Convention speech: Rep. Jared Huffman — Demystifying the perceptions of humanists
This is an edited version of the speech given by U.S. Rep. Jared Huffman on Nov. 2, 2018, at FFRF’s 41st annual convention in San Francisco. He was introduced by Andrew Seidel, FFRF’s director of strategic response:
Rep. Jared Huffman was elected to the House of Representatives in 2012 to represent California’s Second District. Earlier this year, he formed the historic Congressional Freethought Caucus — the first of its kind. One of its goals is to “protect the secular character of our government by adhering to the strict constitutional principle of separation of church and state.”
Before heading to D.C., he spent six years in the California Legislature. He was a senior attorney at the Natural Resources Defense Council, and before that he used his law degree to combat gender and race discrimination. He graduated magna cum laude from the University of California at Santa Barbara, and was an All-American volleyball player three times.
I’ve had the pleasure of working with Rep. Huffman and his talented staff on a number of issues, and I even got to appear on his podcast, “Off the Cuff,” and talk about religion and politics.
Ladies and gentlemen, the recipient of this year’s “Emperor Has No Clothes Award,” Rep. Jared Huffman.
By Jared Huffman
Thank you for this award. I think it may be the most unique award I’ve ever received. I once had an environmental group give me an award that was a plaque on the end of a canoe paddle — a group called Waterkeepers — but nothing comes close to this guy. He really looks like a cross between the Oscar and a naked Donald Trump, which is something I don’t like to think about. But I do think it’s going to be the first one of these that’s ever proudly displayed in the office of a United States congressman. And I am looking forward to all of the interesting questions and comments I’m going to get because of that.
I’m also very thrilled to be in the rarefied air of this convention and to be part of a program that includes the likes of Salman Rushdie and Cecile Richards and, of course, to be with all of you. In fact, when I look out at all of the brilliant, talented, principled people in this room, my first thought is that if being a nonbeliever means I have to burn in hell for eternity, I’m going to have good company. My second thought, which is actually a much more serious one, is how grateful I am, how fortunate I am to be in an era when a member of Congress can come out publicly as a nonreligious humanist and politically live to tell about it. It hasn’t always been possible for national political figures to do things like that.
The example of Thomas Paine comes to mind. One of our great Founding Fathers, someone without whose persuasive writings and leadership we may not have had an American Revolution. And yet, Thomas Paine decided in 1794, against the advice of his fellow religious skeptic and deist Thomas Jefferson, to publish a book called The Age of Reason, which mocked what he saw as fallacies and inconsistencies in the bible. If he hadn’t done that, I am convinced that we would have memorials and monuments and parks and streets and schools named after Thomas Paine today. But because of that, he spent the rest of his life ostracized and shunned. Even nearly a century after his death, Theodore Roosevelt disparaged him as “the filthy little atheist.”
Decision to ‘come out’
Continuing right up to the modern day, religious skepticism has seemingly been incompatible with our national politics. In fact, in the history of the United States Congress before I came out, you can only find one member — Rep. Pete Stark — who had publicly acknowledged not believing in God. And that is why my decision to come out last year was not made lightly. I consulted everyone I could think of: my family and friends, Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi, and even the House chaplain Father Pat Conroy. No kidding. The reactions I got were the exact opposite of what I thought I would get. I really thought when I went to Pelosi, who’s a devout Catholic who probably doesn’t want people associating Democrats as godless heading into the midterm election — I thought I’d get a lot of concern and maybe even some dissuasion. In fact, she applauded me for being true to myself. She said she thought that humanism was a beautiful thing. So that was surprising. And Father Pat, who’s not exactly in the business of counseling nonbelievers, I thought I owed him the courtesy of a conversation before he read about it in the newspapers. He told me he thought it was refreshing and that he actually wished more members of Congress would just be honest about their faith. So that was surprising.
On the other hand, the friends and family and staff members where I thought I would get the most support turned out to be the resistance to this decision of coming out. And they were concerned about what it would do to me politically. They have no problem with my lack of religion, but they felt that it might disqualify me from higher office. Some felt that, for example, I could never someday serve in a cabinet position, and it might be fun to be secretary of the interior someday, God willing, right? That’s a joke. But to a person, they really all felt I was going to face a tremendous and ugly political backlash. For me, though, the decision was very personal. It wasn’t so much about politics. Members of Congress are asked all the time about their religion, and you can get away with ducking the question. You can hide behind ambiguous labels like “non-denominational,” but something in my conscience was gnawing at me for not just telling the truth.
Now, here’s the part that was political for me. I was getting increasingly disturbed by the misuse and abuse of religion in Washington. Not just the constant incursions into the secular character of our government, but also the dishonesty and the hypocrisy. And we all know there’s a lot of wonderful, authentic people of faith, and I deeply respect and work with so many of them. But we also have a lot of religious fakers and grifters in politics. I’m talking about the ones who make a big public show of their deep faith because it’s useful to them. I’m thinking of Ted Cruz pandering to the evangelical audiences by claiming God wanted him, that God told him to run for president. The most obvious grifter of all, of course, is our President Donald Trump. Wouldn’t you like to know what he’s really thinking when he holds hands and closes his eyes in the Oval Office with those evangelical ministers and pretends to be in prayer? So, the political part of my decision was actually wanting to provide a counterweight to all this phoniness and hypocrisy. In any event, I did it and the Washington Post wrote a big story on it. My staff and family prepared for the big political backlash, which never came. But Tuesday [Election Day], after all the votes are counted in the first election that I will have since coming out, I am cautiously hopeful that I’ll have my best numbers ever. [Huffman won with nearly 75 percent of the vote.]
