Monday, January 5, 2009

Our Very Religious Congress

From 111th Congress reflects greater religious diversity in the U.S. by Joanna Lin:

"I think there's an incentive, certainly, for a politician to have some sort of a religious affiliation," Masci said. Americans, he said, have "a desire to have people in office who, to at least to some degree, reflect your own belief."

Yet a religious affiliation does not always correlate to a certain religious belief, said Woody Kaplan, chairman of the advisory board of the Secular Coalition for America.

Take Rep. Pete Stark: The Democrat from the Northern California city of Fremont identifies himself as a Unitarian but acknowledged no belief in a supreme being in 2007, making him the first member of Congress to publicly do so. Atheist groups said Stark was the highest-ranking elected official ever to admit he didn't believe in God.

Stark said in a recent interview that in the week following the announcement, he received more than 5,000 e-mails from around the world, nearly all congratulating him for his courage.

The reaction took Stark by surprise. Stark said he had simply filled out a survey sent by the secular coalition.

Stark, 77, said he was "agnostic at best" by the time he graduated from college in 1953, but his religious beliefs played little part in his first campaign for the U.S. House in 1972. His 13th District covers a variety of Bay Area cities, including Alameda, Union City and Hayward.

"In my district, it just didn't come up; nobody asked me," he said. "They didn't care much about what I did on Sundays."

Then in fall 2006, the secular coalition embarked on a quest for the highest-ranking non-theist public official in America. It offered a $1,000 prize to whoever identified the winner.

Nearly 60 members of Congress were nominated. The coalition sent them surveys, and Kaplan said that when he interviewed the lawmakers, 22 confided that they did not believe in a god. Fearful of exposure, all but Stark told the group to keep quiet.

"The perception is it's politically dangerous" to be godless, Kaplan said.

Indeed, a USA Today/Gallup poll in early 2007 showed that atheism would be a huge obstacle for a presidential candidate: 45% of respondents said they would vote for a nonbeliever, compared with 55% for a gay person, 88% for a woman and 95% for a Catholic.

For many Americans, "there's this idea of morality being linked to belief in God and to religion," Masci said. "Atheism is different in that it's a real departure from the common-denominator faith that at least most people accept."

But if more atheists, humanists, freethinkers and nonbelievers "come out," Kaplan said, "the stigma -- which is clearly there -- will begin to go away."

The evidence? Kaplan points to Stark. In November he was elected to his 19th term with 76.5% of votes.

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