WASHINGTON—For years, as he rose from California state government to Congress, Jared Huffman felt justified—even a bit smug, perhaps—when he’d decline to answer questionnaires about his religious beliefs.
He’d always put one form or another of unspecified, decline to state or “none of your business,” said the 53-year-old House lawmaker, who comes from a left-leaning district that runs from the Golden Gate Bridge to the Oregon border. That made him one of nine members of Congress of 535 who opted this year to keep their spiritual profiles blank.
“I don’t believe in religious tests, and I don’t believe my religion is all that important to the people I represent, and I think there’s too much religion in politics. For those reasons I felt good about not even answering it,” he said during an interview in his office.
Then came Donald Trump and his self-described “Muslim ban.” And Alabama candidate and Judge Roy Moore and his drive to return Christianity explicitly to U.S. law. And Education Secretary Betsy DeVos’ campaign to shift more public money to religious schools.
To him, those are cynical expressions of faith.
“I’ve seen religion wielded in such negative ways around here, lately. Trump does it all the time, so implausibly.”
But that wasn’t the entire story. As someone who grew up in a very religious home—his family followed an offshoot of Mormonism—Huffman didn’t feel entirely forthcoming being silent about the source of his values.
So on Thursday, he will release a statement saying he is a humanist, a loose philosophy based on the idea that humans should work to improve society and live ethically, guided by reason, not necessarily by anything supernatural. While there are some humanist organizations and congregations, generally it describes a worldview, not an affiliation.
The definition of “atheism” is simply the absence of belief in any deities.
Experts on religious identity in Congress say Huffman seems to be only the second member in contemporary records to describe his ethical system as not being God-based. The first was long-serving Democrat Pete Stark, also of Northern California, who made news a decade ago when he came out as an atheist. Historians debate the specific spiritual views of the earliest members of Congress, and records for many are thin.
The number of members who decline to offer a description of their faith identity has bounced between five and 10 since the 1960s, according to the Pew Research Center, which used data from CQ Roll Call—a news site that compiles a highly used guide to lawmakers—and the Library of Congress.
U.S. Rep. Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz., became the first member to identify as “unaffiliated,” in 2013, and has remained private about her beliefs since. Her spokesperson has added only that she does not consider herself an atheist.
Huffman is believed to be the first to call himself a “humanist,” saying the tag “atheist” offers a level of certainty he doesn’t feel—and perhaps arrogance.
“I’m not hostile to religion, and I’m not judging other people’s religious views,” he said. He also thinks that in 2017, people like himself should be able to be open about their basic faith perspective.
Numbers aside, the decision wasn’t easy. Humanist and secular groups reached out to him in 2014 when he appeared on “The Colbert Report” in a feature about lawmakers. In that, the comic host ribbed Huffman for leaving his status vague.
“Unspecified? Come on, grow a pair. What is it? Are you an atheist?” Colbert cracked.
“I don’t know,” Huffman replied.
Colbert’s journalist character picked up his pen.
“I’ll just put you down for ‘heathen-slash-hell-bound.’ “
Huffman said that at the moment, he’s a “nonbeliever, a skeptic,” but he’s open to having his mind changed. “I suppose you could say I don’t believe in God. The only reason I hesitate is—unlike some humanists, I’m not completely closing the door to spiritual possibilities. We all know people who have had experiences they believe are divine . . . and I’m open to something like that happening.”
Huffman had stuck with his unspecific profile. But in the past year, he became more alarmed with certain appearances of religion in policymaking, and became more driven by the desire to make space in public life for nonbelievers.
After consulting with everyone from his wife to the Rev. Pat Conroy, the House chaplain, to House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., Huffman decided that the right thing to do was switch his category. He thinks his constituents will appreciate it. Just one friend advised against it, saying it could hurt him politically.
“I don’t believe my religion is necessarily relevant to the work I do. But I do think it doesn’t quite feel right to just take a pass on the question, because your religious views can speak to your moral and ethical framework on the world. And that is something I think the public is entitled to know,” Huffman said.
Ron Millar, who runs the Center for Freethought Equality, said there is definitely a risk. The center is the advocacy arm of the American Humanist Association.
“Obviously there is a stigma, so there could be some pushback. But we’re only going to get rid of that stigma when more elected officials openly identify,” Millar said. “It’s similar to the LGBTQ community.”
While Huffman doesn’t identify as atheist, he is aligning himself with Americans whose primary worldview is non-theist—and who are concerned with the separation of church and state.
Openly identifying as atheist is still seen as a political negative, though the negative numbers are declining. A Pew poll last year found 51 percent of U.S. adults say they would be less likely to vote for a presidential candidate who does not believe in God—a bigger drawback than having an extramarital affair or having financial troubles. But Huffman doesn’t feel alone.
“I think in this day and age, it needs to be okay for there to be a member of Congress with my particular religious views, and I will tell you there are many who would agree with me—this place is full of humanists, agnostics and folks with nonreligious views of various types who are driven to public works for reasons that have nothing to do with religion.”