Who Stands for Us?

Tom Flynn

On the day the 112th Congress was seated, the Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion and Public Life reported on its religious composition. Pew’s press release reported that “the 112th Congress, like the U.S. public, is majority Protestant and about a quarter Catholic. Baptists and Methodists are the largest Protestant denominations in the new Congress, just as they are in the country as a whole.”

Dig a little deeper, and things become less perfectly proportional. Pew judges that Episcopalians, Presbyterians, and Jews are somewhat overrepresented. Hindus and Jehovah’s Witnesses go unrepresented. But Buddhists and Muslims, Pew declares, are “represented in Congress in roughly equal proportion to their numbers in the adult U.S. population.” (One wonders how that judgment was reached for Muslim Americans when there’s so little agreement on how numerous they are; figures from 600,000 to nine million have credentialed adherents, while mainstream estimates range anywhere between two and six million.)

What’s most striking about Pew’s findings is who else goes unrepresented in the 112th Congress.

Us.

As you read the following, keep reminding yourself: I’m not reading something Tom Flynn wrote. This isn’t an analysis by Americans United or the Secular Coalition for America. These are the words of the mainstream, tending-toward-vanilla, generally faith-friendly Pew Research Center:

The greatest disparity between the religious makeup of Congress and the people it represents, however, is in the percentage of the unaffiliated—those who describe their religion as atheist, agnostic or “nothing in particular.” Only six members of the 112th Congress (about 1 percent) do not specify a religious affiliation and none say they are unaffiliated. By contrast, about one-sixth (16 percent) of U.S. adults are not affiliated with any particular faith.

That’s right. The absence of nonreligious people in Congress is so glaring that in a press release that boiled a nine-page report* down to fewer than three hundred words, an authority no less mom-and-apple-pie than the Pew Research Center spent roughly a quarter of those words lamenting it!

If you’re a well-informed secularist, the underrepresentation of nonbelievers is actually worse than you might assume. The roster of six senators and congresspeople who stated no religious affiliation did not include Rep. Pete Stark (D-Calif.), who identified himself to Pew as a Unitarian Universalist. Of course, Stark is the only serving member of Congress who in other forums has publicly affirmed that he is an atheist. As a result, the only open atheist in the House of Representatives did not appear among the six members of Congress who would not identify a religious affiliation but rather is one of only two members counted under “Other Faiths.” By the way, if you were counting on Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.) or Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) to make the list, Pew has them down as Jewish.

Who are the six unaffiliated members of Congress? They are Rep. Judy Chu (D-Calif.); Senator Michael Bennet (D-Colo.); Reps. John W. Olver and John F. Tierney (both D-Mass.); Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.); and Rep. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.). Are any of them atheists, agnostics, or secular humanists? Are they spiritual seekers temporarily between churches? Were their aides simply too busy to check a box under the religion question? I don’t know. If any would like to speak to the public on this issue, I’ll open space for them in the next issue.

Of course, six is not enough. Let’s see: there are 435 representatives and 100 senators—16 percent of that is roughly eighty-five members of Congress. That’s what real representation would look like.

Does that seem too blue-sky? Then consider that of that 16 percent of Americans without religious affiliation, about a third are self-identified atheists and agnostics. Another third are what the demographers call “hard seculars”—folks who don’t check the box for atheist or agnostic but whose answers to lifestyle questions reveal that they live notably post-religious lives. Only a third of the unaffiliated are spiritual seekers, between churches, and the like. So a Senate and a House of Representatives in which Americans who live without religion were fairly represented might have fifty-six members who are atheist, agnostic, or hard secular.

We have six. And all we know about them is that they’re “unspecified.”

The lesson I draw from this is simple. More nonreligious Americans need to run for elective office—probably locally at first to build their political bona fides. Running for Congress can follow.

Whether courageously or quixotically, Eddie Tabash has run for state office in California as an open atheist. (I won’t keep you in suspense: he lost, though he made a solid showing.) More atheists, agnostics, secular humanists, and other freethinkers need to follow in his footsteps. Even more of us need to run and campaign, perhaps not as “atheist candidates” but as candidates who make no effort to conceal their unbelief. Campaigning alongside them, I hope, will be a strong field of spiritual seekers, church-shoppers, and other religious nonaffiliated. Let’s all be represented.

Will many of these pioneering candidates lose? Count on it. But one day, one of us won’t. That’s the story of how there came to be African Americans in Congress, and Hispanic Americans, and Jews, and women. The demographics say it’s our turn. As Charles M. Blow noted in his New York Times column on January 8, “the unaffiliated are the fastest-growing religious category in America. Nonaffiliation is not un-American. Increasingly, it is America. Eventually, our politics will have to catch up.”

Where are you, secular humanist and other religiously unaffiliated candidates? Your country is calling.

Tom Flynn

Tom Flynn is editor of Free Inquiry, executive director of the Council for Secular Humanism, director of the Robert Green Ingersoll Birthplace Museum, and editor of The New Encyclopedia of Unbelief (2007).


On the day the 112th Congress was seated, the Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion and Public Life reported on its religious composition. Pew’s press release reported that “the 112th Congress, like the U.S. public, is majority Protestant and about a quarter Catholic. Baptists and Methodists are the largest Protestant denominations in the new Congress, …

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