was silly.
The Congressional Freethought Caucus also counts progressives Pramila Jayapal and Rashida Tlaib as members, as well as, I’m proud to say, fellow Illinoisan Sean Casten. https://secular.org/governmental-affairs/congressional-freethought-caucus/
I thought Tlaib, like Omar, was a Muslim, and supporting BDS and the like. That appears not really compatible with a Freethought Caucus, I’d think. Maybe I’m a bit confused.
That is what I thought as well. I’d be very surprised if Tlaib is a real atheist.
I think the Freethought Caucus was founded in 2018, so McNerney (my Representative) got re-elected twice after being a founding member, even in a district in the Central Valley. (After the 2010 re-districting, his district lost its portions of the East Bay, so likely less friendly to a non-believer, but still re-elected him.) However, he’s retiring as of this term. IMO, the new 2020 district, which appears to have elected another Dem (from a different re-drawn district), would not be as friendly to a professed non-theist, but maybe overall, even in these parts, The Times They are a Changin’.
Come senators, congressmen
Please heed the call
Don’t stand in the doorway
Don’t block up the hall
This is good news. I suspect a lot of voters look down on atheism because they’ve been encouraged to think of the stereotypical unpleasant, judgmental Atheist sitting with arms folded at Christmas dinner, calling it all a lot of nonsense and castigating the beleaguered guests as a bunch of fools. Instead, atheists have to tiptoe and pirouette around the room reassuring people “I’m not hostile to religion” and “I’m not trying to take anyone’s faith away” by explaining they’re something other than an atheist.
In addition to arguing that “atheist Jew” was an oxymoron, Dave Silverman was a strong proponent of nonbelievers in God explicitly calling themselves “atheists.” He claimed that atheists using a dozen or more other terms — humanist, agnostic, freethinker, skeptic, rationalist, “none,” etc — weakened our political strength by making it look like a bunch of small competing factions instead of an impressive demographic to be reckoned with. “Atheist” was, he said, the most honest, inclusive, and clearly understood of the terms.
I can’t say he’s wrong, but I also don’t know if it’s practical. Maybe some day.
There are plenty of people who don’t care whether god(s) exist or not – I’m one of them. I’m also not looking to join a club or political demographic. So I guess I’m a non-theist who doesn’t identify with that as a label. But then things are a little looser in the UK.
“…atheists have to tiptoe and pirouette around the room reassuring people “I’m not hostile to religion” and “I’m not trying to take anyone’s faith away” by explaining they’re something other than an atheist.”
Wot the deuce, I say!
I don’t think it is good reasoning to say that Trump is an atheist. It’s very possible, and in my view, more likely, that he has vague supernatural beliefs, and just thinks as a narcissist would that [whatever concept he envisions] should be on his side. Being self consistent isn’t a requirement either.
He never goes to church and mentions God the way all politicians do. In no other way has he evinced a religious mindset. Why is that bad reasoning?
Don’t answer; I don’t want to get into a comment argument about this.
Some mornings at Mar-a-Lago, the Donald has a hard time working the nails out of his hands and feet so he can get down off his cross.
He has people to do that for him. He’s never done anything hard in his life.
I was offended in every imaginable way when he held up that bible, which looked to me as the RSV version given to every nice little Presbyterian kid at around that age. I just refound mine, with my name in gold on bottom right of cover, and my markings from when I actually read the whole damned thing as a high school freshman or something. Set me on my journey to atheism, notwithstanding my stepfather being a Presbyterian minister and my mother’s deep devotion to liberal christianity.
“I think we all know that there are lots of “hidden” atheists in the government, but they won’t admit it (Trump is surely one).” I think that Trump is too dumb to be an atheist 😁
Agreed. He doesn’t have the mental depth to consider the question honestly. He just says whatever his acolytes want to hear.
“(Trump is surely one).” While I agree in theory, I enjoy baiting tRUMPglodytes with the observation that I suspect that he’s a polytheist. He worships golf courses, glass towers, aircrafts, fancy ballrooms, and (on temporary as-needed basis) the butt-crack cleavage of any dictators, bank executives or business “partners” he may need assistance from.
Many Trump supporters, evangelical Christians among them, understand perfectly well that Trump is not one of them. Further, many do see him as a total sh*t-hole of a human being. They just don’t care as long as he succeeds in furthering their causes.
Just as they don’t care that Herschel Walker paid for abortions. They consider him a useful idiot.
I don’t know how far Dems would go, comparatively. But we did support Bill Clinton, despite his character flaws. Hell, I’d probably vote for him again.
The problem is, Trump’s chief manifest character flaw — a severe case of crippling narcissism — is the very last thing anyone should want in a leader. He cannot help but run everything that happens through the filter of his perilously fragile ego, which his narcissism is there to protect. That’s why he’s such an ineffective politician, as well: he is deranged by his narcissism.
