It's not exactly common for a congressional candidate to openly embrace his lack of religious belief, but Democrat James Woods has done just that.
Sometimes Democratic Congresswoman Kyrsten Sinema is called the only atheist in Congress, and although she was sworn in on the Constitution instead of the Bible, she rejects being labeled as an atheist. Woods, who's looking to take on Republican Congressman Matt Salmon in CD-5, the district next to Sinema's, has no problem labeling his beliefs.
New Times had a Q&A session with Woods, a political newcomer who's currently the only Democrat who's filed to run in the Republican-heavy CD-5:
New Times: Tell us about yourself. (That's not even a question.)
Woods: My life started out a lot like everyone else's. I grew up in the East Valley. I was always curious and interested in computers, so I worked toward a career in the tech industry. I figured I'd have a pretty regular life.
Then, a month before my 27th birthday, I was working as a contractor for a company that didn't offer me any health benefits and I ended up getting really sick. I was hospitalized for MRSA--a life-threatening infection that's resistant to antibiotics. It almost killed me. While I was in the hospital, my vision started to get dim on a Monday. By Friday, I never saw anything again. The doctors had to cut out part of my collar bone and amputate most of my toes. I went into organ failure and ended up on dialysis. I survived, but I spent two years in and out of hospitals while I recovered. And my family and I needed help. Without Social Security Disability, Nutrition Assistance and Medicaid/Medicare, I wouldn't have made it. I would have died.
I've been fortunate in my life to have incredible support. I had a dedicated and talented medical team. I have a supportive family. I live in a country where our government invests in people like me--people who want to contribute, but who hit roadblocks. When I finally got my new kidney in January and was able to get off dialysis, I decided it was time to give back. So I'm running for Congress.
New Times: Studies show an increasingly large chunk of the population identifies as nonreligious, but do you think nonreligious political candidates still have a harder time getting elected than religious, particularly Christian, candidates?
Woods: The polling on this is disappointing. Gallup reported in 2012 that 43% of voters in the United States would not vote for an atheist candidate. Regardless of qualifications, atheism is a dealbreaker. The only way to change this is to start introducing voters to atheists. Religion is really married to morality in the minds of the American public and people are unfamiliar with the many beautiful, powerful ethical systems practiced by atheists. Personally, I'm a Humanist, which means that I believe in the dignity and worth of human beings. I believe we should treat one another with respect. I believe we live in an extraordinarily big universe where life is rare and precious and should be protected. I believe in the creative power of the human mind to solve problems and improve the world around us. And I believe these values are the kind we all want to see more of in our elected officials.
New Times: On the other hand, if you consider Congresswoman Kyrsten Sinema and state Representative Juan Mendez both getting elected, do you think there might be some momentum locally for nonreligious candidates?
Woods: Arizona has a surprisingly powerful grassroots secular movement. We have nontheistic communities all over the state that are organized and politically active, and we're growing. The Secular Student Alliance is even having a national conference in Phoenix this year. While we've definitely witnessed some intensely conservative religious legislation here, the brazenness of the Religious Right has helped motivate previously apathetic voters. People are getting involved because religion in government has gone too far. Representative Juan Mendez's message about his Humanism is resonating with people all over the country both because his honesty is refreshing and because Humanist values are the perfect antidote to the poison of theocracy. We are absolutely building momentum in this state. Many elected officials have been brave in their advocacy for atheists--and we have some very dedicated lobbyists, like Secular Coalition for Arizona's Tory Anderson, who make sure nontheistic voices are heard. Part of what we hope to do with our campaign is to use our momentum to make it easier for other candidates to be authentic about their beliefs.
New Times: How do you plan on explaining your beliefs to voters, particularly ones who seem wary of a nonreligious candidate?
Woods: The best thing my campaign team and I can do is be open and honest about our beliefs. And we need to be responsible representatives of the atheist community so people see how absurd the stereotypes are. I really believe Humanist values belong to the higher ground and that they exist in almost every religion and ethical system. It's basically just Golden Rule stuff. We'll change attitudes about atheism the same way we raise awareness on disability issues or LGBT equality or poverty--we keep the conversation going and we stay honest.
New Times: Why do you want a seat in Congress anyway?
Woods: Going blind changed so much for me. When I stopped being able to see people, I had to learn how to really start listening. The things I heard from people made me want to work for change. I found that listening is an ability many people in government have lost. Politicians try to tell us what we need rather than listening to us tell the stories of our experiences and how we can be part of the solutions to the problems our country faces. Our elected officials talk at us about what they think we deserve instead of hearing us. What I hear is that my district is full of voters who feel disconnected, and I want to help reconnect them. What I hear is frustration about the shocking disparities between the decision-makers in Washington and the people they're supposed to represent. I want to represent those people. What I hear is confusion among Democrats who don't understand why our party is moving to the middle in response to the Republican rhetoric--essentially allowing Republicans to dictate the topics of our conversations. What I hear is working-class voters asking for leaders who are unafraid of championing Progressive values at a time when Progressive solutions are so desperately needed. I can champion those values. And because of how much I've received in my life from my family, my community, my government and my kidney donor, I really want to give back.
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New Times: Why do you think you can represent CD-5 better than Congressman Matt Salmon?
Woods: Representative Salmon is doing a great job of representing the Koch Brothers, but voters in CD5 deserve to have their voices weigh more heavily in lawmaking than big money. Representative Salmon received an F on the Secular Coalition for America's scorecard; he is consistently voting for religion in government, which means he's voting against the religious liberty of anyone who is not part of whatever religion is in the majority. He stands against marriage equality and reproductive justice--and these are values that stabilize American families and the economy. We have more than 100,000 people 65 and older in CD5, and Representative Salmon consistently votes against the programs that keep seniors safe and healthy and out of poverty. We have nearly 80,000 civilians with disabilities in CD5, and thousands of people with disabilities working for sub-minimum wage in segregated workshops in our state. These are not people who Salmon is representing. With only 19% employment among working-age people with disabilities, Representative Salmon nonetheless opposes the government empowerment programs that help people like me get on our feet and into the economy. Even right-wing working-class Americans support Medicaid and other Progressive policies like family and medical leave, and an increased minimum wage. These people deserve representation, and Salmon is not listening. I'll represent everyone in CD5--not just people with deep pockets.
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