Yes, there are atheist politicians 77

… but they fear to confess their atheism.

This is from the State Journal-Register:

Many lawmakers feel a sense of pride when asked to give the invocation to open a House session, but state Rep. Juan Mendez of Arizona was gripped by a different emotion.

“I came in with a little bit of fear — not wanting to let myself be known,” said Mendez, a freshman Democrat from Tempe.

“Known,” that is, as an atheist.

Even as Americans become less religious and their tolerance for atheism is growing, there are still very few politicians who are openly nonreligious. They have to walk the thin line between their personal feelings and public image.

“There is such a stigma attached to being a nonbeliever,” said Lauren Youngblood, spokeswoman for the Secular Coalition for America.

This despite the fact that the fastest-growing religious group in the U.S. from 2007 to 2012 was religiously unaffiliated — or “nones” — according to a 2012 Pew Research report. It said the percentage of religiously unaffiliated U.S. adults grew from 15.3 to 19.6 percent in that time.

Nonreligious includes everything from atheists and agnostics to people who simply do not affiliate with any particular religion. But Pew said atheists and agnostics made up 5.7 percent of the adult population in 2012, accounting for about 13 million people.

But there is only one member of Congress who has gone on record as nonreligious: Rep. Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz., was the only one to answer “none” when a 2013 Pew Research poll asked members of Congress about their religion. …

“When she first got elected, everybody in our movement was very enthusiastic,” said Bishop McNeill, coordinator for a new secular political action committee. “But unfortunately … she has gotten some advice to stray away from that label.”

Bishop is Mr McNeill’s first name, not his title. Unsuitable for a secularist, of course, but we rather relish the irony.

Experts say such reticence is understandable given the often-negative perception of atheists in this country and the long history of religion and politics….

Ever since George Washington talked in his first inaugural address about “fervent supplication to that almighty being,” …  presidents and other politicians have felt inclined to talk about religious faith.

Even though the Constitution bans a religious test for elected office, … a de facto test is whether or not a candidate openly speaks to his or her beliefs.

It’s only fair that candidates share their religious beliefs [opined Brent Walker, the executive director of the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty], so voters can know where politicians stand morally. …

– Which is just the sort of statement that gives believers away as  non-thinkers. Why would knowing someone’s religion tell you what their morals are? A religious person is far more likely to be intolerant than a secularist, just to start with.

In 2007, then-Rep. Fortney “Pete” Stark, D-Calif., became the first member of Congress to declare his atheism.

Stark won two more elections as an atheist, but was beat in a 2012 primary race … 

Youngblood claims that 32 members of the current Congress have told her or others in the Secular Coalition for America that they are atheist but cannot admit it for fear of political backlash. …[She] said the coalition is encouraging atheists [in politics] to “come out” — much as gays and lesbians did in the past. …

Chances for non-believing politicians are better [than they were] — but still not good.

A 2012 Gallup poll found that 54 percent of voters would vote for an atheist in a presidential election, well above the 18 percent who said in 1958 that they would vote for an atheist.

But the same 2012 Gallup poll said 95 percent would vote for a woman, 94 percent for a Catholic, 80 percent for a Mormon and 68 would vote for [a] homosexual. Atheist was the least-popular option.

[Rep. Juan] Mendez said he does not shy away from the word atheist — but he did not want to be labeled the atheist lawmaker, either.

When [Mendez] was called to offer the prayer in May, he first tried to get a secular lobbying group to give the invocation in his place, but that fell through. So he gave an invocation that started by asking all present at the Arizona House of Representatives not to bow their heads, but to look around at the others in the room.

“Let us cherish and celebrate our shared humanness,” Mendez said, “our shared ability for reason and compassion, our shared love for the people of our state, for our constitution and for our democracy.” 

The next day, Arizona state Rep. Steve Smith, a Republican, asked House members to join him in prayer for “repentance of yesterday”.

A Republican did that. A Republican believer. There hisses intolerance!

But Mendez said that was the only thing “that made it feel like I was doing something that I wasn’t supposed to be doing”. Otherwise, he said, he got positive emails and phone calls, and was stopped on the street by people thanking him for his prayer and message.

No prayer. Message only.

But we need atheist conservatives in Congress. And that may not happen for a long time yet, we reckon.


(Hat-tip our Facebook commenter, Pat Sisson-Kelley)