For Democratic Rep. Pete Stark, voting like an atheist means voting his conscience.
Last fall, the Secular Coalition for America, which describes itself as "a national lobby representing the interests of atheists, humanists, freethinkers and other nontheists," announced a contest. (In case you are wondering, "nontheist," according to the editorial page of the Los Angeles Times, is "the latest secularist term of art for folks 'without a god-belief.'") The coalition said it would award $1,000 to whoever identified the highest-ranking "nontheist" officeholder in the United States.
Someone nominated Stark. The coalition made an inquiry. Stark confessed his disbelief.
"When the Secular Coalition asked me to complete a survey on my religious beliefs, I indicated that I am a Unitarian who does not believe in a supreme being," Stark said in a statement.
Nor did Stark try to draw a bright line between his politics and his religious convictions. He did not utter the atheist's version of that familiar formulation often heard from self-professed God-fearing politicians who insist that their religious beliefs will not influence how they vote on the most consequential issues. He did not say: "Personally, I don't believe in God, but ..."
He proudly declared he would push an agenda conforming to nontheistic doctrine. "I look forward to working with the Secular Coalition to stop the promotion of narrow religious beliefs in science, marriage contracts, the military and provisions of social services," he said.
In reacting to Stark's revelation, some liberal news organizations and commentators seemed to advance the notion that Stark's atheistic views were somehow in sync with his status as a liberal Democrat representing a liberal Democratic district.
"He's not exactly a profile in courage," wrote columnist Ellen Goodman. "After all, Pete Stark is 75 and has represented his liberal district near San Francisco for more than 30 years. It's unlikely that he'll be tarred and feathered or sent packing for admitting that he's, well, a godless politician."
"Courage comes in many forms, and maybe responding to a questionnaire is one of them," said a Los Angeles Times editorial. "In this case, however, Stark is hardly taking a risk; he has represented a left-leaning Bay Area district since 1973."
Goodman and the Times may be onto something. The idea that the liberal point of view is more appealing to atheists is supported by the network exit poll of the 2004 presidential election. Ten percent of respondents in that poll answered "none" when asked their religion. Liberal Democratic candidate John Kerry beat President Bush among those voters 67 percent to 31 percent.
Kerry, of course, is not godless. He's just good at reaching out to godless voters.
In fact, Kerry won a 100 percent rating on the Secular Coalition's scorecard for the 109th Congress. The coalition scored only 10 Senate votes, which focused on just three issues: marriage, stem cell research and judges. They opposed a federal amendment defining marriage as between one man and one woman. They favored using tax dollars to kill embryos for their stem cells. And they were against a series of conservative judicial nominees, including Supreme Court nominee Sam Alito.
A senator could have voted for higher or lower taxes, a bigger or smaller welfare state, or for or against funding the Iraq War, and it would not have impacted his score with the Secular Coalition. The nontheist lobby chose its targets strategically: life, marriage and nominees who believe in judicial restraint.
On the House side, Stark was one of only eight members who earned a 100 percent rating from the Secular Coalition. The other seven were also liberal Democrats. Here, again, the coalition scored only 10 votes, which included the marriage amendment and federal funding for research that kills human embryos. There are no judicial nominations to score in the House, of course, but the coalition did oppose the Pledge Protection Act, which would have stripped federal judges of the authority to hear suits challenging the constitutionality of the Pledge of Allegiance.
There is good news here for politicians of either party who support life, marriage and judicial restraint. The nontheist lobby thinks they are on God's side.