This interview has been condensed for length and clarity.
The American Humanist Association (AHA) is pleased to honor Representative Jared Huffman (D-CA) as the 2020 Humanist of the Year at its 79th Annual Conference, “Distant but Together: A Virtual Celebration of Humanism,” streaming live online on August 8, 2020.
The only humanist and agnostic serving openly in Congress, Representative Huffman founded the Congressional Freethought Caucus in 2018 to promote sound public policy based on reason, science, and moral values while protecting the secular character of government and championing the value of freedom of thought worldwide.
Huffman was elected to Congress in November 2012 to represent California’s 2nd congressional district, which covers the northern coast of the state. During his four terms in Congress he’s built a reputation as a progressive leader and an environmental expert. He currently serves on the Committee on Natural Resources, the Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure, and the Select Committee on the Climate Crisis. In the 116th Congress he chairs the Natural Resources Subcommittee on Water, Oceans and Wildlife, with jurisdiction over federal water projects, fisheries management, coastal zone and oceans policy, and wildlife and endangered species.
As a founder and current co-chair of the Congressional Freethought Caucus, Huffman has forged a coalition of twelve members of Congress in defending the rights of humanists, freethinkers, and nontheists. And under his leadership, the caucus has been an important voice on a wide range of issues, including: opposing the nomination of Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court, speaking out against the creation of the Religious Liberty Task Force, supporting the No BAN Act, and opposing Trump’s guidance on school-sponsored prayer.
I had the opportunity to speak with Rep. Huffman about humanism, combatting Christian supremacy, racial justice, and the Congressional Freethought Caucus.
Rachel Deitch: Thanks for taking the time to answer a few questions today. First, I want to say how thrilled we are that you will be accepting the Humanist of the Year Award in August. Previous recipients include Asa Philip Randolph, Margaret Atwood, Kurt Vonnegut, Gloria Steinem, and fellow Northern California congressman Pete Stark. For each of them, as I would guess for us, humanism means something a little different. What does humanism mean for you?
Rep. Jared Huffman: First, thank you! I’m humbled to receive the same award as those incredible former honorees. I’m not worthy, but I’ll try to live up to it.
In answer to your question, humanism has helped fill a gap I’ve felt ever since I broke from my own religious faith back in my early twenties. Over the years I became what you might call a jealous agnostic. I didn’t believe in God or organized religion, but I missed some things about it: the sense of community, personal and cultural identity, and the articulated set of common values. It felt empty to have no label, no group, and no good answer to the basic question, what do you believe in?
As nonbeliever labels go, humanist is far less threatening and provocative to people of faith than atheist or agnostic. I think that’s because many of them infer from those labels a negative judgment about their God belief, and they also (wrongly) assume atheists and agnostics are amoral. The humanist label avoids that by projecting a set of positive values and assuring people that I have a good moral framework. That’s important to me.
Deitch: The number of open humanists and nontheists in government has grown significantly over the past decade but you are still alone at the federal level—although there are likely at least a few more nontheists on the Hill. If more members start to identify publicly, how do you see that shaping policy?
Huffman: For me, completing my spiritual journey by “coming out” as a humanist motivated me to do more to protect real religious liberty for others and to defend the secular character of our government. And there is power in numbers, especially in Congress. So, if we get a few more open nontheists, I think that will really invigorate the work of the Congressional Freethought Caucus (CFC).
I never expected the CFC to have the power or clout of the religious caucuses and groups in Congress, but I saw the opportunity here because no other caucus was really focusing on the separation of church and state. This turned out to be a very viable endeavor, in part because other members of Congress were interested in joining the cause, but also because the secular community really stepped up to help launch and grow this new congressional caucus. My hope for the CFC is to be identified and respected as a serious secular bulwark in Congress, a hard-hitting counterweight to those who would push our country onto the slippery slope of theocracy. I want it to be a working caucus, not just another caucus that exists in name only. Thankfully, my co-founder, Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-MD), sees it the same way and brings remarkable legal expertise, credibility, a good sense of humor, and boundless energy to our efforts.
Deitch: I think our readers would be really interested to hear about how policy makers’ unique beliefs (religious or otherwise) inform how you all work together. During your time in Congress, have you taken any lessons from your religious colleagues?
Huffman: Without betraying confidences here because these matters are deeply personal, I have several religious friends in Congress who I speak with all the time about religion and spirituality. These relationships include some joking and playful banter, but we also have serious, candid, and very respectful conversations about our beliefs, doubts, hopes, aspirations, and personal journeys. One of the colleagues I’m referring to co-chaired the Congressional Prayer Caucus a few years ago, and he told me recently that he considers me the most spiritual person he knows in Congress. I was more than a little surprised by that compliment, and I’m pretty sure it’s not actually true. But it shows the kind of connection we have, which I value both personally and politically. I cannot yet point to many policy collaborations with these colleagues, but I think that will happen eventually. Rep. Jeff Fortenberry (R-Nebraska), for example, cares deeply about persecution of Christians and Yazidis in Syria, so I invited him to join a dialogue about how the brutal theocracies in Iran and Saudi Arabia treat religious minorities, including atheists.