For the evangelicals, Mike Pence seems like a good bet. He wasn’t crucified, but he was almost hanged.
In that very small area between “situations where religion is an appropriate topic” and “I don’t want to get into a whole thing” I say “I am not religious.”
Seeing as how it was not until just this month that Republicans elected their first gay congressperson to come willingly out of the closet, and seeing as how 61% of Republicans want to see the US declared a Christian Nationalist country, I wouldn’t expect the GOP to nominate an openly atheist candidate anytime soon.
Strong atheism … I believe there is no God
Weak atheism … I don’t believe in God
Of course, there is a whole raft of other “-isms”. Having been in numerous discussions on the true atheism, when I come across an old dictionary I look up “atheism”.
In my experience, the older ones tend to align with the strong definition whereas the newer one’s weak atheism.
Atheists a have a bad reputation (see Mark’s comment under 2) indeed, but what about Free Masons?
I miss them in that poll. I somehow suspect they would score pretty low, the fact that about half the Founding Fathers actually were free Masons, including George Washington, notwithstanding.
Although ‘socialism’ didn’t exist at the time, I’m sure Thomas Paine would be considered one now.
Shriners have the cool headwear.
Ain’t never gonna do it without the fez on, oh no.
If I’m not mistaken, the Nobles of the Mystic Shrine were only established in the late 19th century, so the Founding Fathers did it without the Fez, I guess.
I guess too that Steely Dan is an underestimated band indeed.
Note, large Atheist Masonic loges, such as the ‘Great Orient’ or the ‘Droit Humain’ (the latter includes females) also post-date the FFs. The ‘Regular’ loges (ruled by the British) are theistic, or at least deistic. They are dominant outside Europe, I gather.
Reading a novel about a gay congressman, Enter the Aardvark by Jessica Anthony. Very good, if brief.
Interesting that there is such a thing as the Congressional Freethought Caucus. I had no idea.
In my view, “atheistic Jew” is not an oxymoron. Lots of people are both. Judaism is a people in addition to being a religion. One can be part of the Jewish people and at the same time not practice the Jewish religion.
My late father’s United States Air Force dog tag has an H embossed on it, for Hebrew. It’s not because he spoke Hebrew. It was to indicate that he was a member of the Hebrew people and, if killed in action, was to be buried in the Jewish tradition. I always found that interesting. It seemed to imply that there was a distinction between Judaism the religion and “Hebrew” the people. (After 1952, the “H” was changed to “J.”)
There’s a long history to this. American Reform Jews early in the 20th century advocated that Jews identify as a religion only, and no longer as a people, partly to help them become accepted on the American scene and to blunt the timeless “dual loyalty” charge. Religion only or people *and* religion? It’s still debated today.
The fact that we use the same word for both the people and the religion leads to the view—erroneous in my mind—that “atheist Jew” is an oxymoron.
Thank you, Norman. Well said. As a professor of religious studies, this is a key issue in my classes that I try to help my students comprehend. Christianity and Islam are religions. Each requires a confession of faith. Judaism is a people that happens to have a religion and many Jews have resisted attempts to create a confession of faith. Mordecai Kaplan went so far as to say Judaism is a civilization and Jewish religion is the folkway of its people.
Mordecai Kaplan was indeed very clear about this, and he founded Reconstructionist Judaism as a result. Thank you, Kurt, for engaging in this conversation.
If Trump were a skilled manager, an inspiring leader, a gifted orator, a potential-Lincoln-in-the-making presidential candidate (I know, I know, please work with me here), but if he were also a publicly-declared atheist, would we be ridiculing and disdaining Evangelicals who voted for him? After all, wouldn’t it be inconsistent in some way with their beliefs? Couldn’t they be accused of some sort of hypocrisy, voting for a man who stands against their supposedly most important convictions just because he might, let’s say, build a better economy?
So, returning to 2016 & 2020, do Evangelicals deserve criticism simply for having voted for Trump (an unqualified man who, to say the least, has none of the above strengths), or are they criticized because they are hypocrites in voting for Trump (a man who does not share their supposed values)? If the former, then how is their Evangelicalism relevant to our criticism of their vote? If the latter, how is it we condemn them for not wanting to vote for open atheists?
Good questions, but they don’t matter. It’s whatever keeps it all Trump all the time for the next 6 years.
In connection with the “religion or people” issue, a British friend once asked me what category “Jews” belonged to. I said we were like the Welsh: our own languages (that many of us know only slightly); religion for some (like chapel); and most significantly, our own special foods (like Welsh rarebit, whatever that is).
I love Jamie Raskin and had heard he was a non-believer, but his circular bald spot always looks like a yarmulke.
It does! I’ve noticed his natural yarmulke, too!