When Will We Have More Open Atheists in Congress?

The religious makeup of the Congress sworn in January 3 is virtually unchanged from the infamously gridlocked 112th Congress. There are 482 Christians, 33 Jews, 3 Buddhists, 2 Muslims, 1 Hindu, 1 Unitarian Universalist, and 1 open religiously unaffiliated member.

These numbers show that Congress, which is supposed to represent all Americans, is not representative of the country's diversity. Even though nearly 20 percent of Americans are religiously unaffiliated, there is only one openly religiously unaffiliated representative and the only member of the 112th Congress who identifies as an atheist just lost his reelection bid. And while there are many senators and representatives that are friendly to the nonreligious community, we need more than just allies to speak up for us in Congress. Meanwhile, Catholics, Protestants, Jews, and Mormons are all over-represented.

Why haven't more open atheists or humanists served in past sessions of Congress? The two dozen or more suspected nontheist members of Congress are reticent to come out for a whole host of reasons that begin with concerns about being reelected, but also include worries about the reactions from friends and family in a country that has been notoriously more religious than other Western countries.

Are the concerns of closeted Congress members justified by the evidence? Are Americans still uncomfortable with an atheist or humanist representing them in Congress? While there are certainly some Americans that are distrustful of those who don't practice a specific faith, it seems as though the country as a whole is getting more and more used to the idea of an atheist in Congress or the White House. This state of affairs may be changing because, as I mentioned in a recent article, America is catching up to the rest of the world in terms of irreligiosity.

Of course, part of the issue might be that there just aren't enough open atheists or humanists willing to run for office. Even with increasing acceptance, nontheist candidates, as a marginalized group, are publicly mocked and attacked. When I asked David Niose, president of the Secular Coalition for America, about this conundrum, he indicated that it may be the representation problem. He said, "Candidates are hesitant to identify openly as atheists because conventional wisdom says that longstanding public prejudices against nonbelievers will handicap such a candidacy."

That's why, barring some miraculous wave of atheist elections, Congress will most likely remain religiously overrepresented for the near future, ensuring that certain religious institutions and organizations will have an unbalanced influence over our nation's lawmakers and the laws that they craft.

Matthew Bulger, legislative associate at the American Humanist Association, worries about the type of legislation that is created by such a religious governing body. "Generally, members of Congress who are more religious tend to be a bit hostile towards legislation that is based on scientific research, either because it conflicts with their faith or because they question the value of knowledge that is gathered outside of their religion," Bulger said. "Just look at Rep. Paul Broun, who is on the House Science Committee and said that evolution and the big bang theory are lies from the pit of hell, or Rep. Mike Pence, who refuses to work on climate change legislation because his faith leads him to believe that there is no such thing as global warming."

This isn't to say that lawmakers should abandon their faiths or the values that they hold dear to please their constituents. Rather, it means that in order for Congress to be a truly representative body, more religiously unaffiliated people -- such as atheists, agnostics, and humanists -- must run for and be elected to office. It also means that Congress should do its best in the meantime to make their nonreligious constituents feel valued by not participating in clearly sectarian institutions like the Congressional Prayer Caucus or voting in favor of discriminatory resolutions such as the one that reaffirmed our national motto as "In God We Trust." Regardless, Congress will eventually have to become representative of those that it serves if it wishes to continue to be seen as a legitimate democratic institution.