Few outside the US would have heard of Congressman Pete Stark, a Democrat who served in the House of Representatives for 40 years before losing to a rival in the general election of 2012. Yet when Stark, a former banker with an engineering degree from MIT, left office, Congress lost its first openly atheist member.
Yet with 535 seats in the Senate and House of Representatives, it is implausible that Stark was the only non-believer. Barney Frank, other Democratic Congressman also admitted to a lack of faith, but only after he retired early this year. For perspective, Frank had come out as gay more than a quarter of a century earlier.
In a 2011 interview with the Guardian, Herb Silverman, the head of the Secular Coalition of America, said he knew of several members of Congress (excluding Stark) that had “no belief in God". Apart from Frank, none have so far stepped forward.
The situation in the UK is almost the reverse of the US. There is no concrete data on the religious beliefs of MPs, but while American politicians frequently go out of their way to declare their fervent belief in God, British politicians tend shy away from public declarations of faith and atheism is no barrier to election.
David Cameron is a Christian yet his deputy, Nick Clegg, is an atheist. Asked in 2007 whether he believed in god, Clegg replied: "No". Ed Miliband also declared following his leadership victory in 2010 that he was not a believer. ''I don't believe in God personally, but I have great respect for those people who do," he said.
And while Tony Blair is deeply religious, his top spinner Alistair Campbell famously intervened to prevent the then-prime minister for publicly declaring his faith. "We don't do God," Campbell said when Blair was asked in an interview about the issue. Whitehall officials also stopped Blair from ending his TV broadcast informing the country that the 2003 Iraq War had begun with the phrase "God bless Britain." One civil servant told him: "I just remind you prime minister, this is not America.”
The US has always been a far more religious country than its colonial progenitor, with only a gentle increase in those who profess atheism (to pollsters at least) in the past hundred years. Research by Pew in 2012 found that only 2% of Americans admitted to non-belief, while 9 out of 10 Americans say “yes” when asked if they believe in God (Gallup). In the UK, only four out of 10 are likely to admit to belief in God, while 25% of Britons are happy to profess their non-belief (2010 Eurostat Eurobarometer poll).
Even taking 2% as a base figure for atheism in the US, more Congressmen than just Stark and Frank are statically likely to share their non-belief. That none have said so is a statement on American political culture, one that has become so entwined with religion that it is often difficult to tell well the stump starts and the pulpit ends.
According to Dr Uta Balbier of King’s College London, the nuance of US national discourse remains deeply religious. "This subtext shines through Presidential inauguration speeches and is prominent at Congressional Prayer Breakfasts," she told The Huffington Post UK. "Through patriotic rituals that blend religious and national language like in the Pledge of Allegiance with the reference to ‘One Nation Under God’ citizenship and faith become intertwined."
For Balbier being America means having faith, which makes it difficult for anyone of non-belief, particularly in public office. "If your faith is questioned, your abilities as citizen or office holders are questioned at the same time," she said. "That makes it hard for US politicians to come out as atheists."
According to Paul Raushenbush, the HuffPost's religion editor, in the US the term atheism suffers from "misunderstanding and prejudice", making atheists an identity most people are unfamiliar with. However, there is hope. “As increasing numbers of good and moral people begin to acknowledge their lack of religious convictions, while articulating the positive influences that cause them to want to serve, the more voters will become comfortable entrusting them to serve them in public office,” he said.
This trend will no doubt be aided by the increasing number of Americans who do not identify with any religious tradition or affiliate themselves with a single denomination church. Yet it remains unlikely that in the near future Washington will be welcoming its first atheist President. As Balbier quipped: “An atheist President of the ‘One Nation Under God’? At this moment, it’s unthinkable."