In a nod to growing diversity in the United States, the U.S. Congress may soon have an openly non-theistic member after state Sen. Jamie Raskin (D-Silver Spring-Takoma Park) won a Maryland primary last night.
Raskin, a humanist, was endorsed by the Freethought Equality Fund Political Action Committee. And unlike some candidates who might pander to sectarian interests, Raskin embraced that show of support.“I am fighting for a politics that has all of humanity in mind and does not divide people based on race, gender, sexual orientation or religion,” he said at the time. “I’m delighted to accept the endorsement of the Freethought Equality Fund and everyone else who wants to make sure that we base public policy on science, reason and humanist values that take into account the interests of all people.”
Raskin will face Republican Dan Cox, an attorney, in the general election. If he wins, he will be the only open non-theist in Congress. He would also be just the second “out” non-theist in congressional history – the first, Rep. Pete Stark (D-Calif.), left office in 2013.
Raskin’s primary victory is significant and could indicate the start of a shift in the American political landscape. According to a 2015 Gallup poll, Americans still prefer religious candidates. Ninety-three percent said they would vote for a Catholic; only 58 percent said the same for an atheist.
A 2014 Gallup poll reported similar results: Americans were least likely to vote for a Muslim, an atheist or a socialist. And a 2011 study by researchers at the University of British Columbia and the University of Oregon found that Canadian and American respondents were more likely to blame a hypothetical theft on an atheist than on a rapist.
Several states (including Maryland) still have laws on the books banning atheists from public office. Legal experts agree such bans are unenforceable, but they’re an ugly reminder of a more theocratic past. Raskin, who also teaches constitutional law at American University in Washington, D.C., has railed against these provisions in the past.“It’s an obsolete but lingering insult to people,” he told The New York Times in 2014, adding, “In the breathtaking pluralism of American religious and social life, politicians have to pay attention to secularists just the same as everybody else.”
Not all politicians agree. Some — typically those affiliated with the Religious Right --- have actively reinforced anti-atheist stigma. GOP presidential hopeful Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) promoted explicit anti-atheist stigma during a “religious liberty” rally in Iowa last year.“Any president who doesn't begin every day on his knees isn’t fit to be commander-in-chief of this nation,” he said.Some Maryland voters, it seems, don’t share Cruz’s antipathy toward non-theists. And since Raskin’s district tilts heavily Democratic, there’s a good chance he’ll be on Capitol Hill next year.
According to Pew, 23 percent of Americans now report having no religious affiliation. As a consequence, we may see more non-religious candidates run for office and win. That may disturb the Ted Cruzes of the world, but since the U.S. Constitution forbids any religious test for office there’s nothing they can do to prevent it.
Nonetheless, non-theists have typically struggled at the polls thanks to good, old-fashioned prejudice. But as the United States becomes more diverse, voters may increasingly focus on policy rather than piety when choosing their elected officials.