During a visit here four years ago, Maggie Ardiente of the American Humanist Association bragged to her British counterparts about the one atheist in the U.S. Congress, Rep. Pete Stark of California.
Her host, the chief executive of the British Humanist Association, indulged her for a moment before mentioning that the U.K.’ s All Party Parliamentary Humanist Group was 150 members strong, most of them elected atheists.
Earlier this month, Ardiente conceded at the World Humanist Congress meeting in Oxford: “We’re really behind when it comes to humanism in politics.”
After Stark, a Democrat, lost his House seat in 2012, the number of openly atheist politicians in U.S. Congress slipped back to zero.
But just because they’re not out does not mean there are no atheists in the halls of Congress. “We already know of 24 members of Congress who have told us privately that they don’t believe in God, but they won’t come out, of course, and if we tried to out them they would deny it,” Ardiente said.
Stark came out 35 years after first being elected to Congress. Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass., followed only after leaving office in 2013. Although commonly referred to as an atheist, Democrat Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona’s 9th Congressional District does not identify as such, preferring to reject all religious labels.
Now James Woods of Arizona’s 5th Congressional District is running for office. If successful, the Democrat would become the first member of Congress to have openly campaigned as an atheist.
Serah Blain at the Secular Coalition for Arizona supports his campaign and thinks many atheist politicians are closeted because of “a strong association in the U.S. between morality and religion — this idea that morality comes from faith. Right now it’s still politically risky to say you can be ethical without a belief in God,” she said.
That’s not the case in England. When former Prime Minister Tony Blair asked staffers whether he should add “God bless Great Britain” to the end of a speech they told him, “This isn’t America.”
Speaking in 2013, Blair said,”One big difference between the U.S. and the U.K. is that it’s okay to talk about faith openly. In the U.K. we’re a little more British about that.”
Unlike the U.S., England has an established church. The queen is not only head of state but also “Defender of the Faith and Supreme Governor” of the Church of England. In officially religious Britain politicians are uncomfortable talking about religion whereas in officially secular America atheist politicians remain closeted or unelected.
Linda Woodhead, professor of sociology of religion at Lancaster University, chalks up what some consider irony to patriotism.
“Americans have a much stronger civil religion and a much stronger sense of being a nation under God and chosen by God. It’s a bit treasonable, unpatriotic, to reject religion,” she said. “Whereas in Britain, civic identity isn’t as bound up with being religious anymore. You don’t seem unpatriotic or amoral if you express your atheism.”
Tom Copley is an atheist and elected member of the London Assembly, which holds Mayor Boris Johnson to account. He said the British approach is also about perception.
“In Britain we’re in general quite uncomfortable with politicians overtly expressing their religious beliefs. When (Prime Minister) David Cameron stands up and says Britain is a Christian country, I think it jars people,” he said.
Cameron made waves in April when he wrote in a column for the Anglican newspaper Church Times, “I believe we should be more confident about our status as a Christian country and, frankly, more evangelical about a faith that compels us to get out there and make a difference to people’s lives.”
Cameron is often said to be vague about his Christian beliefs whereas his deputy prime minister and leader of the Liberal Democrats, Nick Clegg, is openly atheist, as is Labor leader and perhaps future prime minister Ed Miliband.
Miliband would not be Britain’s first atheist prime minister if his party takes power in 2015. A spokesperson at the British Humanist Association said that at least four confirmed nonbelievers held the top job in the 20th century.
Across the Atlantic, no open atheist has ever been elected president. In a recent Pew Research survey, 53 percent of Americans said they are least likely to choose a candidate who doesn’t believe in God, down from 63 percent in 2007.
Several groups, including the American Humanist Association, are actively working to change negative perceptions of atheists and nonbelievers.
“Humanist voters want politicians that will stand up against the religious right that works to characterize this country as a Christian nation,” Ardiente said. “But most of all, humanist voters just want respectability and equality for nontheists in America.”
Last year the Center for Humanist Activism launched the Freethought Equality Fund, a political action committee aimed at promoting atheist and humanist candidates and those who support the principles of secular government.
And last week the Secular Majority, a nonpartisan grassroots network of organizers, launched campaigns in eight states to identify and endorse federal and state candidates committed to secular government.
Blain hopes that shifting demographics and sentiments in Arizona and across the U.S. will prompt more elected officials to mirror the Brits.
“Things are changing,” she said. “But it will take people taking political risks to make that fully happen.”