Machiavelli, Religion in Politics and Reflections on Hope: Trey Jones

Trey was awarded a $1,000 cash scholarship from the Freedom From Religion Foundation for his second-place entry.

by Trey Jones

When my Advanced Placement English Literature class was studying Machiavelli’s The Prince earlier this year, our teacher slyly asked the class if we thought that an atheist could ever become President of the United States, given today’s political climate. I perked up; for once my teacher had my total and undivided attention. A pair of the most talkative kids in the class (whom I had noticed over the course of the year, through their regular speeches, were deeply religious) sat quietly and looked subtly uncomfortable, as if the teacher had asked them to go and steal a bottle of liquor for her. Silence in the classroom devoted to discussion is a very uncomfortable environment, so I decided to go against my first inhibition, and I raised my hand. I felt nervous, but in a good way. This was the moment I had been waiting for, the opportunity to discuss something that had been nagging me in the back of my mind ever since the first 2008 presidential forum on faith and politics.

I answered the question quickly and without hesitation: “No.” A politician, I then added, of any sort would be committing political suicide if he or she decided to tell the voters that they just so happened to be a nonbeliever (or of any religion differing from Christianity for that matter). Not that a candidate would have an option to hide their real beliefs, as it seems every time I turn on the television I see Obama or Clinton discussing their religious backgrounds as if they were trying to make a desperate case to prove to the American people that they, too, are religious just like the “common” working person. My teacher then, not surprisingly, asked me why: “Why do you think an atheist could never become president?” I answered bluntly, “Because most Americans think that atheists are immoral and/or evil.”

You might be confused, but no, I indeed am a militant atheist. When I saw the prompt for this essay competition, the thought of that day in my English class and the conclusions I reached on this very issue raced into my mind. Article IV of the Constitution mandates that “no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust.” In reality (as with most things involving politics), there is a national de facto religious test given by the American religious majority in every presidential election due in part to the rise of the “religious right” and the “bible belt” politics of the South. This de facto test is nowhere more evident than in the 2008 presidential election. All three major candidates, McCain, Obama, and Clinton, openly profess their religious beliefs to the public and assure us that they are avid believers. When I first began to educate myself about religion and atheism in politics, I asked myself why candidates running for public office appear to make their personal beliefs public when America operates under a secularized government. After a great deal of analysis, I realized that it all harkens back to that great old frozen conflict known as the Cold War when the US government, fearing a communist takeover, set out on a propaganda mission to “unite” the country under capitalism, Christianity, and patriotism in order to undermine the atheistic and communistic Soviet Union.

One of the major repercussions of this “Red Scare” was the mission undertaken by the religious right and the government to prove that the “American Atheist” was an oxymoron. The American religious right has always misperceived atheists as “immoral” or “lost” (“The fool has said in his heart, /There is no God.’ They are corrupt, their deeds are vile; there is no one who does good.” Psalms 14:1); and when the infamous phrase “Under God” was added to the Pledge of Allegiance by President Eisenhower in 1954, atheists then garnered the tag “unpatriotic” as well and the oxymoron was complete.

Unfortunately for atheists today, one just has to watch the news to see that the religious majority still guards this skewed idea of what an atheist in America is with a vicious grip: immoral, unpatriotic, and “unAmerican.” Even George Bush Senior, holder of the highest public office possible in America, once said, “No, I don’t know that atheists should be considered as citizens, nor should they be considered as patriots. This is one nation under God.” This type of common and ignorant mindset, coupled with the fact that Christians make up the overwhelming majority of the American population, makes it no surprise that candidates feel the irresistible pressure to profess their religious zeal in order to gain acceptance from the masses and pass the de facto test. An atheist, as I concluded in English class, is completely unelectable.

Whether it’s the “bible belt” or the growing evangelical Christian movement–believe it or not–the American government is secular for good reason: to protect the religious minority from the will of the majority (hence the Establishment Clause, separation of church and state, and the ban on religious tests for public office). Many of the founding fathers themselves were deists who recognized the necessity of maintaining a wall of separation between the authority of the church and the authority of the government. While the religious majority in this country remains Christian, there is certainly also a steadily increasing population of nonChristians (including atheists) who are knowledgeable of their political rights, but frustratingly see that it would be impossible for them to travel deep enough into politics without converting or deceiving their constituents along the way.

Americans are quick to boast of the reverence for uniquely “American” values, such as equal opportunity for all despite race, creed, or religion. But when one analyzes the actual facts and sees that every single president of this country so far as been a white, male, Protestant (except Kennedy, who was Catholic and experienced great opposition over it), how can any person of significant intelligence state that an atheist (or nonChristian of any sort) has just as equal a chance as a Protestant of reaching the presidency, or any high public office for that matter?

In regard to these issues, I have felt bleak many a time. I have traveled through my “angry atheist” stage, and still wonder if true change is even possible in a country high on religion. The religious test for public office is wholly unconstitutional, but this clearly does not seem to be even a piece of the widely-known knowledge for most religious Americans when it comes to electing their public officials. And judging by the recent presidential election, this de facto religious test appears hunkered down for the long haul in American politics.

I have come to the realization, despite these daunting odds, that true advancement for religious equality in American politics and society requires one catalyst that unfortunately no one person has control over: time. America simply needs time. Time for the Christian majority to accept that atheists are not immoral “fools” who live in the shadows of society, but normal people who live perfectly content lives. Time for atheists to organize themselves as a politically active group united to spread tolerance. Time for stereotypes to fade away through awareness eduction. And time for the founding fathers’ foundation to finally be respected. The de facto religious test for public office reveals the long distance still required until the founding fathers’ true vision of America is complete: a secularized government where the political and religious spheres are completely separate. A government designed to be secular is mired in religious politics. I can only hope that one day Americans will finally learn to disassociate their religion from politics, for only then will all citizens (regardless of their belief system) be able to actively pursue their political potential to their fullest extent. (After all, don’t people always tell their children to never talk about religion in politics? Oh, I can only wish . . .)

“I am a graduate of Rancho Bernardo High School in San Diego, Calif. I will be attending George Washington University in Washington, D.C., in the fall and plan to major in international relations. I’ve been a militant atheist for about two years, ever since I decided to educate myself on the matters of life, origin, and all that jazz away from organized religion.

“I haven’t stood up for the Pledge of Allegience in one whole year, enjoy talking with religious people about atheism (many associate it with satanism for some odd reason) and separation of church and state (they seem to forget about that a lot, too), and try in some way to spread the message that unwelcome religious conversion is obnoxious. Outside of my life as an atheist, I enjoy playing tennis, reading, writing, watching movies, enjoying life.”

Freedom From Religion Foundation