Atheist candidates face religious test in U.S.

Annie Laurie Gaylor
Freedom From Religion Foundation Co-President

A recent Gallup poll shows that while more than nine in 10 Americans would vote for a “well qualified” black, female, Catholic, Hispanic or Jewish presidential candidate, only 54% would vote for a similarly qualified atheist presidential candidate. (By comparison, a “qualified” Muslim candidate would garner 58% approval and a Mormon 80%.)

So . . . a clear religious test for public office in the United States exists, despite the explicit constitutional prohibition of such a political bar.

True, things are looking up for theoretical atheist presidential candidates. This is the second year in a row that a majority of Americans indicate a presidential candidate’s atheism would not stop them from voting for him or her (it was 50% in August 2011). When Gallup first started asking this question in 1958, only 18% would back a nontheist. So while atheists are still at the bottom of the social totem poll statistically, we’re seeing a little progress.

Yet most political candidates are terrified of being atheist-baited. Linking a candidate to atheism is still seen as the kiss of death politically. Only one member of Congress, Pete Stark, is “out” as a nonbeliever. Although Stark was a good sport and consented to being “outed,” he had been reelected over and over for decades before his nonbelief was made public.

Unfortunately, the message most political candidates will take away from this poll is that atheists are still undesirables, even if slightly less undesirable than we used to be. Most public officials fear doing anything that might alienate the Religious Right, a poised rattlesnake one must take pains not to disturb. What political candidate today would dare repeat the famous words of John F. Kennedy as a Catholic candidate pledging fealty to a secular Constitution? (If feeling blue over the state of the state of secularism, I warmly recommend taking solace by viewing FFRF’s spring commercial with JFK saying, “I believe in an America where the separation between church and state is absolute.”) How dismaying that 52 years later, standing up for secular government can be seen as career-killing, even seditious.

But aren’t candidates and the media ignoring a growing voting bloc? With PEW figures showing that 19% of adult Americans — as many as one in five is not religious, the question of the day should be: When will presidential and other candidates start wooing us, the seculars?

The 15% to 19% who identify as nonreligious are roughly equivalent to the 15% of voters considered hardcore religious-right.

Freethinkers depressed about our standing in the United States today can take some consolation that so many of the most important Founding Fathers were at best deists in the sense of the classical Enlightenment, including Presidents Thomas Jefferson, James Madison and both John Adamses. Several high-profile U.S. politicians have been nonbelieving, including U.S. Sen. Thomas Gore of Oklahoma (albeit closeted in his day).

And of course, we can take consolation in the fact that not all of the world is as behind the times as America. Look at Australia, where it isn’t a problem that Julia Gillard, the prime minister, is an “out” atheist. Atheism wasn’t even a problem for Michelle Batchelet, who was president of Chile from 2006 to 2010.

And take a look at some of the other freethinking heavyweights internationally who have served as prime ministers or presidents:

John Ballance (1839-1893), who listed his religious affiliation as “freethinker” and was 14th prime minister of New Zealand.

Simon Bolivar (1783-1830), “El Libertador,” founder of Bolivia and first president of the Republic of Colombia (now Ecuador, Colombia, Panama and Venezuela), a noted anticlerical.

Georges Clemenceau (1841-1929), French prime minister, journalist, statesman, atheist.

Jose de la Cruz Porfirio Diaz, a noted anticleric and Mexico’s president from 1877-1880, and again from 1884-1910.

Indira Gandhi (1917-1984), a secular serving as India’s prime minister (along with her grandfather, see below), who was gunned down by Sikh religious extremists.

Jawaharlal Nehru (1889-1964), Indian’s first prime minister, an agnostic, rationalist and admirer of Bertrand Russell.

William Pitt (1708-1778), a wartime British prime minister who believed “the only true divinity is humanity.” 

Robert Walpole (1676-1745), given the honorific of England’s “first prime minister,” who was “indifferent” to all creeds. 

Robert Stout (1844-1930), Prime Minister of New Zealand and a “stout” freethinker who passed the Married Woman’s Property Act under his tenure.

(For more details on these and other freethinking politicians and public officials, visit FFRF’s list of famous freethinkers, Freethought of the Day, to look up by name or topic. If you find some missing, let us know!)

Give a cheer for the “I’m Secular and I Vote” crowd!
 

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