Rep. Pete Stark Makes History


Representative Pete Stark

U.S. Rep. Pete Stark, D-Fremont, Calif., acknowledged in early March that he does not believe in a “supreme being.”

Stark had already identified himself as a Unitarian, as have several other members of Congress. Unitarians are creedless so some are believers, some are not. Several members of Congress are also identified as “unaffiliated.”

Stark filled out a questionnaire on his views from the Secular Coalition of America, which includes the Freedom From Religion Foundation as a member organization. He self-identified as “a Unitarian who does not believe in a supreme being.”

Stark issued a simple statement on March 12 admitting he had filled out the survey and saying, “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.”

Stark, 75, is an 18-term member of Congress who chairs the health subcommittee of the House Ways and Means Committee. A story in The San Francisco Chronicle pointed out that Stark isn’t California’s first politician to go public with his nonbelief. Calif. Gov. Culbert Olson, a Democrat who served from 1939-1943, identified himself as an atheist, having left the Mormon church.

The political courage it takes to be honest on this issue is shown by a February USA Today/Gallup poll finding that fewer than half of the Americans surveyed would vote for an atheist candidate for president even if he–or she–were “well qualified.” But 95% would vote for a similarly qualified Catholic candidate, 92% for a Jewish and 72% for a Mormon candidate. This is in line with similar polls showing that an atheist candidate would be at the bottom of the totem poll.

The San Francisco Chronicle quoted Democratic political strategist Dan Newman saying this poll shows that “anti-atheism remains the last remaining prejudice that a majority of Americans don’t mind fessing up to,” at least to a pollster. Another pollster, Ben Tulchin, pointed out that the West Coast is less religious than other parts of the nation, and that California is one of the most nonreligious states in the country.

Associated Press reported on March 19 that Stark “appears to enjoy healthy support among constituents.” The wire service reported he “received cheers and applause” at his regularly scheduled town hall meeting. At that point, Stark had received more than 500 responses, only about 25 negative.

“It’s not courageous,” he told a constituent who praised him, “to make a simple statement about personal beliefs. What is courageous is to stand up in Congress and say, ‘Let’s tax the rich and give the money to poor kids.'”

The next highest-ranking elected official to “come out” as nonreligious in the SCA survey was a Berkeley school board president, according to SCA director Lori Lipman Brown.

Stark told The Argus, Fremont’s newspaper, that he “wasn’t raised religiously at all.” He became a Unitarian Universalist while studying at Berkeley: “Within any group of Unitarians, you find far-ranging philosophies. That’s what makes it interesting to me.”

Stark said religion has rarely come up, quipping: “I don’t know what relevance my opinion on a supreme being would have on Medicare policy. I suppose, if you believe in faith healers.”

The Los Angeles Times editorialized that “it is statistically unlikely that Stark is the only nontheist among the 535 members of Congress. But he may be the most honest.”

“Mythology is where all gods go to die, and it seems that Stark has secured a place in American history simply by admitting that a fresh grave should be dug for the God of Abraham the jealous, genocidal, priggish and self-contradictory tyrant of the bible and the Koran. Bravo,” writes End of Faith author Sam Harris for an op-ed piece in The Los Angeles Times (March 15).

“All in all, this has been a pleasurable experience,” Stark told The San Francisco Chronicle (March 18).

Freedom From Religion Foundation