The Freedom Not to Believe
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Thu Mar 15, 2007 at 03:16:45 PM EST
This week brought word of - apparently - the first open "non-theist" serving in Congress. Rep. Pete Stark (D-CA) responded to the announcement by the Secular Coalition of America.
"When the Secular Coalition asked me to complete a survey on my religious beliefs, I indicated I am a Unitarian who does not believe in a supreme being," Stark said. "Like our nation's founders, I strongly support the separation of church and state. I look forward to working with the Secular Coalition to stop the promotion of narrow religious beliefs in science, marriage contracts, the military and the provision of social services."

As a matter of law, our Constitution explicitly forbids religious tests for office, without exception.  As a matter of faith, religion is not served by de facto tests either, those that in reality leave non-theism out of bounds.
If religious freedom is truly free--if the freedom to believe is honestly one of conscience--then the freedom not to believe must be protected alongside it, not just in the law but in practice; not just in theory but in reality. As a Baptist who embraces the priesthood-of-the-believer principle, soul freedom, and the notion that we come to our religious views through free will and earnest personal decision, I honor the freedom that allows others a true choice to make different decisions -  to hold different religious beliefs, or to choose no faith. In short, it's only the freedom not to believe in God that gives religious liberty any real significant meaning.

The blogopshere reacted with some impassioned commentary:

Melissa Rogers:

The Los Angeles Times story says that "[a] USA Today/Gallup poll last month found that 45% of respondents said they would vote for a 'well qualified' presidential candidate who was an atheist," whereas "[n]inety-five percent said they would vote for a Catholic candidate, 92% a Jewish candidate and 72% a Mormon candidate."  As I've said on other occasions, I would encourage my fellow Americans to cast their ballots based on a candidate's character, record, values, vision, and policy positions rather than his or her religious beliefs or lack thereof.
Pastor Dan at Street Prophets, after noting that most polls place the non-theist population in America at about 10%, says this:
Those people deserve representation, and they deserve to be able to speak freely about their beliefs or not-beliefs. Unless we're going to toss 10% of the population out of office, then, it's an unqualified good for somebody like Stark to "come out." It normalizes a situation that should have been addressed a long time ago. . . .

I say that even and particularly as a Christian pastor. At best, my own United Church of Christ represents less than 1% of the population. With ten members of Congress split between the two houses, we're over-represented. So it's definitely in my best interests to stick up for someone like Stark because if he can be locked out of public office, so can I and members of many other small denominations. You bet your bippy I want him to be able to practice as he chooses. Keeps the option open for people like me.

Rob Boston at AU's The Wall
The U.S. Congress is increasingly diverse. This is a good thing because it means that body more accurately reflects the great diversity of our nation. This year, there are Buddhists in the ranks, as well as the first Muslim member. Stark is probably not the first non-believer in the House -- he's just the first to admit it.

"We hope that this will help break stereotypes that one needs to believe in a supreme being to lead an ethical and exemplary life," said Lori Lipman Brown, the Secular Coalition's director.

Here's hoping it will also remind people that there can be no religious test for public office in America. At the end of the day, all that should matter to the voters in California's 13th District is how well Rep. Stark is doing his job - not where and if he goes to religious services.

[Cross-posted from the Baptist Joint Committee Blog]

I think this is important.

I should hasten to add that Sen. Kent Conrad (D-ND) is also a Unitarian, and that there was an effort to make this a campaign issue in his last reelection campaign. He is the only Unitarian in the U.S. Senate.

by Frederick Clarkson on Thu Mar 15, 2007 at 05:15:38 PM EST

I have often considered running for office at some level once I retire from the military but I definitely have a few things working against me.  One, I am an atheist.  Two, I'm from Texas.  Those two do not generally go well together unless I run for an office somewhere around Austin.  Then I might have a chance.  

One thing is for certain.  I would be up front about any of my perceived short comings.  It seems that the candidates get nailed harder when they don't mention a DUI twenty years ago or an extra marital affair.  The media seems less interested in the truth and more interested in catching someone lying.  I guess that is just human nature.

I still have at least ten years to go and maybe the political climate will change some.  We'll see.

by Ross Raymond on Fri Mar 16, 2007 at 11:05:30 AM EST

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