Here’s How We Could See an Atheist Member of Congress in 2016 April 17, 2015

Here’s How We Could See an Atheist Member of Congress in 2016

… Or January of 2017, anyway.

At the moment, there are no openly non-theistic members of Congress. There was Rep. Pete Stark up until 2012… and then nobody.

But there’s reason to think that could change in 2016.

Here’s how it would work.

Last month, Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-MD) announced that she would be retiring after nearly three decades in the Senate.

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So who will take her place?

There are several House Democrats from Maryland who may want to jump into the race (and have name recognition with voters), but the odds-on favorite has to be Rep. Chris Van Hollen (below), who announced last month that he would be running for Mikulski’s seat and who has already raised more than $1 million toward that goal.

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If he ends up getting the Democratic nomination, that would free up his seat in Congress.

And guess who’s running for that seat in 2016?

Maryland State Senator Jamie Raskin, who plans to launch his campaign this Sunday.

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Raskin came to my attention years ago for a memorable retort he made (before he was in elected office) at a hearing concerning same-sex marriage:

“People place their hand on the Bible and swear to uphold the Constitution; they don’t put their hand on the Constitution and swear to uphold the Bible,” he said.

He’s not the first person to have said a variation of that line, but this is clearly someone who strongly supports church/state separation.

According to Bishop McNeill at The Humanist,

To many in the secular movement, Sen. Raskin is best known for his strong opposition to religious intrusion in politics and his willingness to identify openly as a humanist. This was first recognized in 2008, when the American Humanist Association honored the Senator with a Distinguished Service Award at the World Humanist Congress in Washington, DC.

During his acceptance speech for that award, Raskin joked about how he was told he could decline the honor if he felt it would hurt him in the political arena:

I’d never even heard of a politician turning down an award before, much less asking the offering party to keep the whole thing hush-hush. Has it gotten so edgy out there that those of us in public life are afraid to be associated with the great tradition of philosophical and ethical humanism? Do we actually have to whisper about the fact that many Americans still identify with the Enlightenment values of our Founders and refuse to organize their political thoughts according to sectarian religious dogma? I vowed to show up in person so people could see at least one other elected official besides the great U.S. Representative Pete Stark (D-CA) who isn’t afraid to utter the “h” word in public.

Raskin was also quoted in a New York Times piece late last year about constitutional provisions in several states that cannot be enforced but still ban atheists from holding public office:

Paging through a copy of the State Constitution, [Raskin] said the atheist ban was only part of the “flotsam and jetsam” that needed to be wiped from the document. “It’s an obsolete but lingering insult to people,” he said.

“In the breathtaking pluralism of American religious and social life, politicians have to pay attention to secularists just the same as everybody else,” Mr. Raskin said. “If a Mormon can run for president and Muslims can demand official school holidays, surely the secularists can ask the states for some basic constitutional manners.”

He’s been in the State Senate since 2006 and was selected as majority whip in 2012. He has the experience that recent atheist candidates for public office have lacked and a very real shot at winning the seat. More importantly, while he doesn’t hide the fact that he’s not religious, he also doesn’t flaunt it in a way that might alienate religious voters. It’s a non-issue for him — which is exactly how it should be. (The more interesting question will be whether his opponent(s) will try to use his Humanism against him.)

Definitely a race to watch…

(Top image via @mdng on Flickr. Middle image via @afagen on Flickr. Bottom image via Wikipedia)

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