Why Congress needs an openly atheist member, now

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In 2013, Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.) became the first openly gay U.S. senator. It’s easy to understand why members of the LGBT community hailed this achievement as another meaningful step toward equal rights. After all, Congress is an extremely human place where the personal experiences of its members are critical to everything they do. As former Sen. Gordon Smith (R-Ore.) once stated, “Each of us, as United States senators, comes to … this public place with the sum of our beliefs, our personal experience and our values, and none of us checks them at the door.” Predictably, Baldwin has been a champion for gay rights. Just last year, she introduced legislation to “amend the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to include sex, sexual orientation, and gender identity among the prohibited categories of discrimination or segregation in places of public accommodation.”

While members of Congress need not be part of a marginalized community to speak up on its behalf, the reality is that they are much more likely to do so if their lives have been personally touched by an issue. For example, former Sen. Pete Domenici, (R-N.M.) was a leading proponent of mental health while in Congress, mainly because his daughter suffered from schizophrenia. As former Rep. Lynn Rivers (D-Mich.) said, “I think it’s possible that nothing at all would have been done by Congress if it weren’t for legislators like Domenici who were galvanized by personal experience.” The unhinged gunman who murdered the husband of Rep. Carolyn McCarthy (D-N.Y.) motivated her to become the nation’s most vocal gun control advocate.

{mosads}“When a person in this body gets up and speaks from personal experience, it changes the whole nature of the debate,” observed former Sen. Chris Dodd (D-Conn.). While some LGBT members have chosen to come out of the closet after they retired from Congress while others have decided to remain in the closet, Congress currently has seven openly gay members; this means slightly more than 1% of the Congressional population represents the slightly less than 4% of Americans who identify as LGBT – not perfect, but not too bad.

But what about the number of members who openly describe themselves as atheists?

Currently, Congress consists of Buddhist (2), Christian (491), Hindu (1), Jewish (28), Mormon (16), and Muslim (2) members, but doesn’t have a single atheist member. While Rep. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) is the only member to list her religious belief as “unaffiliated,” she’s reluctant to acknowledge her disbelief in God. Sinema “believes the terms ‘nontheist,’ ‘atheist,’ or ‘nonbeliever’ are not befitting of her life’s work or personal character.” Many speculated Jamie Raskin (likely to be elected next month) would become Congress’s first openly atheist member, but he has since made it clear that he’s both “Jewish” and a “humanist,” not an atheist.

Since nearly 1 in 4 American adults describe their religion as “None”, it’s untenable to maintain that Congress has no atheist members. In fact, 24 members of Congress privately admitted to members of the American Humanist Association in 2014 that they don’t believe in God, yet all choose to conceal their atheism. However, I don’t blame them. Instead, I blame the general public’s views towards atheists. How can anyone criticize these politicians (and perhaps many others) for staying in the ‘atheist closet’ when more than half of U.S. adults assume belief in God is essential to morality and 53% are less likely to support a candidate for president if he or she is an atheist?

Nevertheless, it’s inexcusable that .01% of the Congressional population represents such a large percentage of Americans. In the absence of openly atheist members, it’s highly likely that the interests and concerns of atheists will continue to be ignored and unappreciated. What concerns you may ask? Perhaps atheists are troubled by the fact that several states still have legislature banning atheists from being elected or that they can’t form recognized clubs in some schools and universities? Maybe atheists don’t appreciate how they’re less likely to be hired for jobs requiring a high degree of trust? You may have known about these issues if Congress had an atheist member who stridently opposed discrimination against nonbelievers – just as Baldwin fiercely opposes discrimination against LGBT people. To quote John Stuart Mill, “In the absence of its natural defenders, the interest of the omitted is always in danger of being overlooked.”

Congress needs an openly atheist member, now.

Bill Ozanick is currently a graduate student at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies in Washington, D.C. He can be followed on Twitter @BillOzanick.

The views expressed by authors are their own and not the views of The Hill.

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