Can an Atheist Serve in Public Office?

That’s been the question many newspaper headlines have been pondering recently, referencing the fracas over Cecil Bothwell’s swearing-in as a new member of the Asheville, North Carolina City Council. Bothwell doesn’t believe in God, and some argue that disqualifies him from serving on the council, citing an antiquated law still in the North Carolina Constitution that bars atheists from holding public office.

Of course, all accounts of the controversy are quick to point out that, yes, indeed atheists can run for public office. North Carolina’s law is not only antiquated, but unconstitutional due to Article 6 of the U.S. Constitution barring religious tests for public office–a provision that trumps state laws on the matter, thus rendering the North Carolina law unenforceable.

(And in fact, according to Bob Ritter, American Humanist Association staff attorney, any lawsuit against the Asheville City Council would be considered so frivolous that any lawyer that took one up would likely face disbarment. That means Bothwell’s detractors, including Southern heritage activist H.K. Edgerton, who has been threatening a suit, will have a pretty tough time finding a lawyer to sign on.)

Six other states besides North Carolina have similar laws barring atheists from public office: Arkansas, Maryland, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Tennessee and Texas–none enforceable, although certainly people have tried to in the past.

Herb Silverman, the Secular Coalition for America’s president and founder, may be one of the most well-known examples of the challenges atheists running for office face. Silverman fought an eight year battle–culminating in $100,000 spent by South Carolina to keep Silverman out of office and a ruling from the South Carolina Supreme Court that no religious test for public office could be applied-in order to become a notary public.

However, despite the challenges atheists running for office still continue to face, the United States Supreme Court settled the matter for good in 1961when it unanimously held that the Maryland Declaration of Rights, which required those running for office to declare a belief in God, violated the religious liberty clauses of the First Amendment–as would any other similar law in any other state.

Though legally the issue is settled, of course many people still are wary of voting for an atheist for office. When slightly less than half of all Americans would vote for an otherwise qualified atheist candidate for president, and U.S. Representative Pete Stark remains the only openly nontheist in Congress, it’s pretty impressive that Bothwell was elected at all–particularly in a conservative state.

But why is this the case? Why don’t people trust atheists to serve in office?  The distrust runs very deep in some cases. Silverman, in a Washington Post “On Faith” feature, recounts an invocation he delivered at a Charleston, South Carolina City Council meeting wherein half the council members walked out because of his atheism–even though those who stayed said his invocation was fine. “What Bothwell and I…have in common is that some people judge us more by our beliefs than by our behavior,” Silverman wrote.

Bothwell ran for office calling for greater environmental sustainability, restoring civil liberties, and fighting corruption in the local government. But what exactly are the personal beliefs he holds that are worthy of such contempt?

According to his website, Bothwell is a “post-theist:”

It seems to me that theism emerged in human thinking over thousands of years during which we had scant explanation for many of the phenomena in our world…. I view my own position has having been shaped in an era during which virtually all of the day-to-day phenomena we experience are explainable by science …. Theism has become marginal. We are living in a post-theist era.

Bothwell rails against the corruption of government by religion, pointing to the current wars in the Middle East that were seen by George W. Bush as a “crusade,” and argues that when we think that God is on our side we open ourselves to despotism. Blind belief and religious posturing can lead us into peril, whereas, as Bothwell says, “those of us who believe that this is our one and only life are much more likely to value and protect the lives of our brave soldiers and our citizens than those who believe that they will live again in heaven.”

I don’t think I’m in the minority when I say it’s important that our elected officials put their duty to the people they serve ahead of any personal dogma.  In addition, embracing science over religion as the best way to understand and maneuver in our world is a desirable trait in our representatives. As many nontheists embrace these positions (and troublingly, too many theists reject them), I see no reason that the personal beliefs of an atheist should compel such distrust.

Atheists should never have to endure a religious test for office–whether one mandated by the legislatures or an unofficial version implemented by the voters themselves. There is nothing inherently disqualifying about someone who doesn’t believe in God. In fact, their personal philosophies may be an advantage as to the way they would serve.

Just as those who do profess a belief in God, atheists should be judged not by their creed, but by their actions and the policies they would institute. It’s our job to make sure Bothwell’s detractors–and all others who would refuse to vote for an atheist–get that message.