Congressman surprised by 'polite disagreements' over his nontheist ideas

Rep. Pete Stark, D-Calif., has been active during his nearly 35 years in Congress, including his current role as chairman of the health subcommittee of the powerful Ways and Means Committee.

But, earlier this year, Stark added another, slightly unusual, line to his resume: He's the only openly nontheistic member of Congress.

In March, Stark, who represents California's 13th Congressional District, acknowledged his nontheistic beliefs in response to a query from the Secular Coalition for America, which lobbies on behalf of atheists, humanists and other nontheists.

The coalition was searching for elected officials who identify themselves as nontheists.

A constituent nominated Stark, who acknowledged his lack of belief in a supreme being.

"It's not something I've been wearing on my sleeve," Stark said during a recent phone interview. "Nobody ever asked me."

Stark said he filled out a questionnaire several years ago from a group that advocates separation of church and state. Stark answered on one question that he was a Unitarian, and on another that he didn't believe in a supreme being which, he noted, "is probably not that uncommon among us Unitarians."

When the coalition announced a contest to find the highest-ranking nontheist elected official in the United States, a constituent offered up Stark's name. The Coalition asked Stark if it could use his name. Stark said the group could.

Stark figured at the time that "this is going to end up on Rush Limbaugh, and I'm going to hear from all the wackos."

Stark did receive e-mails, and from all over the world, too. But, he said, they were overwhelmingly supportive.

"I'm used to getting letters with red lipstick -- 'Commie pinko,' whatever," said Stark, who prides himself on his reputation as one of Congress' most liberal members.

Even the notes that weren't supportive "were, 'We're worried about you. What do you do to ease your mind when trouble comes? What can we do?' They were all mothering me, fathering me, I guess, as the case may be. They were the most polite disagreements I've ever received in 35 years in Congress."

Stark attended a Congregational Sunday school as a child, and his parents were Lutherans who weren't avid churchgoers.

Stark said he would sit in on the usual sort of philosophical discussions with classmates during college, but it wasn't until later, during the '50s, that he began attending a Unitarian church.

Polls indicate that identifying oneself as a nontheist or atheist remains risky for a political candidate, but Stark said he had no qualms. His district, which stretches along the east side of San Francisco Bay from Alameda to Fremont, is primarily liberal.

"I would suggest that, while there are delightful constituents of mine who are evangelical, very involved in the Christian Right, they're not in predominance," he said.

Stark estimated that 80 percent of his constituents "would support gay marriage -- not rights, but marriage -- and would support a woman's right to choose under any circumstances," he said.

And, he added, most would "probably see as their (political) opposition the Christian Right."

On the other hand, Stark said joking, "I've avoided conversation with one of my sons-in-law who happens to be an Anglican priest," and his three older children have become "fairly devout Episcopalians."

Of course, he said, "I have yet to be invited to the Congressional Prayer Breakfast," but noted, too, that "I haven't volunteered."

Oh, and the constituent who submitted his name to the coalition? He won $1,000, and, Stark joked, "he didn't even split it with me."