The American Humanist Association recently said 24 members in the United States Congress are secretly atheists. AHA Director of Development and Communications Maggie Ardiente cited the figure at the World Humanist Congress meet in Oxford while saying American politics is far behind when it comes to representing humanism.
“We already know of 24 members of Congress who have told us privately that they don't believe in God, but they won't come out, of course, and if we tried to out them they would deny it,” Ardiente said.
While 20 percent of American voters say they are atheists, most people in the United States still want leaders that hold religion in high regard. In fact, a recent study found that 53 percent of Americans said they would not cast their vote for a candidate that does not believe in God.
After US Congress Democrat Pete Stark lost his House seat in 2012, there have been no openly atheist politicians in the US Congress. So much so, Republican Barney Frank declared his nonbeliever status several months after retiring and 25 years after coming out as the first openly gay member of the US Congress. Not so surprisingly, Frank said it was easier for him to come out as gay than it was for him to declare himself atheist. Currently, James Woods, who is openly atheist, is running for office. If he wins the election, he would be the first member of the US Congress to have successfully campaigned as an atheist.
“Americans have a much stronger civil religion and a much stronger sense of being a nation under God and chosen by God. It's a bit treasonable, unpatriotic, to reject religion,” said Linda Woodhead, professor of sociology of religion at Lancaster University.
The AHA said public distrust is only one of the many reasons that discourage atheists from running for office. One of the bigger setbacks is the fact that some states have laws that prohibit atheists from contesting elections.
“Whether we recognize it or not, Americans are held captive to the will of religious right leaders who remind us of our inferior position by using the power of government to enforce laws that put truth claims about religion in front of us at every turn,” said Ardiente in an earlier interview.
However, things are quite different in England. Reportedly, when former Prime Minister Tony Blair consulted his office about adding the phrase ‘God bless Great Britain’ to the end of his speech, his staffers told him, “This isn’t America.”
While delivering a speech in 2013, Blair reiterated, “One big difference between the US and the UK is that it’s okay to talk about faith openly. In the UK we’re a little more... British about that.”
As opposed to America, England has an established church. The queen is considered head of state as well as defender of faith and supreme governor of the Church of England. Perhaps, that is why politicians in the UK only shirk away from talking about religion while politicians in the US continue to remain closeted.
For instance, Prime Minister David Cameron has never clarified his stance on Christianity though his deputy as well as leader of Liberal Democrats Nick Clegg has maintained his nonbeliever status for a while now, as has Labor leader and possibly future Prime Minister Ed Milliband. A spokesperson at the British Humanist Association clarified that at least four confirmed atheists have held the post of Prime Minister in the 20th century alone. Yet, no open atheist has ever been elected President of the United States.
Several secular groups are currently working on changing the negativity often associated with atheism. In 2013, the Center for Humanist Activism unveiled a Freethought Equality Fund that aims at working towards the promotion of humanist and atheist candidates who support the notion of secular governance.
“Humanist voters want politicians that will stand up against the religious right that works to characterize this country as a Christian nation. But most of all, humanist voters just want respectability and equality for nontheists in America,” said Ardiente.
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