US congressman breaks the last big taboo
AFTER more than 30 years of hiding his true feelings, a United States politician has come out and admitted the truth: he does not believe in God.
In doing so, Congressman Pete Stark has become the only politician in Washington openly to deny the existence of a supreme being.
Mr Stark, a Democrat from northern California, is also defying one of the cardinal rules of modern US politics: that politicians must be comfortable with their faith and capable of making strong public declarations demonstrating that fact. By declaring his apostasy, he crosses what is perhaps the last, or strongest, remaining taboo in American political life.
Secular groups hailed Mr Stark's "courageous" decision to come clean about his lack of faith in God. "With Stark's courageous public announcement of his non-theism, it is our hope that he will become an inspiration for others who have hidden their conclusions for far too long," Roy Speckhardt, the executive director of the American Humanist Society (AHA), said.
The AHA was sufficiently excited by Mr Stark's declaration that it took out a full-page advert in the Washington Post to salute him.
Mr Stark, who has served in Congress since 1973, admitted his "non-theism" after the Secular Coalition for America, an advocacy group in Washington, offered a $1,000 bounty to the person who could identify the "highest-level atheist, agnostic, humanist or any other kind of non-theist currently holding elected public office in the United States".
In all, 47 people across the country were nominated as unbelievers and four confirmed they were non-theists. After Mr Stark, the next most senior openly non-theistic elected official was believed to be a school board president from Berkeley, California.
"When the Secular Coalition asked me to complete a survey on my religious beliefs, I indicated I am a Unitarian who does not believe in a supreme being," Mr Stark said.
Unitarians follow no creed and, though some believe in God, others do not, preferring to base their beliefs on first principles drawn from personal experience. Though other Unitarians, such as President John Adams, have attained high office, none in recent times has openly denied the existence of God, as Mr Stark has.
Atheism is fast becoming the last remaining taboo in American public life. In a Gallup/USA Today poll last month, large majorities said they would vote for a black or female presidential candidate and 55 per cent said a candidate's homosexuality need not bar them from office. But only 45 per cent said they would support even a "well-qualified" atheist.
Mr Stark has no presidential ambitions and his California constituency, Fremont, outside San Francisco, is a Democratic stronghold that will shelter him from any potential Christian backlash. However, atheists and agnostics in other, less liberal, districts are likely to remain in the closet for the foreseeable future.
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