By Debbie Siegelbaum - 06/12/12 11:55 PM EDT
Edwina Rogers refuses to name names. If the executive director of the Secular Coalition for America knows which members of Congress aren’t religious, she isn’t telling.
Her organization, an advocacy group representing a growing number of nontheistic Americans, recently conducted a silent poll of members of Congress about their faith and personal beliefs. And according to Rogers, 28 of the 535 lawmakers claimed they did not personally believe in a higher power.
“There is a perception that if you don’t have religion, then you are less likely to basically be a good person,” Rogers said.
“It’s a very touchy subject that’s still not accepted by the general public,” Rogers’s colleague, communications manager Lauren Anderson Youngblood, told The Hill.
“The people who did admit to us — it’s something that we hold very close to the chest because we don’t want to out anyone,” she said. “And the reason they don’t want anyone to know is that it can have very real repercussions on reelection.”
Politicians might have legitimate reason to worry. According to a 2011 Pew Research Center study, participants were more likely to vote for a candidate who had used marijuana, had an extramarital affair, is homosexual or had never held public office than someone who did not believe in God.
In Congress, 92 percent of lawmakers are affiliated with some type of religious group. That figure, however, doesn’t square with the country’s current religious makeup.
According to Kenneth Wald, a political science professor at the University of Florida, a growing number of Americans are opting out of religion.
“We have an increasing proportion of Americans who, when asked their religious affiliation, will say none,” he said. “That’s been climbing, and it’s as high as 16 percent in some surveys.”
But even with a growing number of nontheistic voters, and a constitutionally mandated separation of church and state, religion continues to influence the political system.
“Americans have what some people have called a great affection for religion in general,” Wald said. “It’s striking how the voters seem to impose their own religious tests in spite of the Constitution.”
Experts don’t see that changing in the current election cycle. Representatives from Republican and Democratic campaign organizations declined to offer data on the number (if any) of nontheist candidates running for office.
But observers of the 2012 presidential campaign have already described it as the most religion-saturated in recent memory.
From former GOP presidential hopeful Rick Santorum claiming President John F. Kennedy’s views on the “absolute” separation of church and state made him want to “throw up” to President Obama hiring a new faith outreach adviser to court pious voters, religion has run freely in present-day politics.
“There’s almost like a religious litmus test for public office, where candidates are forced to declare their piety and compete against each other for who invokes God and ‘God bless you’ the most,” said Annie Laurie Gaylor, co-president of the Freedom From Religion Foundation.
“This is an easy way to appeal to different bases; if you pepper your speeches with religion, then you won’t get in trouble with the religious right,” she added. “And the rest of us who hate it, we’ll hold our noses and vote for you anyway.”
Barry Lynn, executive director of church-state separation advocacy group Americans United, has witnessed the same growing religious trend.
“There is a sense in both parties that a lot of these independent votes that they need are nevertheless religious voters in some sense, certainly Catholics,” he said. “The Democrats have to worry that the Republicans are making a pitch about how Obama is anti-church, anti-Catholic because of the insurance coverage of birth control.
“Which then means, on the other side, that the Democrats have to do outreach to combat that idea, so religion becomes a part of the dialogue,” Lynn added.
As candidates “pander” to a shrinking number of devout voters, Gaylor believes, they are not only doing a disservice to nontheistic Americans but are missing a golden opportunity as well.
“Nonreligious is the fastest-growing segment of the U.S. population demographically by religious identification — 15 percent and growing of adults and 25 percent [of] young people,” she said. “And who is wooing us? Where are the politicians coming for us? We are a swing vote. There are as many of us as there are doctrinaire religious-right people.
“Seculars are not as organized, but we are still a sizable minority. And when are the politicians going to wake up and realize we are usually free thinkers, are voters, [our] income is usually acceptable, [we] are more apt to contribute and vote and be civic-minded?” Gaylor added. “Nobody’s throwing us any meat … nobody’s even acknowledging we exist.”
Wald conceded that religion could play less of a role in a House or Senate campaign as opposed to the presidency, but even then it was dependent on a number of factors, including how devout that candidate’s district or state is.
“I think there is room for a candidate who doesn’t want to talk about religion to run, but it would really depend on place and time,” he said.
Mississippi’s Rep. Gregg Harper (R) represents what a March Gallup poll found to be the most religious state in the union, with nearly 60 percent of its residents claiming to be “very religious.”
“It’s certainly part of our state, probably the majority of the people attend church somewhere or a place of worship every week,” Harper said.
But when asked if a nontheist could have a chance of winning a congressional seat in his state, Harper conceded such a viewpoint could possibly be used as fodder against a candidate.
“Stuff gets used in politics all the time,” he said. “That might just be another factor.”
Stark knows firsthand how making his nonreligious views public can affect his political career.
“I am considered the highest-ranking politician in the country who does not believe in a supreme being,” he said at a secular rally in March. “When I made this fact known about five years ago, people said it would be political suicide.”
But instead of being politically crucified, Stark received a flood of support.
“I received over 5,000 emails and contacts from around the world; almost all of them were supportive and said it was a courageous act,” he said. “It wasn’t courageous; I just said what I believe … A public servant doesn’t need to believe in God or any other religious character to do an efficient job to bring about changes in the world that are necessary.”
Though Stark was willing to go public with his beliefs, nontheists are still waiting for more like-minded politicians to follow suit.
“I know there are a number of people in Congress who have to be nonreligious and they’re not willing to risk their career on this, or maybe they’re afraid,” Gaylor said. “Some of their credit has to be used on gay rights or the environment, and they’re going to avoid this whole fray … I’m not sure it’s worse this year; it’s same-old, same-old.”