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Convention speech — Hemant Mehta: Is it OK to be an atheist in politics?

FFRF Member Hemant Mehta, who runs the “Friendly Atheist” website, speaks during the FFRF convention in Madison, Wis., on Oct. 18, 2019. (Photo by Ingrid Laas)
Hemant Mehta (Photo by Ingrid Laas)
FFRF Director of Strategic Response Andrew L. Seidel, right, introduced Hemant Mehta at the convention and gave him FFRF’s Nothing Fails Like Prayer Award. (Photo by Ingrid Laas)

This is an edited version of the speech given by Hemant Mehta at FFRF’s national convention in Madison, Wis., on Oct. 18. He was given the 2019 Nothing Fails Like Prayer Award. Hemant was introduced by FFRF Director of Strategic Response Andrew L. Seidel:

On May 5, 2014, the Supreme Court ruled that it’s totally fine for local governments to have prayers, even if they are overwhelmingly Christian. One of the reasons that the Supreme Court said it was fine was because “the town at no point excluded or denied an opportunity to a would-be prayer giver.” A minister or lay person of any persuasion, including an atheist, could give an invocation. Since we couldn’t challenge this in court anymore, we figured we’ll take them at their word. And since nothing fails like prayer, FFRF inaugurated its “Nothing Fails Like Prayer” contest. Every year, we award this to someone who has gone to their local government body that is already praying and delivered a strong secular invocation. The award comes with a plaque and a $500 honorarium.

This year’s winner is Hemant Mehta, who is a writer and editor, and runs the hugely popular “Friendly Atheist” site, which I visit 19 or 100 times a day. He edited the 2017 book, Queer Disbelief: Why LGBTQ Equality is an Atheist Issue. He wrote the Young Atheists’ Survival Guide, and, in a slightly devilish transaction, he sold his soul on eBay and wrote a very fun book about that.

He’s a brilliant mind and a huge asset to the secular movement. He’s unafraid of critiquing us to make us better as much as he is unafraid of criticizing government officials who use their public offices to promote their personal religion. So, Hemant, come on up and accept your award.

By Hemant Mehta

Hi, everybody. Thank you for having me here. I’m going to talk about something that’s not directly connected to that invocation, but something I feel very strongly about.

Wouldn’t it be nice if there were more atheists in public office? Of course, it would. But I don’t want them there so they can advocate for atheists. That’s not their job. I don’t need them to do the stuff that FFRF does. I want them there because having more atheists in politics has some serious symbolic value. Because it matters when my House representative is a black woman. It matters when you have a person in Congress who is a Muslim, or someone with a physical disability or someone who is LGBTQ.

We all know there’s a stigma attached to being an atheist. How many of you have gotten to know somebody, and you tell them at some point that you are an atheist. The response you get back is, “Oh, but I thought you were a good person.”

We’ve all had some sort of variation on that conversation. Let me ask you a slightly different question. When you think about the most famous atheists, who is the most famous atheist you can think of?

There’s probably a couple names that come to my mind. Maybe you’re thinking of an author or Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris or somebody like that. If you are a famous atheist author, why are you a famous atheist author? It’s because you wrote a book or two where your whole point is to have readers say, “OK, I don’t believe in this stuff anymore.” Your goal in writing the book was to get people to stop being religious. Maybe you were thinking of a comedian such as Bill Maher. When does Bill Maher talk about religion? He brings it up in his act because he wants to make you laugh and I’m glad he does. It’s funny. But his point in doing that is to get you to laugh at religion.

This is why it would be such a big deal to have atheists in government. And, for the public, think about what that means. This may be their best chance to see an atheist in public life, to see (hopefully) a respectable atheist, where their job is not to denigrate religion. And I think that would go so far in changing the public perception of what it means to be an atheist.

If you are an atheist in politics and you’re good at it, you’re not doing battle against religion. You’re trying to help everybody. That is a big deal. Yet, trying to get into politics has been this huge hurdle for atheists everywhere.

[Hemant shows image of The New Republic magazine] The cover of this magazine says, “The last taboo.” And underneath there’s a subheading that says, “Politicians keep saying we should inject more religion into our public life. But what we really need is a healthy dose of atheism.” Cool. The author is Wendy Kaminer, who is a fantastic writer and activist. But she wrote this in 1996. Really? The last taboo? I mean, we hadn’t had an African-American president, we hadn’t had a woman at the top of the ticket. Is atheism the last taboo? No.

In this article, she writes, “Atheists generate about as much sympathy as pedophiles.” Her point was that it’s really hard to be an open atheist in politics. She was right. In 1996, there were no open atheists in the U.S. Congress.

But when you say you’re religious and you’re trying to run for office, people know what that means. It means you’re a good person. It means you can be trusted. And that’s what people want when they’re voting for somebody. Is it still toxic to be an atheist in politics? I’d say, “kind of,” but that’s changing and it’s changing quickly and in ways you may not even be aware of.

