There are more than 500 members of Congress, and not a single one has publicly stated that he or she doesn't believe in God. Not subscribing to traditional religious beliefs remains such a third rail in American politics that a candidate has never before entered Congress as an avowed atheist.
Last week, nonbelievers saw a potential secular savior in Maryland state Sen. Jamie Raskin (D), who won a heated primary and cleared a path to Congress in his deeply blue district. Raskin is a member of the American Humanist Association (AHA) -- a nonprofit that promotes the philosophy that people can be good without a God -- and was supported by the group’s Freethought Equality Fund political action committee.
In a recent interview with the Washington Post, however, Raskin appeared to distance himself from the atheist label.
From the Post:
The only problem? Raskin is Jewish. “One hundred percent Jewish.” “Emphatically Jewish.” A member of the District’s Temple Sinai and a father of three children who had bar and bat mitzvahs, Raskin says he has never told anyone is he an atheist.
“I’ve never called myself an atheist,” he said. “I’ve never pronounced upon the existence of a divinity before, and nobody has ever asked me.” If asked in the political sphere, he says he wouldn’t answer.
Raskin went on to say he was a “humanist with a small ‘h,'" which he reportedly considered to be a "philosophical marker, not a religious one." And while the Post notes that it would be entirely compatible for Raskin to not believe in God while identifying with both Judaism and humanism, the article reads as if Raskin had rejected the underlying beliefs that had earned him the support of the AHA.
Last week, the Freethought Equality Fund proudly touted Raskin's electoral success and record as an advocate for the secular community as a sign that he could become the "only open nontheist serving in the U.S. Congress." Raskin's remarks surprised the PAC on Wednesday and led its leaders to meet with the senator to clarify.
Roy Speckhardt, who serves as executive director of both the AHA and the Freethought Equality Fund, told HuffPost that the confusion was over the politically charged terms that often dominate the intersection of faith and civic life. He said Raskin reaffirmed that his views as a humanist were consistent with the AHA's. The group defines humanism as a "progressive philosophy of life that, without theism and other supernatural beliefs, affirms our ability and responsibility to lead ethical lives of personal fulfillment that aspire to the greater good of humanity."
"He has not adopted other labels that our community uses, such as nontheist or atheist, because he prefers to talk about what he does believe versus what he doesn't," said Speckhardt. "That level of detail about his personal belief system isn't something that he wants to be a campaign issue -- he doesn't want it to be a part of the electoral process for anybody."
Raskin's pushback on the "atheist" tag further underscores the delicate line politicians with nontraditional religious beliefs must walk in order to achieve mainstream acceptance.
At its most basic definition, an "atheist" is simply someone who doesn't believe in the existence of deities. In the current political climate, however, the word has become a toxically loaded description, often associated with people who are overtly anti-theistic or anti-religious. A recent Pew survey found that atheism was the most significant political liability among a range of possible traits. More than 50 percent of respondents said they’d be less likely to vote for a presidential candidate who didn’t believe in God.
And this distrust extends beyond politics, with polling regularly showing that many Americans have negative views toward atheists in general. This trend continues even as nearly one-quarter of Americans now place themselves in the broad category of religious “nones” -- those who are religiously unaffiliated or simply don’t believe in God.
While Raskin may not consider himself an atheist, he did not explicitly tell the Post that he believed in a supernatural deity. If anything, Raskin made it clear that he doesn't want to discuss his faith (or lack thereof) in public. Raskin's campaign did not respond to a request for comment to further clarify his views.
Alan Wolfe, director of Boston College’s Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life, suggested that Raskin was trying to counter the urge to put politicians into religious -- and in some cases non-religious -- boxes.
"Do you know what Hubert Humphrey's religion was? Because I don't. It just wasn't a factor, it never got asked, and now it does all the time," he told HuffPost. "I interpret what he's doing as resisting that whole trend, basically trying to say politely, 'It's none of your business.'"
But regardless of Raskin's religious beliefs, Wolfe says he isn't surprised that politicians aren't rushing to take on the baggage associated with being an atheist.
"Maybe in another world sometime it would be less controversial, but why call more attention to the issue?" Wolfe said. "Maybe after he's been there for 10 terms and he's in a safe district he could lead a national seminar on the whole question. The country would benefit from that."