So how is it that a sitting member of Congress can publicly identify as a nonreligious humanist and not get the Thomas Paine treatment? I think part of it has to do with my district, which starts at the Golden Gate Bridge and goes all the way up to the Oregon border. This is a beautiful and also very progressive place where, for the most part, people couldn’t care less about my religion as long as I’m doing good work, and as long as I’m not trying to impose my religious views on any of them.
The other explanation for how I’ve avoided a political backlash so far involves how I’ve approached the issue. I go out of my way to be respectful of other people’s faith choices. I really try to project that I’m not trying to convince anyone else to believe like me. I try not to criticize or patronize or judge other people’s religions, as long as they’re not doing bad things in the name of their religion or trying to impose it on other people. I also try to have some spiritual humility. All of my experiences and all of my reasoning leads me to be nontheistic, but I’ve also said that I leave a little crack in the spiritual door, and that if God ever wants to talk to me — I will take the call. That hasn’t happened in 54 years and I am not exactly waiting by the phone, but who among us would not take that call?
And finally, through the work that I do and the values and the priorities that I try to follow and to some extent to the faith label that I have chosen — humanist — I try to convey a moral framework that demystifies perhaps what could be misperceptions that people would have about a person who doesn’t believe in God. I think most people don’t care about a politician’s religiosity. In fact, I think more and more people are turned off by politicians that are outwardly religious. But I think people want to know that their elected leaders have a moral framework, that they have a strong sense of right and wrong, that they have values and priorities that they can support and so I try to convey that. Because like probably all of you in the freethought community, I do have a strong moral framework. We do care. We care about basic decency and social justice and human rights and about protecting the only planet that we know of in the entire universe that sustains life. We feel a sense of responsibility to future generations, and we don’t believe these things because religion tells us to or because we’re trying to earn an afterlife — these are just good human values, whether you’re a Muslim, Christian, Jew, Hindu, humanist or atheist.
So those of us in the freethought community, along with our progressive allies in the faith community, have a lot of good work to do together. We need to defend the line of separation between church and state. We need to support responsible public policies based on facts and science and reason and, of course, we need to defeat the War on Festivus. I want to end with that, and thank you for indulging me in a few bad jokes. Thank you very much for this wonderful award. Thanks for working with me on these important issues.
Q&A with Jared Huffman
Here are the questions asked of Rep. Jared Huffman by FFRF members following his speech.
Question: I’ve heard there’s a growing number of representatives that have joined your group, the Freethought Caucus. Can you speak a little bit about that?
Huffman: Yes. What started out as an idea — that I really didn’t expect to have a lot of broad participation in because I know how sensitive these issues are politically — has grown now to 10 members who are willing to openly identify as part of this caucus. I am still the only one that has publicly acknowledged my nonbelief. Others are in their own place when it comes to how they publicly identify, but all of us believe in the mission statement of the caucus.
You mentioned that there are 10 in the caucus, but I’ve heard that there are more than twice that many who are actually nonbelievers, not just nonreligious, but nonbelievers. Have you had conversations with folks? I’m not trying to put you on the spot on outing anyone, I’m just curious as to whether that comes up in private conversations over lunch or whatever.
It comes up all the time and it is true. I’m not going to identify and out anyone, but I have had at least as many members of Congress as the ones who had joined tell me: “I totally agree with you. I’m an atheist (or agnostic or whatever), but it just would be political suicide.”
With the current makeup of the Supreme Court having a conservative majority, I’m concerned about the freedom of movement we have to promote secular values in this country. What do you believe is the appropriate approach to respond to this in the present moment?
Well, there’s a lot of things that I think we have to do in this moment, but maybe the most urgent and needed is the work that you do and that FFRF does. I think you’re going to have to lawyer up and be ready to challenge this thing in the courts. That’s always been the last line of defense from these incursions into secular government. Of course, we need more leaders in Congress.
As a very recent retiree facing the choice of having to pay exorbitant premiums for COBRA now until I’m 65, or maybe going under the ACA, I’m glad the Democrats have embraced health care as a primary campaigning point. And as an atheist myself, I’ve always felt that health care should be a humanist issue, not just science in general because health care is giving the benefits of science to everyone. I think our community would grow among young people if we embrace that despite it being a political point. What are your thoughts on that?
Well, I strongly agree with you. I think health care is a human right. I think the progress that we have made toward universal, accessible, quality health care has become something that is now working in our favor in a way that many of us wouldn’t have expected a few years ago when we were on defense and backpedaling on the issue. So I’m glad that my party and a lot of future colleagues all over the country are leading with healthcare. And I think it’s remarkable that in the closing argument for all these Republicans all over the country — they’re trying to pretend like they are the champions of pre-existing conditions, right. That tells you that in an age when it’s really tough to get our message to penetrate through all the Twitter noise and the Trump stuff — we did do that with health care, we are making incredible progress. So, with the right Congress, if we keep this momentum going, we’re going to do some very good things with health care in the years ahead.