Getting an edge

I’ll give you a couple examples here. Let me take you back to 2008 in North Carolina. There was a U.S. Senate race where neither candidate was an incumbent. One was Kay Hagan, a state lawmaker running on the Democratic side. She was up against Elizabeth Dole, the wife of the former Republican presidential candidate Bob Dole. This was a close race and everyone knew it. There was a lot of money being funneled into North Carolina. So, you’re looking for any way to get an edge.

Kay Hagan had a fundraiser that was held at the home of someone who was known to be an atheist activist. She went to his home, not because she’s an atheist, but because he was hosting a fundraiser. And with that information alone, I’ll tell you about the commercial the Dole campaign ran afterwards.

It’s shots of atheists appearing in the news and saying, “Let’s take God off the currency.” “Let’s take God off the dollar bills.” “Kay Hagan appeared at an atheist home.” There’s dark music in the background. And, when the screen fades to black, you hear a voice saying, “There is no God.” I’m not joking. That’s really in the ad.

So, what did Hagen promise in return? I have no idea. She promised us nothing. And yet, that was the ad Dole’s campaign ran because just the link to an atheist was enough to be an attack ad. That’s how bad it is. The good news is that it didn’t hurt her enough. Kay Hagan ended up winning that race in 2008, though she lost her re-election bid in 2014 to Thom Tillis.

Let me give you another name. Do you know Pete Stark, the Democratic representative from California? He made news across the country in 2007 when he announced he was an openly nonreligious member of Congress. He was the first one we knew about. He was openly saying “I don’t believe in a higher power.” He called himself a Unitarian, but said, “Yeah, I don’t believe in a higher power and I’m OK with the Secular Coalition for America broadcasting that.” And he said later on that he was surprised the reception was overwhelmingly positive. He thought it was gonna be really bad and it wasn’t. He got so many positive messages from people.

But here’s something that was shocking. Pete Stark ran some successful re-election campaigns even after being out as an atheist. He won again in 2008 and 2010. But, in 2012, he was up for re-election but did not win because another Democrat, Eric Swalwell, beat him in the primaries.

I like Eric Swalwell; he’s really good on TV and I agree with most of his politics. But when he was running in that primary, he was looking for any edge to beat a longtime incumbent. It turned out in 2011 that the House held a symbolic vote on whether the United States should keep “In God We Trust” as the national motto. And, this is one of those things where, of course, they’re all going to say “yes” and almost 400 of them did vote that way. But nine members of the House said no. Pete Stark was one of those nine and Eric Swalwell used that fact in his primary press release. “Do we trust Pete Stark to represent our views? The 15th Congressional District deserves a member of Congress who is in touch with its people, can work well with others and can honor our national motto.”

Kyrsten Sinema from Arizona was also elected to the House in 2012. I remember hearing during the primary that there’s this bisexual atheist running for the House in a fairly conservative area, but had a good chance of winning. When she won the primary and had a chance of winning the seat, all of the sudden she stopped referring to herself as an atheist. And when she won, there were headlines saying a bisexual atheist just got elected to Congress. Her campaign was then like, “Whoa, whoa, whoa. Not an atheist.”

I wrote to her campaign and asked what label she was using. This is what the campaign staff wrote back: “She believes the terms ‘nontheist,’ ‘atheist’ or ‘nonbeliever’ are not befitting of her life’s work or personal character.” They could have just said, “No, we’re busy and we’re not going to answer it.” Instead, they gave me that statement, basically throwing atheists under the bus. But I will give her this: When she was sworn into office, she took her oath on the Constitution. And again in 2018, when she ran for U.S. Senate and won, she took an oath of office on a copy of the Constitution with Mike Pence holding it. Very cool.

Survey says…

Every two years, the Pew Research Center releases a survey of the newly elected members of Congress and they ask for religious affiliation. There’s one section that says “unaffiliated” and there’s just one name: Kyrsten Sinema.

And, let me also take you to 2012. Every four years, Gallup does a survey during the presidential campaign which asks voters, “Would you vote for someone in your political party if that person were _____.” If that person were black, 96 percent of people said yes. Why would that be a problem? A woman? Yes. Most people are like, “That would be fine if I agreed with their politics.”

And where is “atheist” on this list in 2012? It’s way at the bottom. But, this was actually cause for celebration in 2012 because it was above 50 percent for the first time. Fifty-four percent basically said, “Yeah, it’s not the worst thing ever.”

A couple of years ago, Jared Huffman, another Democrat from California, said, “OK, fine, I will come out as nonreligious.” He used the word “humanist.” After he came out, I was very excited to see the Pew Research survey listing the Congress members and their religion because I was so excited to see the word “atheist” or “humanist” on that list. So, I scroll down and I’m looking for the word “atheist” or “humanist” and the closest I see is “unaffiliated.” But it shows just one, which we already know is Kyrsten Sinema. Jared, where are you? In its report, Pew said it gets the data from this political survey and Rep. Huffman didn’t return the survey. But, a couple of months ago, he updated that survey and it does say “humanist” now. In this case, the “H” word makes a difference.

