We have officially entered the presidential campaign season as details of candidates’ personal histories and present lives come to the fore. In mid-March historians unearthed the Irish roots of presidential candidate Barack Obama (D-IL), identifying his great-great-great-grandfather on his mother’s side as Falmouth Kearney, who fled Ireland and the Great Famine at the age of nineteen. The news prompted Late Night host Conan O’Brien to joke, “Yeah, that should really solidify Obama’s support among Irish African-Americans raised in Hawaii.”
On a more somber note, a week later Senator John Edwards (D-NC) and his wife Elizabeth went public with the news that her breast cancer had returned, this time in an incurable form. Together they affirmed that he should and would continue his bid for the democratic presidential nomination.
And three Republican contenders-former New York City Mayor Rudolph Guliani, Senator John McCain (R-AZ), and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich-have each admitted to past adulterous transgressions that led to the breakup of their marriages.
Such public disclosures have got to be difficult, but are seen as necessary for damage control. A candidate’s character is judged by his or her actions and reactions, and when news is bound to surface of activities that won’t likely be viewed positively by voters, as with the three “extramaritals,” or that may suggest an ethical dilemma for others, as with Edwards’ decision to stay in the race, the candidate must appear to go on the offensive in order to defend his or her own integrity. The hope is that this will be achieved because the person is telling the truth about something they’d rather weren’t true.
In contrast, disclosures like the one about Obama’s Irishness are assumed to have been carefully orchestrated, and we therefore take them with a healthy dose of skepticism. We know what we know because they want us to know, and they want us to know because it makes them look good.
So how do you explain the disclosure on Monday, March 12, by Representative Pete Stark (D-CA) that he doesn’t believe in God? To be accurate, Stark indicated he was a Unitarian who doesn’t believe in a supreme being. To be realistic, Stark probably wasn’t at risk of ending his thirty-five-year political career when he answered a survey by the Secular Coalition for America (SCA), whose goal it was to locate elected officials who were open about their nontheism. You see, Stark, a senior member of the Ways and Means Committee and currently the chair of its Health Subcommittee, has no plans for a presidential run. Moreover, Stark represents a very liberal district of the San Francisco Bay Area where he has been reelected to seventeen consecutive terms following his first in 1972.
Even so, Stark’s admission goes beyond mere political and theological trivia. The American Mosaic Project discovered in 2004 that 54 percent of Americans surveyed believed that atheists not only didn’t share their vision of American society but also posed the greatest threat to the country. A USA Today/Gallup Poll this past February revealed that only 45 percent of Americans would vote for an atheist presidential candidate, even if the person were “generally well-qualified” and from their own party. This is why it’s no surprise that Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney generated no controversy when he stated in February, “We need a person of faith to run this country.”
Again, Stark isn’t interested in the Oval Office, but considering that almost 90 percent of Americans disagree with his personal nonbelief, why did he make it public? Moreover, does it even matter?
The truth is, it shouldn’t matter. In his book Breaking the Spell, Daniel Dennett writes that “What is commonly referred to as ‘religious belief’ or ‘religious conviction’ might less misleadingly be called religious professing.” In this vein, professed belief or nonbelief shouldn’t automatically pigeon-hole politicians and should rightly be trumped by the reasoning behind their beliefs and, more importantly, by their actions.
Lobbyist and SCA Director Lori Lipman Brown, who ran the contest that “outed” Stark, agrees. “I respect lawmakers (both god-believers and non-god-believers) who understand that their own theological beliefs shouldn’t dictate civil law,” states Brown, who served as a Nevada state senator from 1992-1994. “The important question for me isn’t, what does this lawmaker believe theologically but rather, will this lawmaker impose his or her beliefs on civil law?” Brown cites General Peter Pace, who recently commented that the military should continue to discharge gay and lesbian soldiers who don’t hide their sexual orientation, as an example of a government official trying to impose his own personal view of morality on government policy.
But in a nation where godliness gets associated with morality, and godlessness with evil, religious belief seems to matter a great deal to a great many voters.
It shouldn’t have mattered that John F. Kennedy was a Roman Catholic, but that was a hot topic leading up to his 1960 election as president of the United States (fears had been expressed that Kennedy might be taking orders from the pope in Rome). It was also considered controversial when Representative Barney Frank (D-MA) announced in 1987 that he is a “a left-handed gay Jew.” Then there was the flap this past January when Representative Keith Ellison (D-MN) became the first Muslim elected to Congress-and used a copy of the Quran once owned by Thomas Jefferson during his ceremonial swearing in.
However, each time one of these controversies has come and gone, we have grown as a nation-later wondering why there’d been such a fuss in the first place. This is an important process. Whenever someone we admire or someone important is forthright about their minority status, the public gains another opportunity to expand its tolerance and acceptance. Then this diverse nation of ours takes another step toward a wider reach of inclusiveness.
In short, everybody wins when it no longer matters, socially or politically, how one views the universe.
But that will be then, and this is still now, when anything politicians say can potentially be held against them. And so the question remains: Why did Stark say it? Why did he tell the truth about his lack of belief in a supreme being?
The answer, it seems, is quite simple and inarguably commendable: because somebody asked him.
The truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth–thank you, Pete Stark.