Americans elect a lot of public officials – over half a million, from the President down to school district level. If atheists and other nonbelievers were represented fairly, you would expect about 50 in the US Congress and another 50,000 at State and local level.
In 2007, the Secular Coalition for America tried to find them. They found only five. Three were very local officials: a school board president, a school committee member and a town meeting member. And the two most senior were both in their seventies, much closer to the end than the start of their political careers.
The first, Pete Stark, was born in 1931 and served in the Air Force and founded a bank before being elected to Congress in 1973 to represent a liberal district in California. He grew up a Republican, but had switched sides when he opposed the Vietnam War. He is a Unitarian Universalist, a congregation in which members seek their own truth about theological issues. Stark does not believe in a supreme being, saying that he is more interested in people, though he adds that the Stark family does recognize a supreme being – his wife Deborah.
So what horrific future would this openly atheist Congressman inflict on Americans? His shocking priorities are universal health care, ending the war in Iraq and protecting Medicare. He wants higher taxes for the wealthy and on cigarettes. He wants incentives for teachers to work in low-income schools. He wants higher payroll taxes to better fund social security. He wants better job re-training, child care and housing assistance. He supports the UN, the Kyoto protocol, abortion, gay marriage and affirmative action. He opposes the death penalty, and wants to restrict sex and violence on television. May God protect us all from Pete Stark.
Stark is unruffled by religious fanaticism, saying that ‘the leading candidates all agree that they believe in a supreme being, but forget about it as soon as they are elected.’ He believes that religion affects the style, rather than the substance, of the main political debate in America, which he says is between the Democrat view that government makes our lives better and the Republican view that government is dangerous for us. On ‘coming out’, he looked 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 service.’
Ernie Chambers, Nebraska State Senator
Next comes Ernie Chambers, the only openly atheist lawmaker at State level. He was born in 1937 and worked as a barber before he became a local civil rights leader in the 1960s. He was first elected as an independent candidate to the Nebraska Senate in 1971, and is the State’s only black Senator, its longest serving Senator and the only one to wear blue tee-shirts and jeans instead of a suit. His crimes against God include ending corporal punishment in state schools, getting equal state pensions for women, and blocking the legalization of concealed weapons. He strongly opposes the death penalty, and starts every legislative session by proposing its abolition.
Chambers got world attention in 2007 when he took a legal case against God. In a different case, a Nebraska judge had barred a woman from using the words ‘rape’ or ‘victim’ while alleging that she was a rape victim. He insisted that she describe what happened as ‘sex’, which is a bit like calling a mugging a ‘financial transaction’. The woman took a lawsuit against the judge, but her case was dismissed as being frivolous. Chambers took her side, arguing that the Nebraska constitution allows anyone to sue anyone. To make this point in a satirical way, he sued God in the district court of Douglas County, Nebraska.
Chambers wanted an injunction ordering God to cease certain harmful activities including the making of terroristic threats as well as ‘fearsome floods, egregious earthquakes, horrendous hurricanes, terrifying tornados, pestilential plagues, ferocious famines, devastating droughts, genocidal wars, birth defects and the like.’ He argued that the court had jurisdiction because God, being omnipresent, was personally in Douglas County, and that he should not have to serve legal papers because God, being omniscient, already knew about the case.
Three Local Elected Officials
The three local officials who responded to the Secular Coalition were Terry Doran, president of the School Board in Berkeley, California.; Nancy Glista on the School Committee in Franklin, Maine; and Michael Cerone, a Town Meeting Member from Arlington, Massachusetts. And that, in the early twenty-first century, was the extent of openly atheist elected officials in America: Pete Stark married to his supreme being in California, Ernie Chambers suing God in Nebraska, and three local officials scattered across three million square miles of land.
Clearly there are many, many more elected atheists in the American closet. If one in every ten citizens rejects belief in gods, then about fifty members of Congress should do so. The Secular Coalition says there are 21 others who are not yet willing to go public. Even if this is true, it would still be less than half the amount that would be proportional to the overall population. It is time for elected American atheists to stand up for their rational beliefs.