Jamie Raskin, the “Open Nontheist” Who May Be Heading to Congress, Says He’s “Emphatically Jewish” May 4, 2016

Jamie Raskin, the “Open Nontheist” Who May Be Heading to Congress, Says He’s “Emphatically Jewish”

***Update*** (4:00p): After speaking with Roy Speckhardt of the American Humanist Association, it seems much of this “controversy” is overblown. Raskin himself doesn’t use the word “atheist,” so saying he’s not an atheist doesn’t necessarily mean he doesn’t believe in God.

In that sense, the Washington Post headline may be incorrect. It’s possible he doesn’t believe in God, even if the way he describes himself doesn’t say that outright. (It doesn’t ultimately matter, of course, but it’s important to those of us who know we likely can’t get elected because of the stigma of not believing in a Higher Power.)

I’ve reached out to his campaign to see if he’ll clarify the matter and will make a separate post if I hear back.

***Update 2*** (5/6): As it stands, Raskin’s campaign has not yet gotten back to me. The AHA insists that Raskin agreed to their definition of Humanism, which includes the phrase “without theism and other supernatural beliefs” and that the Washington Post is misleading people by saying otherwise. Raskin’s campaign could do us all a favor by clearing this up with a few words.

***Update 3*** (5/7): See this post here. I think the Post got this wrong.

Last week, Maryland State Senator Jamie Raskin won his primary for the U.S. House. Given that he’s in a blue district and had a very real path to victory, I was excited because it meant Raskin could soon become the only openly non-theistic member of Congress.

Or so I thought.


The Washington Post is reporting today that Raskin isn’t an atheist at all.

Raskin is Jewish. “One hundred percent Jewish.” “Emphatically Jewish.” A member of the District’s Temple Sinai and a father of three children who had bar and bat mitzvahs, Raskin says he has never told anyone is he an atheist.

“I’ve never called myself an atheist,” he said. “I’ve never pronounced upon the existence of a divinity before, and nobody has ever asked me.” If asked in the political sphere, he says he wouldn’t answer.

At first glance, that’s a distinction without a difference. Former Rep. Pete Stark, the only openly non-theistic Congress member in recent memory was a Unitarian on paper. But at least he admitted he didn’t believe in a Higher Power.

So where did this confusion come from?

I think it’s fair to point to the endorsement from the Freethought Equality Fund, which gave Raskin a $10,000 donation, and said this in a press release after his primary win:

“If successful in the general election, Raskin will be the only open nontheist serving in the U.S. Congress, the first ever to win an open seat, and just the second humanist to serve in Congress. Raskin’s election is a significant event for the secular community and will help to dispel the baseless bias against this rapidly growing segment of America” said FEF Executive Director Roy Speckhardt. “Raskin has earned this victory with his highly respected public service and effective grassroots campaigning.”

The FEF even said this last August (via email), when they endorsed Raskin for the first time:

“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.

The American Humanist Association defines humanism as a progressive philosophy of life that, without theism and other supernatural beliefs, affirms our ability and responsibility to lead ethical lives of personal fulfillment that aspire to the greater good of humanity.

Somewhere, there’s a miscommunication.

Either Raskin said he was a non-theist and is now backing away from that because he’s done with his primary and eager not to alienate anyone during a general election… or the FEF made an egregiously wrong assumption.

Before we get to that, it’s important to recognize that Raskin still deserves plenty of support no matter how he identifies. He 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 wasn’t the first person to have said a variation of that line, but he was clearly someone who supported church/state separation.

In 2008, Raskin accepted an award 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.

You could argue that Raskin, with those words, is being coy at best or duplicitous at worst. He wants the benefits of saying he’s a humanist without having to acknowledge whether or not he believes in a god.

Raskin was also quoted in a New York Times piece in 2014 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.”

And last August, when he received the support of the Freethought Equality Fund, the PAC’s manager made this statement:

“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.

Raskin welcomed the endorsement at the time:

“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.”

I think the key phrase that McNeill used was “openly identifies as a humanist.” Even with a lower-case “h,” Raskin approved the statement at the time but now says he’s “Emphatically Jewish.” Raskin doesn’t think those two labels are contradictory, but the implication from the FEF was clear: If asked, Raskin would say he’s a humanist.

Turns out that may not be the case.

When the Pew Research Center compiles its list of the religious affiliations of Congress members, what is Raskin going to say (if elected)? If he says he’s Jewish, that means we will not have an “openly humanist” candidate in Congress. Once again, we’ll be 0 for 535.

Instead, we’ll have another Kyrsten Sinema, a Congress member who welcomes the support of atheists by letting us believe she’s on our team, then rejected it, with her campaign spokesman saying a word like “atheist” was not “befitting of her life’s work or personal character.”

Raskin’s comments also sound very similar to the path taken by former Rep. Barney Frank. You may recall that, after leaving office, he suggested on Real Time with Bill Maher that he was an atheist. The American Humanist Association even gave him their “Humanist of the Year” award.

But when Frank’s memoir came out years later, he said very directly, “I am not an atheist.”

That’s my problem with Raskin here. He loves the positive attention — and money — he’s getting from those of us who are non-religious, under the assumption he’s one of us. But now that the road to Congress is coming into focus, he’s running the hell away.

I want to make clear that I like Raskin, I hope he wins the election, and I ultimately don’t give a damn what label he uses if he pushes a progressive agenda. But it’s incredibly disappointing that Raskin allowed this confusion to go on as long as it did — when he could have said a long time ago he was “One hundred percent Jewish” while still supportive of our views. He chose not to do that.

It’s also disappointing that the Freethought Equality Fund (and the American Humanist Association, with which it’s affiliated) misled supporters, intentionally or not, with this idea that Raskin would be an “open nontheist” in Congress.

I’ve reached out to FEF and AHA to get their take on how this happened. Were they misled or confused? Who’s to blame for the mislabeling? I’ll update this post if/when I hear back.

(Image via Wikipedia. Large portions of this article were publisher earlier. The article has been modified since it initially went up.)

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