Will We See a Humanist in Congress in 2016?

Jamie Raskin speaks at the AHA's 72nd Annual Conference in San Diego in 2013.

When Senator Barbara Mikulski announced she was retiring from the US Senate in Maryland back in March, most political pundits were not necessarily shocked by the news. After ten years in the House and thirty years in the Senate, Barbara Mikulski will call it quits after 2016, finishing her career as the longest-serving woman in Congressional history. Her announcement sparked conversations about her possible replacement and the chain of political announcements that would follow in the weeks and months ahead.

Some of the names in discussion to replace Sen. Mikulski are former Governor Martin O’Malley, and US Representatives John Delaney, Donna Edwards, and Chris Van Hollen, all currently serving in the Maryland Democratic Congressional delegation. But if fundraising is any indicator of a favorite at this point, the edge would have to go to Rep. Van Hollen, who raised over $1 million in the first quarter of 2015, most of which came after his announcement to run for US Senate.

So what does this have to do with humanists? As speculation continued, people like me were quietly rooting for Rep. Van Hollen to run, as that would open up a Congressional seat in a DC suburban district that could very well be filled by an open humanist: Maryland State Senator Jamie Raskin.

It is expected that Sen. Raskin will formally announce his bid for the 8th Congressional District in Maryland this month. After first being elected to the State Senate in 2006, Sen. Raskin has been a rising star of Democratic politics in Maryland, serving in leadership roles on the Select Committee on Ethics Reform, the Judicial Proceedings Committee, and having been selected as Majority Whip (the second top leadership position in the State Senate) in 2012. He also serves as a constitutional law professor at American University, having received his law degree from Harvard University in 1987.

Raskin has been a strong proponent of progressive issues in the Maryland Senate, leading efforts to pass Senate bills on same-sex marriage, death penalty repeal, and medical marijuana. He also sponsored the first bill in the nation for the National Popular Vote, a plan to dismantle the unpopular and very confusing Electoral College system that currently elects presidents and replace it with a popular vote-only election. He has been endorsed in the past by Maryland Votes for Animals, National Organization of Women, NARAL Pro-Choice Maryland, United Food and Commercial Workers, Sierra Club, and Equality Maryland. Sen. Raskin is also married to Sarah Bloom Raskin, the current United States Deputy Secretary of the Treasury, giving him access to inner Beltway political connections that should serve him well during the election.

To many in the secular movement, Sen. Raskin is best known for his strong opposition to religious intrusion in politics and his willingness to identify openly as a humanist. This was first recognized in 2008, when the American Humanist Association honored the Senator with a Distinguished Service Award at the World Humanist Congress in Washington, DC.

In his acceptance speech, Sen. Raskin had this to say in response to the consideration the AHA showed about a politicians’ willingness to be associated with a humanist or pro-secular organization:

Has it gotten so edgy out there that those of us in public life are afraid to be associated with the great tradition of philosophical and ethical humanism? Do we actually have to whisper about the fact that many Americans still identify with the Enlightenment values of our Founders and refuse to organize their political thoughts according to sectarian religious dogma? I vowed to show up in person so people could see at least one other elected official besides the great US Representative Pete Stark (D-CA) who isn’t afraid to utter the ‘h’ word in public.

But Sen. Raskin is probably most famous for making this statement on the Maryland Senate floor during a debate over same-sex marriage: “People place their hand on the Bible and swear to uphold the Constitution; they don’t put their hand on the Constitution and swear to uphold the Bible.”

Assuming Raskin makes it through what might be a crowded and popular Democratic primary, we may see a humanist in the House in 2016. Another Montgomery County Democrat, House Delegate Kumar Barve, has announced that he will also seek the open congressional seat, joining more than a handful of state legislators and Montgomery County Council members who are strongly considering a run. The 8th District is considered a stronghold for Democrats, having provided President Obama with more than 60 percent of the vote in both 2008 and 2012.

Make no mistake: humanists looking for a true secular advocate and First Amendment defender will be watching this election closely.