Last August, former Congressman Barney Frank — who made a name for himself for being an outspoken gay liberal — finally came out in a different way. He said on Real Time with Bill Maher that he was an atheist:
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…
I remember being both thrilled and disappointed by his admission. I was glad to see another prominent person come out as an atheist, but why couldn’t he have said something during the more than three decades he was in public office, when it could have made a real difference?!
It’s the reason I questioned the American Humanist Association’s decision to name him “Humanist of the Year,” an honor he will be receiving this weekend in Philadelphia.
Chris Stedman got an exclusive interview with Frank at Religion News Service and asked him why he held out for so long:
Stedman: You became the first openly gay member of Congress in 1987, but you didn’t reveal your nontheism until after you left office. Why?
Frank: 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…
It’s a respectable answer. But saying you’re not religious doesn’t automatically make you anti-anything. It’s not like an accusation of being anti-Semitic would stick to a known defender of civil rights and Secular Jews aren’t exactly a rare breed. If anything, it’s just ignorance, as Frank admits. He didn’t know coming out as an atheist would make such a big difference. Now he does.
Frank also had some advice for atheist Congressional candidates like Arizona’s James Woods:
Don’t give the appearance that your campaign is a crusade for nontheism. Address it honestly when it comes up, and avoid any negativism about religion in general. That doesn’t mean you can’t criticize particular abuses that are carried on in the name of religion, but I would say this: You deal with it when it comes up, you’re matter of fact about it, and you go on about other issues.
I agree; to get people to vote for you, it’s important to realize you’re not running as an atheist politician. You’re running as a politician who happens to be an atheist but will represent everyone fairly.
It’s a fascinating interview. Check out the whole thing.
One note of disappointment: Frank says he’ll be teaching classes about LGBT history and Congress next year at Harvard. That may put a damper on him taking over the Secular Coalition for America…