At the moment, there are no openly non-theistic members of Congress. There was Rep. Pete Stark up until 2012… and nobody since. But that could change come 2016.
Earlier this year, Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-MD) announced that she would be retiring after nearly three decades in the Senate. Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-MD) then announced that he would be running for Mikulski’s seat, freeing up his own position in Congress.
It’s that seat that Maryland State Senator Jamie Raskin (below) is now vying for.
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 he’s clearly someone who supports church/state separation.
Rasking also accepted an award in 2008 from the American Humanist Association and joked in his acceptance speech about how he had the choice of declining the honor:
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.”
Raskin has 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.)
Today, Raskin is officially receiving the support of the Freethought Equality Fund PAC:
“We are dedicated to ensuring Jamie Raskin’s election to Congress as the first candidate who openly identifies as a humanist with a commitment to champion the First Amendment principles of our Constitution,” said PAC Manager Bishop McNeill.
And I’m happy to see that Raskin is welcoming the endorsement:
“I am fighting for a politics that has all of humanity in mind and does not divide people based on race, gender, sexual orientation or religion,” said Senator Raskin. “I’m delighted to accept the endorsement of the Freethought Equality Fund and everyone else who wants to make sure that we base public policy on science, reason and humanist values that take into account the interests of all people.”
It’s worth noting that, if Raskin wins, he would be the first openly non-religious candidate to win a new seat in Congress. (Pete Stark’s admission came long after he first entered political office; he won two re-elections after coming out as a non-theist.)
(Image via Wikipedia. Large portions of this article were publisher earlier)