Congress needs more Barney Franks: atheist members of Congress should come out of the closet

Andrew L. Seidel
Staff Attorney

Former Congressman Barney Frank came out as an atheist on Real Time with Bill Maher last week. This is Frank’s second outing, who came out as gay in 1987.

Maher asked the Harvard-educated Frank if he was more “liberated being out of Congress.” “Oh, absolutely,” responded Frank. Maher noted that Frank was pretty liberated while in Congress, “You could come on this show and sit next to a pot-smoking atheist.” Frank, gesturing between himself and Maher asked, “Which pot-smoking atheist were you talking about here?”

Referring to the open Senate seat he missed appointment to, Frank continued his expression of non-faith: “I was looking forward to having my husband, Jim, hold the Constitution, not the Bible, and affirm, not swear, that I was going to be a wonderful senator.”

The most striking thing about Frank’s revelations are not that he is an atheist, 48% of homosexuals consider themselves nonreligious . The most striking thing is that Frank didn’t feel comfortable coming out as atheist until he was out of office, but he came out as gay in 1987, while still in Congress.

This is astounding. In 1874, John Stuart Mill said that “the world would be astonished if it knew how great a proportion of its brightest ornaments, of those distinguished even in popular estimation for wisdom and virtue, are complete skeptics in religion.” It is too often that the skepticism of these bright ornaments comes to light after they retire or die. For instance, there are no openly nonreligious or atheist members of Congress. Rep. Krysten Sinema (D-AZ) is a possible exception, but she has been reluctant to label herself, “the terms non-theist, atheist or non-believer are not befitting of her life's work or personal character” but claims no religious affiliation and Pete Stark (D-CA), the only openly atheist member of Congress in history, was defeated in the last election. Ten other members of Congress don’t specify their religion, “unspecified, don’t know, or refused to answer,” but they don’t claim to be nonreligious, “unaffiliated.”

But surely there are plenty of nonreligious members of Congress? Congress has 535 members and the latest numbers show that 19% of Americans are nonreligious and as many as 6% consider themselves atheist or agnostic. If Congress is representative of the country (its very purpose), then 101 members are nonreligious and 32 members are atheist, agnostic, or both.

It’s time for nonreligious and atheist members of Congress to lead by example. It’s time they come out of the closet. The “Nones” are on the rise, our numbers are growing every year. Our country needs leaders willing to stand up and admit their nonbelief. We need leaders to help shatter the bigotry that atheists are evil and untrustworthy. We need to normalize nonbelief. The best way to do this is to come out of the closet.  

Barney Frank has done it. Congress, it’s your turn. 

Comments

#124 - Terry said on August 7, 2013
"If Congress is representative of the country (its very purpose), then 101 members are nonreligious and 32 members are atheist, agnostic, or both."

This might be true, and it might not. None of them were elected by any kind of an atheist or nonbelieving majority, since one does not exist. Atheists may be deterred from running for the same reason that they might be ambiguous about their affiliation, or even outright lie about it. In my opinion, we would be lucky to find those numbers to be reduced only by a factor of two or three. Or there may be less. Or none. I would wager that most members of congress were raised in some type of religious atmosphere and were at least nominal churchgoers prior to their election. That would be known to their intimates, their friends and acquaintances, and party operatives whose job it is to vet candidates. And their enemies and opponents would have a vested interest in digging up and ferreting out any whiff of nonbelief that they might be able to exploit.

"It’s time for nonreligious and atheist members of Congress to lead by example. It’s time they come out of the closet. The “Nones” are on the rise, our numbers are growing every year. Our country needs leaders willing to stand up and admit their nonbelief. We need leaders to help shatter the bigotry that atheists are evil and untrustworthy. We need to normalize nonbelief. The best way to do this is to come out of the closet."

Quite true, every word. But it could cause major setbacks, as you well know, a la Pete Stark. It could be disastrous to lose even a few progressives at this time. Doing so would certainly not enhance any of their reelection prospects, and it could set us back for decades, as well as send us back to the dark ages in other social areas besides state/church issues, as well. It might be opening a can of worms that religionists could exploit for decades. New candidates would have to be elected, from scratch, who are already out of the closet. This would be very difficult, indeed, to even advance beyond the primary phase.

I think that this tea bagger craze and its attendant religious element will eventually die out from its own inertia, with a little help from smart people like you working as you have to help educate Americans as to the folly of mixing church and state. But losing what political help we get from progressives by them losing their seats to our enemies would be suicidal. They aren't coming out anyway, because they would get no short term gain from it, and, since they are unknown, (if they even exist) they are highly unlikely to respond to any pressure to do so. Might be better to just let sleeping dogs lie, at least for now. Small steps.
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