Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) announced last week that he would step down in 2013 in order to take the reins at the conservative Heritage Foundation, immediately prompting discussions about whom Gov. Nikki Haley (R) might select to replace him. While the list was quickly populated with Republican candidates who largely reflect DeMint's conservative politics, English biologist and renowned atheist Richard Dawkins recently threw a curveball in the speculative process by endorsing a different kind of candidate.
Herb Silverman, a leading voice of atheism in South Carolina and the current president of the Secular Coalition for America, has little in common politically with Rep. Tim Scott (R-S.C.), the first black Republican elected to any office in the state since Reconstruction and DeMint's reported pick to take his place. But in a statement, Dawkins argued that Silverman's appointment to the Senate would fit a similar need for expanding diversity among the state's congressional delegation.
"South Carolina has recently shown itself to be a leader in political diversity, with an Indian-American Governor and the only African-American Republican in Congress," Dawkins said, according to the Charleston City Paper. "I think the time is now ripe for South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley to appoint Herb Silverman as the first acknowledged Jewish Atheist in the United States Senate."
In an interview with the City Paper, Silverman admitted he's unlikely to be considered as a serious candidate. That said, Silverman hopes his entrance into the discussion can at least force Haley to address issues related to the separation of church and state.
"It would shatter my faithlessness. I might reconsider my belief in miracles," Silverman told the City Paper about the prospect of being selected by Haley. "I really hope there's enough publicity about my willingness to become a senator so that at least Nikki Haley has to acknowledge this and make a comment about it."
Silverman has been an outspoken critic of Republicans who have neglected scientific thought. In a recent op-ed in the Washington Post, Silverman took on Lousiana Republican Gov. Bobby Jindal's recent comments about the GOP acting like the "stupid party," encouraging the governor to speak out against anti-science views as well.
Silverman called out Rep. Paul Broun (R-Ga.) in particular, who earlier this year referred to scientific principles such as evolution and the big bang theory as "lies from the pit of hell." Backlash against Broun was successful only in a satirical write-in effort by "Charles Darwin," the long-deceased British naturalist who drew thousands of votes, but not nearly enough to topple a Republican running unopposed in a reliably red district.
Atheism has generally remained an untenable religious position in Congress. Outgoing Rep. Pete Stark (D-Calif.) is set to be replaced in January by incoming Rep. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) as the only openly acknowledged atheist in Congress.
Although he is not an atheist, comedian Stephen Colbert has recently emerged as a surprisingly popular candidate for DeMint's replacement. According to a new survey released by Public Policy Polling on Monday, 20 percent of South Carolinians favor Colbert as their choice for a Senate appointee. Scott finished in second with 15 percent.