Reps. Huffman and Jamie Raskin and Mark Pocan helped begin the Freethought Caucus, which has 12 members. Literally, Jared Huffman is the only openly nonreligious one on that list. But that is still cool. Those are people who are saying “atheist” isn’t really a dirty word for us. We’ll fight for church-state separation. We’ll fight for reason-based policymaking, which is still a thing. And maybe it will come back one day. I can’t wait.

But I want to tell you what’s really making me excited here. In 2016, Gallup did that poll asking if you would vote for a _____. And if you scroll down to the bottom, wait a minute, that’s not us anymore. A socialist is now the worst thing you can be. Atheists are at 58 percent. And, by the way, if you break this down by age and ask people under age 30 if they would vote for an atheist, the number is about 75 percent. It’s getting to the point where even the youngest people like atheists.

In 2018, when they had the midterm elections, with the help of the Center for Freethought Equality, which is an arm of the American Humanist Association, I started keeping track of everyone running not just for Congress (because Huffman is the only one who’s openly nonreligious), but at the state level. People running for state Houses or state Senates and how many of them were openly nonreligious. The only caveat was that I didn’t care what word they used. “Atheist”? Great. “Nonreligious?” All right. Any of it. I’ll take it all.

Freethinkers database

[Hemant shows database on screen] I kept a spreadsheet. On this database, I have purple representing people who ran for state House or state Senate and lost. I used green to represent people who won their races, some of whom were incumbents. Let me scroll through this spreadsheet for you. Look at all the greens in all of the states. I know, there’s a lot of purple, too. Don’t worry about that. That’s expected. But look at all the greens.

How many greens are on that list? How many openly nonreligious elected officials are there?  There are 50 around the country. That is incredible. That is way more than I thought existed anywhere because I literally would have told you maybe five or six before I started keeping track. And then I realized there are so many more than that.

And, by the way, that was 2018. Can you imagine what that number is going to be during the 2020 election when we expect that progressives will come out in droves?

I remember seeing a piece of pro-science legislation in New Hampshire and seeing the sponsor of the bill and I thought that name sounded familiar. Oh, right. She’s one of the greens on my list. She’s an openly nonreligious state representative who filed this pro-science bill. Isn’t that awesome? Then I looked at her co-sponsors and it’s like she hit everybody in the state who is nonreligious.

I said as much on my website and I get a message from that state representative in my inbox and she wrote, “How do you think I found the co-sponsors?” She saw the list and thought, “Oh, my God, I have allies I didn’t even know about. I’m gonna go to them and do that.” I had another state representative contact me on Twitter and she said, “How come I’m not on your spreadsheet?” I responded, “Who are you?” I had to look at her bio and saw she’s a state representative. I asked if she’s openly nonreligious. She said, “Look at my Twitter feed. Every other tweet I’m swearing I have no problem with you calling me an atheist.” So, I added her right away.

So, how do we get this list upgraded? How do we get more people on that list?

Pop that balloon

I also have a story about Megan Hunt. She ran for office in Nebraska. Nebraska’s the state that doesn’t have a bicameral legislature. It’s just one unicameral body. Everybody’s a senator. She ran for one of those seats. She had never run for any elected office before, so it was her against one other woman. And I remember looking at her website saying, “OK, value-wise, I pretty much agree with her.” So, that’s great. If I lived there, I would totally vote for her. And then I saw there was an article in the local paper about the candidates. They had a sidebar where it just had some biographical details about Megan Hunt. And I remember seeing this: “Faith — Atheist” and I was thinking, “Oh, no, she’s going to lose now. You said it out loud. You’re not supposed to do that. What are you doing? It’s toxic.”

But then she won her race. She is one of six openly nonreligious state senators and maybe one of only six who uses the word “atheist.” I asked her, “How did you end up winning this race? How did this not hurt you? How were you able to get over that?” She told me that she took the air out of the balloon before the other side could pop it. She put it right out front. She wasn’t ashamed of it. She just said it. And then she talked about the issues that actually matter to voters: roads, health care, infrastructure, all those other things that people actually care about.

She just let it out and then what were they going to say? “Oh, hey, did you know you’re an atheist?” So, now she just says, “Yes, I am, and here’s what really matters to me,” and then talks about other things. This is the key. It may not be that big of a deal and it’s becoming less of a deal as the years go on.

I hope any of you can run for something. There are like 500,000 elected offices in America. They’re not all Congress. It’s OK. You can run for something. You can be an atheist. But if you’re running for public office, you don’t have to dwell on that. But you don’t have to be ashamed of it, either, and it may not even hurt you.

Thank you.