Convention speech — U.S. Rep. Mark Pocan: ‘Everyone has a right to their lack of faith’

This is an edited version of the speech given by U.S. Rep. Mark Pocan (Wis.) at FFRF’s national convention in Madison, Wis., on Oct. 19, 2019. He was introduced by Dan Barker, FFRF’s co-president:

It isn’t every day that your own U.S. representative invites you to open Congress with an invocation. But that’s exactly what Mark Pocan did. It isn’t every day that the guest chaplain of the House of Representatives bars you from it. And it’s not every day that the representative signs onto an amicus brief challenging the chaplain for preventing it. Rep. Mark Pocan is a member

U.S. Rep. Mark Pocan accepts the “Champion of the First Amendment” award from FFRF Co-President Dan Barker at FFRF’s national convention on Oct. 19, 2019. (Photo by Chris Line)

of the newly formed Congressional Freethought Caucus. He has represented the Wisconsin 2nd Congressional District since 2013, which followed 14 years in the Wisconsin Assembly. He’s a small-business owner. He’s a union member and a lifelong advocate for progressive causes in the 116th Congress. Rep. Pocan serves on the House Appropriations Committee. He is also the co-chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, the largest values-based caucus in the Democratic Party. It’s a great honor for me to be able to introduce to you Rep. Mark Pocan and to hand him this award, truly deserved for being a champion of the First Amendment.

By U.S. Rep. Mark Pocan

Thank you very much for this recognition of our First Amendment rights at all levels of government. We need to recognize the separation of church and state, perhaps now more than ever. And let me just start by thanking the Freedom From Religion Foundation, the staff, its leadership, and all of you, their supporters. We are lucky to have an organization speaking on behalf of our democracy and our constitutional principle of separation of church and state. I really appreciate all the work you do in Washington D.C., and across the country.

No room in this country at this moment knows better what document the following line comes from: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” That’s what the United States Constitution says in its First Amendment. It’s the highest legal document in the country, and all too often the words of that amendment have been shoved aside for convenience, manipulation and outright advocacy for any one person’s interpretation of a specific religious belief over the actual rule of law.

I have fought my entire career to uphold that First Amendment, to keep a real separation between church and state, to not have a theocracy rather than a democracy. Yet the encroachment is as aggressive today as ever. Attorney General William Barr used religion as a rallying call for so-called morality, a morality he mixed heavily with certain brands of political beliefs.

Blurring of lines

We witness this blurring of the lines of the law all too often. We see it when funds are diverted from our public schools to religious schools via vouchers. Unfortunately, Wisconsin was at the forefront of these efforts, initially giving money to private schools, whose founders used school funds to buy Cadillacs, and, in one case, by a founder who said he could read a book by simply placing his hand on it. Look, if he can do that, there’s a marquee in Las Vegas waiting for him.

But, worse yet, these schools fail at alarming rates. I had the pleasure of questioning Education Secretary Betsy DeVos. I asked her about the one-in-four failure rates of voucher schools, with no accountability for taxpayer dollars lost in the process. Of course, there’s no real response, as the truth ran counter to her beliefs. Or what about the selectivity of these schools, which all too often don’t take kids with disabilities, or who act up or who are gay or lesbian or transgender, as they might cost their programs more or be excluded because of their beliefs? They leave those kids to the public schools, all while taking funds away from those public entities that need to provide public education for everyone. I will never forget when those private voucher schools tried to deny kids who are differently abled in Wisconsin.

But that’s exactly what happens when you give public tax dollars to religious and other voucher schools. You lose accountability and you hurt our kids.

The encroachment occurs when we do not allow nonreligious individuals to provide an invocation to government bodies. And you just heard our story with Dan Barker. Rest assured, that that isn’t the last you’ve heard of us about trying to change that practice. Rep. Jared Huffman and I have renewed a request in this Congress for a humanist to address the body and I look forward to sharing with you how that proceeds. 

