A 2012 Gallup poll showed only 54 percent of U.S. citizens would be willing to vote for a well-qualified presidential candidate if that person happened to be an atheist. For women and African-American candidates, it’s 95 and 96 percent, respectively. The most distrusted demographic in the United States is also part of the fastest-growing one, with 20 percent of the country not identifying with any religion. Assuming that most of this population (with the notable exception of conservative atheist S.E. Cupp) doesn’t harbor prejudice against their own views, this means that two-thirds of believers in the United States think a lack of belief in God disqualifies a person from having the moral compass necessary for proper public service. Or, as the aforementioned Cupp put it on a 2012 episode of MSNBC’s The Cycle, “I would never vote for an atheist president. …Because I do not think that someone who represents 5 to 10 percent of the population should be representing and thinking that everyone else in the world is crazy, but me.”
The establishment clause of the U.S. Constitution, on the other hand, arguably protects individual freedom of and from religion, separates church and state, and prohibits religious tests for office. And, like most other constitutional provisions, it has been subject to different interpretations over time and has generally come to mean whatever we agree it means. However old and established they might be, legal principles often compete with overwhelming public opposition. This is why no legislator so far has bothered to amend the controversial Article VI of North Carolina’s Constitution, which disqualifies for office “anyone denying the existence of Almighty God,” and why in 2009 democratically elected Ashville city councilman Cecil Bothwell was the target of a state-wide campaign to remove him from office because of his non-religious stance (he calls himself agnostic or “post-theist”).
Last fall, the Washington, DC-based Center for Humanist Activism launched the Freethought Equality Fund PAC, whose goal is to help elect fellow nonreligious candidates into office and, possibly, increase the number of nonreligious members of Congress from its present total of one (Rep. Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz).
These developments strongly suggest that, despite what we may think about secularism as a contemporary political norm, by and large Americans do believe that people’s ability to be good public servants should be judged by their religious beliefs, or lack thereof. “No matter how much you agree with Romney’s economic policy, can you really vote for such a massively gullible fool? He is a Mormon Bishop!” said outspoken atheist Richard Dawkins during the 2012 presidential campaign. It appears as though the ever-smaller minority which I belong to—those who altogether reject the idea that we should consider a politician’s agenda, record, and policies only if we agree with their metaphysical perceptions—doesn’t have a horse in this race.
If we did, there would be a strong voice somewhere to speak out both against the notion that atheists have no base for moral values and the idea that theists blindly obey nonsensical quackery. You may base your political ideology in scripture—but you don’t have to; patriotism and a vision of prosperity can do the trick by themselves. And whatever our criteria for good governance may be (balancing the budget? Fighting crime? Improving education?) there are examples of success and failure in both camps. Winston Churchill: Christian. Clement Attlee: agnostic. Saddam Hussein: Muslim. Joseph Stalin: atheist.
By adopting (officially or informally) a religious litmus test for public service, we are walking down a dangerous path. What’s to stop us from one day narrowing our range of acceptability to belief in a very specific god? Any minority religion could be next in line for prejudice currently reserved for atheism. Conflicts would ensue and whatever’s left of the “wall of separation between church and state” would become obsolete.
As an atheist myself, I’m saddened to see that the founders of the Freethought Equality Fund PAC would lose sight of this broad picture and respond to discrimination by adopting the methods of the discriminating majority. Yes, adequate political representation is vital for securing a minority’s civil rights against prejudice and stigma. But helping people get elected because of their atheism is the most counterproductive way to go about it. Besides helping fuel the Christian Right’s “atheist conspiracy” theories, this PAC shows that they are not really opposed to the general principle of judging people primarily by their faith or lack thereof, but merely feel inconvenienced by the results of this judgment. As someone who does not believe in fighting discrimination by forming an Atheist Congressional Caucus, assembling the “atheist vote,” or starting atheist fraternities on college campuses, I think this spiral of mutual contempt will get us nowhere. It will make the American electorate more single-issue oriented, more factionalist, and more bigoted. The “wall” will be torn down.