On Real Time with Bill Maher last August, Maher asked his guest, newly retired Rep. Barney Frank, if he felt liberated now that he was a private citizen. Frank said he did, since he no longer gets phone calls saying someone screwed something up and he has to “unscrew it.” Maher pressed on, saying, “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.” Frank shot back: “Which pot-smoking atheist were you talking about?” Then he pointed back and forth to Maher and himself.
The audience loved it. Maher doubled over in laughter and delight. But while few seemed to care about Frank’s pot-smoking admission, atheists across the country—myself included—were disappointed that he hadn’t acknowledged his lack of religious belief sooner, when it could have made a real difference. We were left wondering why a man who served 16 terms in Congress and who bravely came out as gay all the way back in 1987 felt the need to hide his atheism until he was out of office. Was it really harder to come out as an atheist politician in 2013 than as a gay one 25 years ago?
Incredibly, the answer might be yes. For starters, consider that there is not a single self-described atheist in Congress today. Not one. It wasn’t until 2007 that Rep. Pete Stark, a Democrat from Northern California, became the first member of Congress and the highest-ranking public official ever to admit to being an atheist. (And even he framed it in terms of religious affiliation, calling himself “a Unitarian who does not believe in a supreme being.”) Stark was elected twice after this, but when the 20-term congressman lost his seat last year, it was to a 31-year-old primary challenger who attacked him as irreligious, citing, among other things, Stark’s vote against our national motto: “In God We Trust.”
Indeed, the same year that Stark came out, the Secular Coalition of America was able to identify only five atheist public officials in the entire United States. After Stark and a Nebraska state senator, the third-highest ranking atheist was a school-board president from Berkeley, Calif.—this despite the fact that, according to a2012 Pew report, 6 percent of Americans say they don’t believe in a higher power. That leaves at least 15 million Americans without any elected officials to represent their point of view.
Written By: Jennifer Michael Hecht
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