Yet, we face that same invocation discrimination all too often at state and local levels of government. So, if you want to support the Constitution, you have to support the whole of it.

But I think it’s also important to point out that, while in local government, I’ve seen another side of some faith communities worth sharing, such as fighting for human rights through Madison’s sister cities in Colombia and El Salvador. My contacts in those countries were Catholic priests and nuns. I respected their application of their faith in a nonreligious way that actually lived up to their ideals to the well-being of the average person and not the enrichment of the church as an institution in state government.

At the federal level, I have worked with Lutheran and Jewish social services and helped relocate refugees from across the globe without regard to their religious beliefs. But what’s the moral to those stories? That you don’t have to force religion onto people to live the values of a religious faith and also to respect the laws of our land.

Protect the Constitution

When I was asked to speak about my strong belief in the First Amendment, I do it from a vantage point of knowing my job lies in protecting the Constitution, which is what it should be. When I got elected to Congress, I was asked by a reporter my religious affiliation and I remember it being listed as “unspecified.” Here’s what happened: I got the call as my husband and I were in Key West, Fla., for a little vacation prior to getting sworn in. All I remember was thinking, “Why are they asking me that question? What does that have to do with being in Congress?” And my long pause was taken as an answer to that question as “unspecified” as they tried to move on from that awkward silence. Sometimes it gets reported as “refused” or “none given.”

I was one of the lonely few members of Congress who swore their oath of office on the Constitution instead of a bible because, after all, wasn’t that the document that mattered the most to my job? I’m proud to be a part of the Freethought Caucus in Congress that works toward the very efforts that you all do to protect the Constitution.

I don’t feel an unspecified belief matters any differently today than the day it did when I was asked by the reporter. What matters is that I uphold my sworn oath to the Constitution and my job as an elected official. If I don’t do that, then I should pay a price from the voters. But I do know that most of the time, when we mix religion and state, we get some pretty awful combinations. Just look at the theocracies around the globe. Look at the wars, the mistreatment of religious minorities, the famine of the citizens that are all too often the byproducts of these theocracies.

We also have to look here in the United States, where some try to twist their religious interpretations to breed discrimination—discrimination against people who are gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender or questioning. Discrimination against women and trans people who choose to make their own health decisions about their own bodies. Discrimination against those who believe in a different god or a different approach toward the same god or no god at all.

Face it, all too often how we as a nation approach religion is pretty screwed up. Think of the hypocrisy of a three-times-married private-part-grabbing, money-loving, foul-mouthed, if-his-lips-are-moving-he’s-lying commander in chief, who cites 2 Corinthians, despite his obvious charlatanism. Many so-called religious leaders flock to his defense as long as he says what they want to hear in a few key areas that apply to their reading of faith. They’ll just turn the other cheek when it comes to all the other blasphemy.

I certainly have had enough of the all-too-many money-worshipping charlatans in religion who use their faith as an ATM. Their one true religion is money and there’s plenty of hypocrisy in that. But, I also don’t profess to have all the answers. I certainly wasn’t elected to decide which form or sect of religion is right and which is wrong, but I do know that everyone has a right to their religious faith. And by our laws, everyone has a right to their lack of religious faith.

But if you work for the government, you have an obligation to follow our laws. Period. And those laws say there is a separation between church and state. It’s really that easy. But it’s also very important for the 24 percent of us in this country who don’t follow a specific religion to have our values recognized.

We are strongest when we adhere to the values put forth by our Constitution. It doesn’t make us a religious nation. Just the opposite. It said, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion.” It’s in the best interest of this great democracy to respect each and every law-abiding person and respect that we are a nation of laws. That starts with the U.S. Constitution and the First Amendment.

So, that’s my belief system, and as an elected official, that’s the oath I swore to. And I thank you for recognizing that with this award. I appreciate your efforts and I look forward to working with you for a more just, more lawful country that treats everyone with respect. We can do that. After all, our Constitution requires it. Thank you very much.