(CNSNews.com) - A U.S. Congressman has caused a stir by becoming the first member of the legislative body to declare himself not to believe in God.
The announcement by Rep. Pete Stark (D-Calif.) was celebrated by atheist and humanist groups Tuesday, while one Christian group described his proclamation as "unfortunate."
Stark, a member of Congress since 1973 and a senior member of the House Ways and Means Committee, made the unprecedented disclosure in response to an inquiry by the Secular Coalition of America (SCA). Stark acknowledged that he was a Unitarian - a creedless system that does not require belief in a deity.
The SCA held a contest offering $1,000 to the person able to identify the nontheist holding the highest public office in the country. Four elected officials were willing to announce their status, but as a member of Congress, Stark trumped the other three - a school board president, a school committee member, and a town meeting member.
"It is unfortunate in a society that is going down the path of godlessness and making right wrong and wrong right, that we continue down this path by celebrating one member of Congress who denies that God exists altogether," Concerned Women for America Director of Legislative Relations Mike Mears told Cybercast News Service.
"The founding fathers ... founded this country on godly principles," Mears said. "Fifty-one of the 56 signers [of the Declaration of Independence] had a Christian worldview and [Stark] wants to change that and celebrate - basically - godlessness."
Fred Edwords of the American Humanist Association pointed out that the news of a lawmaker not believing in God would not cause a stir in Europe, "where the public has embraced secularism to a degree not seen in the United States."
"Clearly, when it comes to American religious prejudice, we still have a lot to overcome," Edwords said.
The SCA said in a press release that Americans without a "God-belief" are more distrusted than any other minority group in the nation. The organization said that surveys suggest the majority of Americans would not vote for an atheist president even if he were the most qualified candidate.
Lori Brown of the SCA told Cybercast News Service that she hopes this move will help to break down the walls between theists and nontheists and help to overcome stereotypes regarding people who do not believe in God.
"It starts breaking down people's misunderstandings of who we are when they start seeing that this person, who has served in Congress for over 30 years of exemplary service, may have a different belief system ... but is a perfectly patriotic member of our society," Brown said.
She said there seems to be a "double standard" in politics when it comes to discussing what politicians believe.
"A lot of politicians and elected officials are encouraged in our society to discuss their God-belief and their theology as much as possible," she said. "However if someone doesn't share a God-belief, they are really encouraged not to tell anyone."
Brown said that the SCA applauds Stark's decision especially since it could hurt his chances at re-election, an outcome she said was "very sad ... but it's also the political reality in our nation."
Mears agreed that the announcement could have an effect on voters. "For someone to stand up and proclaim ... that they do not believe in God I would [suspect] that they are way out of line with their district.
"I think a Christian worldview is proper for a politician to have," he said. "I want them to be looking outside of themselves for answers to big issues."
Stark won his 2006 reelection against Republican George Bruno by a 48 percent margin, winning 83,909 of the 113,102 votes cast.
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