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Stark's Atheist Views Break Political Taboo
By CARLA MARINUCCI
San Francisco Chronicle, Mar. 14, 2007
Rep. Pete Stark of Fremont might have crossed what some are calling 'one of the last frontiers' in politics when he delighted atheists this week by acknowledging that he does not believe in a supreme being.
Just a generation ago, says Democratic political strategist Dan Newman, 'you couldn't go anywhere near' such a statement, which 'would have been political suicide.'
Stark's frank declaration that he is 'a Unitarian who does not believe in a Supreme Being' indicates, says Newman, that a significant page has been turned - and maybe it's not such a political liability anymore.
But he adds that 'time will tell whether this is a case of the Bay Area being far out front - or merely far out.'
Stark's spiritual inclinations were sought by the Secular Coalition for America, an association of eight atheist and humanist groups, which offered a $1,000 prize to the person who could identify the 'highest level atheist, agnostic, humanist or any other kind of nontheist currently holding elected public office in the United States.'
The 18-term Democratic congressman, who chairs the health subcommittee of the powerful House Ways and Means Committee, agreed to fill out the coalition's survey on his religious beliefs. In a statement issued Monday, the 75-year-old Stark added that, 'like our nation's founders, I strongly support the separation of church and state. I look forward to working with the Secular Coalition to stop the promotion of narrow religious beliefs in science, marriage contracts, the military and the provision of social services.'
A spokesman for Stark said Tuesday that he would have nothing further to say on the matter.
The declaration made Stark a hero to atheist groups around the nation, which have had little visibility in debates on issues surrounding religion and values in Washington.
The American Humanist Association marked the occasion with plans to run an ad in the Washington Post naming other famed atheists, such as author Kurt Vonnegut and 'Saturday Night Live' comedian Julia Sweeney.
Stark isn't the first California politician to say he is a nonbeliever: California Gov. Culbert Olson, a Democrat who served from 1939 to 1943 - and though born of Mormon parents - said he was an atheist.
But such a declaration carries plenty of political risk. Last month, a U.S.A. Today/Gallup poll noted that fewer than half of Americans said they would vote for an atheist candidate for president even if he were 'well qualified.' In the same poll, 95 percent said they would vote for a similarly qualified Catholic candidate, 92 percent for a Jewish candidate and 72 percent for a Mormon candidate.
Newman says the poll shows that 'anti-atheism remains the last remaining prejudice that a majority of Americans don't mind fessing up to,' at least to a pollster. And he says the comments by Stark belie 'the recent trend which has been in the direction of candidates increasingly wearing their religion on their sleeve.'
Fred Edwords, a spokesman for the American Humanist Association, told the Los Angeles Times that he hopes Stark's identification will end discrimination against atheists.
'So often throughout American history, people who are nontheistic or don't believe in a supreme being can't get elected to public office or, if they inform the public of their view, they don't get re-elected, Edwords said. 'We're trying to increase the acceptance of nontheists as every bit as American as everybody else.'
Pollster Ben Tulchin of the San Francisco firm of Greenberg Quinlan and Rosner Research said Stark's comments also dramatize the unusual status of California as a state where religious beliefs do not take overwhelming precedence in voters' minds.
He said his firm's long work in polling has repeatedly confirmed that the West Coast is less religious than the East Coast, 'and California in particular, is probably one of the most nonreligious states in the country - maybe the most nonreligious state.'
He said that in polling in California 'we rarely target voters by religion.'
'In any other state, it's a very useful target in terms of understanding people's values and beliefs,' Tulchin said.
That doesn't mean Californians 'are not religious, don't believe in God, or don't go to services,' he cautioned. For example, he said, 'you have a fast-growing population in Latinos, and religion does matter to them, and religious issues matter to them.'
'But on a day-to-day basis, religion doesn't play a significant role in most Californians' lives in a way that shapes their politics on a daily basis,' he said.
Tulchin acknowledged that it is easier for Stark to state his religious beliefs in part because he lives in an overwhelmingly Democratic East Bay district where his re-election has been virtually guaranteed for decades.
'In a safe district, it means it's less of a potential problem for him than other places,' he said. 'The fact that he's held office for a long time and has been re-elected over and over again will not change his relationship with most voters who have been with him for years.'
Still, 'if he were to run for office for the first time, even as a Democrat, that could complicate things . . . and make people take a closer look,' he said.