Deitch: Thinking about working effectively with colleagues who have strong religious beliefs, what advice can you offer to humanists and advocates for separation of religion and government who want to make their voices heard?
Huffman: I try to always emphasize how much I respect everyone’s personal religious choices, that I’m not judging or criticizing anyone’s faith, and that I’m not trying to impose my nontheism on others. I believe our work in defending the separation of religion and government will be more successful if we build alliances and coalitions that extend beyond our secular echo chamber. The Freethought Caucus is bigger and stronger because we encourage participation by members of different religious perspectives and look for opportunities to work with interfaith and other groups who share our opposition to creeping theocracy. That only works if we build trust and mutual respect.
Deitch: I suppose much of that trust and mutual respect comes from diving into policy. A lot of your work throughout your time in Congress has focused on the need for a clean, healthy environment and the threat of climate change. Throughout your time as a representative, how have you seen your colleagues’ understandings of our climate crisis evolve and how is that impacting policy?
Huffman: Many of us have known for many years that the climate crisis is real and demands action. But I’ve seen a real shift within the past few years, a much broader acceptance and greater sense of urgency built on facts and science. This groundswell extends beyond just the normal committees like Natural Resources or Energy and Commerce. All committees across all jurisdictions are currently talking about this and working more diligently than before—at least in the House, on the Democratic side.
Unfortunately, most of my Republican colleagues are stuck in varying degrees of climate denial because of their fealty to the fossil fuel industry and pressures from the extremists who have taken over their party. As much as I wish climate leadership could be bipartisan, we’re not there yet.
The good news is that more and more Americans are with us on climate, and while everyone wishes it could be bipartisan, they also understand we can’t wait for a GOP epiphany. Moving ahead on bold climate solutions is necessary and popular, and opposing it will become increasingly untenable for Republicans.
Deitch: What do you see as the next step in terms of climate and environmental policy?
Huffman: At the end of June, I and my colleagues on the House Select Committee on the Climate Crisis joined Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) in unveiling our Climate Crisis Action Plan. The climate crisis touches every part of our lives—the economy, infrastructure, public health—and our future. We need to tackle each element of this crisis if we’re going to have a fighting chance to save our planet and build a more healthy, just, and resilient America. No half measures, no empty promises. Our Action Plan is the framework to accomplish that. We have a chance to make real and important change with this Climate Crisis Action Plan—across all sectors of the economy and society, and across all congressional committees and jurisdictions. A lot of my own proposals and bills were included in the plan, and I’m looking forward to taking action on those proposals and seeing how other legislators and committees take that work and build off of it.
Deitch: It’s no secret that there is a concerted effort within the administration to use religion as the excuse to implement its own discriminatory agenda—whether it’s the State Department’s Commission on Unalienable Rights or the creative ways Housing and Urban Development, Health and Human Services, and other agencies are allowing taxpayer-funded programs to discriminate against clients under the guise of religious liberty. The attack seems relentless. What is Congress, and specifically your colleagues in the House, doing to reign this in?
Huffman: While it’s a challenge to push back against these relentless attacks on church-state separation, Congress, and the Congressional Freethought Caucus, is doing its best to make sure our voices are heard and the voices of Americans who value freedom of (and from) religion are represented. In February the administration announced sweeping regulatory changes that would undermine individuals’ religious liberties at nine different agencies. My colleagues and I in the CFC, along with the Democratic Women’s Caucus and the Equality Caucus, filed comment letters on each proposed rule. The caucus is also looking at ways to examine some of the more pervasive and subtle erosions of freedom of religion, like mandatory twelve-step recovery programs with a religious subtext. I think the main thing we can do to combat these attacks is to continue to speak up and speak out when they occur. We’re doing what we can to show the administration that we’re paying attention and will push back when they pander to their evangelical allies in ways that undermine our institutions, the Constitution, and civil and human rights.
Deitch: Looking to our current moment, white and Christian supremacy have played an outsized role in our domestic policy for decades now. But since the murders of Breonna Taylor, Tony McDade, George Floyd, and others, substantive efforts to change the way our country understands accountability and justice have taken hold. Yet, our existing federal policy doesn’t reflect the movement. What will it take to get them into alignment and where do you see opportunities to get something done now?
Huffman: I’m proud of the way House Democrats, led by the Congressional Black Caucus, are stepping up in this moment. Just this June, we passed the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act that would make major changes to police forces and set us on a strong path towards racial justice. We know previous moments of awakening have been squandered, and a lot of good bills die on the desk of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY). But I see reason for hope that this time is different. I believe we’ll be making meaningful change with or without Senator McConnell.
Deitch: Rep. Huffman, thanks so much for taking the time today. We look forward to seeing you at the AHA Annual Conference—is there anything else you’d like to add before we meet again on August 8?
Huffman: Just my sincere thanks for this great honor and for the timely and vital work so many of you are doing to defend the rule of law and the secular character of our government.
To hear Rep. Jared Huffman’s speech on August 8 in acceptance of the Humanist of the Year Award, be sure to register for the AHA conference at americanhumanist.org/conference. You won’t want to miss this exciting opportunity to hear from Huffman and other humanist, atheist, and nontheist speakers right in your own home!