Regardless of party affiliation, any elected official that serves his or her constituency for four decades should be recognized as exhibiting the essence of representative democracy. For all the talk of term limits, having one’s job be dependent upon a public referendum every 24 months would seem to offer just such a limit. Rep. Pete Stark of California, Congress’s only out atheist, saw his storied Congressional career come to a close on Tuesday when he was defeated in his quest for a 21st term. Rep. Stark was one of us, and not just by virtue of his nonbelief.
For almost two decades, we have let other groups and organizations work and succeed in defining nonbelievers as unpatriotic, lacking moral centers, and a pox on society. Yet Rep. Stark’s work on healthcare in the 1980s, his constant vigilance in protecting our men and women in the Armed Forces, and his care for the environment throughout his 40 years of service are an instant refutation of those charges. Some undoubtedly disagree with his politics, but none could question he was operating out of a deep love and commitment to his country. We may not know when he came to the realization that he was an atheist, but whether it was before his first election or after his 15th, his service as a Representative remained steadfast. He proved that nonbelief in a deity did not preclude a strong belief in our country.
Pete Stark was one of us. His departure from the U.S. House or Representatives is bittersweet. As we reflect on his loss we are emboldened by the apparent victory of Kyrsten Sinema in Arizona. An open nontheist, Sinema’s race was encouraging because her nonbelief was not a factor in her election. It was not used to slander her as un-American or suggest that she was unfit for office. Additionally, newly elected Senator Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin has not listed a religious affiliation during her time as a Congresswoman. Voters in Wisconsin looked to her record in the House, not to a biographical bullet point, to determine that she was qualified to represent the state.
Pete Stark was one of us. Reading his acceptance speech for being awarded the 2008 Humanist of the Year by the American Humanist Association, one is struck by his humbleness, his humor, and his gratitude at having the privilege of serving in elected office. Nonbelievers heal our sick, educate our children, serve in our military, raise families in every state and, yes, represent some of us in government. Nonbelievers are a part of American society and have been since its inception. The results of this election show that Rep. Pete Stark was not just one of us, in an important way he was the first of us.