Yesterday, Congressman Jamie Raskin released a statement revealing his diagnosis of “Diffuse Large B Cell Lymphoma, which is a serious but curable form of cancer.” It’s a devastating blow for one of the most admirable members of Congress. It also comes nearly two years to the day after Raskin’s son died by suicide.
Raskin was the lead impeachment manager for Donald Trump’s second impeachment and a member of the House Select Committee investigating the January 6 insurrection. In the next Congress, he’ll serve as the ranking member (the top Democratic position) on the House Oversight Committee. He’s also one of the co-founders of the Congressional Freethought Caucus, the group that advocates for a secular government and opposes discrimination against atheists.
If you support church/state separation and have been disturbed by the recent rise of Christian nationalism, you know that Raskin, a former constitutional law professor, has been one of the most vocal leaders pushing back against it.
That’s why yesterday’s news hits so hard. It would be devastating no matter who announced it, but it’s especially unfortunate coming from one of the fiercest sitting members of Congress.
Yet in that announcement, I was amazed by how Raskin spoke about the path forward. It’s not just that he’s able to joke about it—it’s that he makes clear that this one’s in the hands of experts. There’s not a single reference to God. I wasn’t expecting one, to be sure, but it’s striking to see the lack of God in a statement like this. Despite being devoid of religious faith, though, the ardent champion of secular government managed to be just as hopeful and inspirational.
“… I am about to embark on a course of chemo-immunotherapy on an outpatient basis at Med Star Georgetown University Hospital and Lombardi Comprehensive Cancer Center. Prognosis for most people in my situation is excellent after four months of treatment.
“I expect to be able to work through this period but have been cautioned by my doctors to reduce unnecessary exposure to avoid COVID-19, the flu and other viruses. In addition to destroying cancer cells, chemotherapy impairs natural antibodies and undermines the body’s immune system. I am advised that it also causes hair loss and weight gain (although I am still holding out hope for the kind that causes hair gain and weight loss).
“With the benefit of early detection and fine doctors, the help of my extraordinary staff, the love of Sarah and our daughters and sons-in-law (actual and to-be) and family and friends, and the support of my beloved constituents and my colleagues in the House, I plan to get through this and, in the meantime, to keep making progress every day in Congress for American democracy.
“My love and solidarity go out to other families managing cancer or any other health condition in this holiday season—and all the doctors, nurses and medical personnel who provide us comfort and hope.”
Why is that statement so atypical? In recent years, whenever government officials announced a cancer diagnosis, they’ve all included a religious reference, usually implying that God alone will decide their fate. The late Rep. John Lewis said of his pancreatic cancer, “With God’s grace I will be back on the front lines soon.” Republican Rep. Russ Fulcher of Idaho announced his diagnosis with a standard, “As a Christian, I believe things happen for a reason.” When the late Rep. Jim Hagedorn announced in 2021 that his kidney cancer had returned, he said he was upbeat because “Jesus Christ is watching over me.”
Those men were all Christian, so none of that is out of character. Jamie Raskin is Jewish but he has said he’s philosophically a humanist (“with a small ‘h'”). You wouldn’t expect him to make a reference to God. Still, it’s striking to see what that looks like in a situation where so many others in his position have referenced a higher power almost reflexively.
When Jamie Raskin gets better—and I sincerely hope we can refer to his cancer in the past tense very soon—it’ll have everything to do with early detection, a science-based treatment plan, and tremendous positive support from the people who love him and give him strength.
One of those people is Rep. Jared Huffman, one of the other co-founders of the Congressional Freethought Caucus. In a statement to OnlySky, Huffman was anxious but optimistic:
I’m obviously very concerned. But I also know Jamie is one of the strongest and most resilient people I know. So if anyone can beat it, and clearly a lot of people do these days, I’m betting on my friend Jamie.
Given everything Raskin has overcome, that feels like a safe bet.