American Atheists and Agnostics: The Only Unelectable Minority? Robert Weitzel

By Robert Weitzel

No, I don’t know that atheists should be considered as citizens, nor should they be considered patriots. This is one nation under God.” — George H. W. Bush

According to a report in the Lancaster New Era, our evangelical and truth-challenged president, George W. Bush, told a gathering of Old Order Amish, “I trust God speaks through me. Without that, I couldn’t do my job.”

Born-again Christian Tom Delay, ex-Representative and former House Majority Leader, was arguably one of the most powerful–and most ethically challenged–politicians in Washington. He is currently under indictment in Texas for money laundering in violation of campaign finance laws. Like Bush, DeLay gives credit to the Lord. “God is using me all the time . . . to stand up for a biblical worldview in everything that I do . . . He is training me.”

Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist is a member of the National Presbyterian Church in Washington D.C., and a champion of the Religious Right’s agenda. In September 2005, the group, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, identified him as one of the 13 most “corrupt” members of Congress.

A University of Minnesota study published in the April issue of the American Sociological Review found that atheists are America’s most unaccepted minority, one that parents are least willing to allow their children to marry. A telephone survey of over 2,000 households revealed that Americans ranked atheists last, after Muslims, recent immigrants, gays and lesbians and other minority groups, as “sharing their vision of American Society.”

Penny Edgell, the study’s lead researcher, said, “It seems most Americans believe that diversity is fine, so long as every one shares a common ‘core’ of values that makes them trustworthy–and in America, that ‘core’ has historically been religious.”

Recall that the core value shared by Bush, DeLay, and Frist is a religious one. Recall also their trustworthiness.

Atheists and agnostics make up at least 10 percent (30 million people) of the U.S. population. Every tenth person in America is a “person of nonbelief”–a sizable minority. However, there are no openly atheist members of Congress and quite possibly none in any other elected offices in the country.

A 1999 Gallup poll found that 49% of Americans would vote against an atheist on the grounds of their atheism alone. Simply having a naturalistic view of the universe makes a candidate unelectable in American politics.

In a 2004 New York Times interview, Ron Reagan Jr. was asked if he would like to follow in his father’s footsteps and become president. He responded, “I would be unelectable. I’m an atheist. As we know, that’s something that people won’t accept.”

An unblinkered view of American politics should convince any thinking voter that being a person of faith does not ensure that a politician is motivated by that faith to act morally or ethically. Considering the rogue’s gallery of current Washington politicos, one would be justified in coming to the opposite conclusion.

This is not to denigrate people of faith who use their religion as the rock upon which to anchor their belief in a just and peaceful world, and their efforts to that end. But it is equally likely these people, faith or no, would be fighting the same battle. That is because of who these people are, not what brand of religion they profess. Atheists as well can be found fighting the “good fight”–just anchored to a different rock.

Physicist and Nobel Laureate Steven Weinberg once observed that, “With or without [religion] you would have good people doing good things and evil people doing evil things. But for good people to do evil things, that takes religion.” One need only consider politics-as-usual in America or the sectarian conflicts in places such as Northern Ireland, the Middle East, or India and Pakistan to appreciate the gravity of Weinberg’s observation.

In an April 17, 2006, New Yorker piece, Seymour Hersh quotes a senior member of the House Appropriations Committee regarding President Bush’s developing plans to bomb Iran’s nuclear facilities. Referring to the President, the House member said, “The most worrisome thing is that this guy has a messianic vision.” If we are to take him at his word, Bush really does believe he is God’s Middle East savior. This is an apocalyptic delusion.

Maybe it is time to give “people of nonbelief,” who harbor no messianic delusions, an elected piece of the public square. They could do no worse than some “people of faith” are currently doing.

Foundation member Robert Weitzel lives in Middleton, Wis. His essays regularly appear in The Capital Times. He has also been published in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Skeptic Magazine, Freethought Today and on the web sites, and 

Freedom From Religion Foundation