California Congressman Pete Stark insists that he's no hero. But he sure is my hero. Imagine a politician who'll actually
say he doesn't believe in God - out loud and unapologetically - as Stark did recently.
There are other non-believers in political life, but they're very quiet about it. Republicans or Democrats, it's the same.
Most invoke God and religion repeatedly in hustling votes and often in justifying their positions on secular issues, despite
that constitutional business about separating church from state.
President Bush pulls out all stops, stating boldly that God is - yes! - ON OUR SIDE. You may recall his declaration that
"our nation is chosen by God and commissioned by history to be a model to the world."
The Democrats' version was perhaps best stated by Sen. Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut. He proclaimed that "we need
to renew the dedication of our nation and ourselves to God and God's purposes."
I prefer Democrat Stark's approach. He says he's eager to work with the Secular Coalition for America - an association
of eight atheist and humanist groups -- "to stop the promotion of narrow religious belief in science, marriage contracts,
the military and the provision of social services."
It was a contest run by the coalition that led to Stark's extraordinary declaration of non-belief earlier this month.
He spoke up after being named by the two winners of the contest that offered $1,000 to anyone who could identify the "highest
level atheist, agnostic, humanist or any other kind of nontheist currently holding elected public office in the United States.
Stark is admittedly safer politically than others who may share his views. His is a notably liberal congressional district
in the San Francisco Bay Area where he has easily won re-election to 18 straight terms. But he is in a prominent position
of leadership as chairman of the Health Subcommittee of the powerful House Ways and Means Committee and can cite the overwhelmingly
favorable response he drew for acknowledging his atheism to those who might want to follow his lead.
Stark says that fewer than 100 of the hundreds of people worldwide who have contacted him have disagreed with his position
- and even they have been "polite and reasonable." Typical of those who voiced support was an atheist in Stark's
home district who commended him for "your courageous yet commonsense stance that sets you above the religious pandering
that goes on in Washington."
Courageous? No, said Stark: "It's not courageous to make a simple statement of 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.' Now that's courageous."
Maybe identifying himself as an atheist wasn't an act of courage for Stark, But it certainly would be for many other politicians,
given the polls showing that the vast majority of Americans believe in God, heaven and hell and the other religious myths
that persist even into the 21st century and want their political representatives to share their beliefs. Most say they would
not vote for avowed atheists, whatever their qualifications, but do happily vote for candidates who are openly religious.
Thus most politicians eagerly seek the support of believers, ritualistically, frequently and often hypocritically invoking
God and rarely even acknowledging the existence of non-believers. Too often, they base their positions on abortion rights,
gay rights and other important issues on faith rather than reason, on the irrational certainty - or pretense - that their
beliefs are facts. Too often, they prevail. Too often, they impose their beliefs on the minority that does not share them.
Suppose it were otherwise. Suppose they could be made to understand that the First Amendment not only prohibits the government
from favoring one religion over another, but also prohibits the government from supporting the religious over the non-religious.
American political life would at last be freed from the hobbling dogmas of religion.
Copyright (c) Dick Meister