The Ethical Dilemma: Elections

Experiencing an ethical dilemma? Need advice from a humanist perspective? In the spirit of the New York Times “The Ethicist” or Slate’s “Dear Prudence,” Humanist Network News is proud to introduce “The Ethical Dilemma,” an advice column by Joan Reisman-Brill.

Joan Reisman-Brill is a writer based in New York City. She received her BA in English literature from the University of Chicago, an MA also in English lit from the University of Michigan, and an MBA in management and marketing from New York University. She has worked in public relations, marketing and myriad facets of writing and editing for nearly four decades. She has been steadily increasingly her humanist identification and activism at an accelerating rate, and while she doesn’t pretend to have all the answers, she welcomes this opportunity to tackle the questions.

Send your questions to The Ethical Dilemma at


Getting Out the Vote: I am a low-to-no profile atheist who is contemplating running for public office. Right now the sky’s the limit—maybe one day I’ll even shoot for the office of the presidency. My question is how to position my position on faith. When Rep. Pete Stark was an openly atheist elected official I was heartened, but now that he lost his bid for re-election I’m feeling chicken-hearted. Should I pretend to have some middle-of-the-road benign faith and maybe even show up in a church now and then, or be honest about my lack of belief? One of my goals as a politician would be to uphold separation of church and state, and to support secular causes.

–Can’t Do the Job If I Don’t Get the Job

Dear Can’t Do,

Hey Chicken Little, the sky is not falling! Stark held the job since 1973—40 years—and he’s now 81 years old, so give him a break. But your point about atheism in politics is all too true. When the former president’s son Ron Reagan is pestered about whether he’ll run for office, he reminds people he’s an atheist—end of discussion. And if you look at our U.S. presidents, so far they’ve all been Christian—unless you consider Obama Muslim (I don’t) or suspect  that he’s a closet atheist who did what was necessary to get votes (I do). There was even debate about whether someone of the Mormon faith qualified as a “real” Christian. That probably cost some votes.

Technically, there’s not supposed to be any test of faith for elected office in this country, so you could invoke that and stonewall if anyone asks. But we both know that the higher the office you seek, the less the public and press will respect your privacy, and your secrecy will suggest you’re hiding something shameful.

There are plenty of non-believers who got into office professing a faith, and you could certainly do the same. At least then you’d have the opportunity to start making the changes you’d like to see. And maybe down the road you’d be in a more secure position to reveal your lack of faith and still get the votes. While you’d also be revealing your prior dishonesty, most people would understand. Nobody’s perfect, especially politicians.

On the other hand, once you reveal your atheism, you can’t take it back, unless you fall on your knees and proclaim the error of your ways. Maybe your first campaign will be in a progressive place where lack of religion is not a liability. Then you could start building your reputation and accomplishments as a secular leader. And even if you run as a humanist and lose, you’d be standing up for nonbelievers everywhere, which is in itself a public service.

I’m very optimistic that, just as we’re now seeing a surge for LGBT rights, in the future we’ll also be seeing a sea change toward accepting and embracing faith-free leaders. But until then, you’re right—you can’t do the job if you don’t get the job. Politics is all about compromise and trade-offs. Only you can decide whether you want to proudly display your scarlet A, or deflect that bullet with a Bible. I wish Ron Reagan would reconsider. I wish President Obama would skip the Prayer Breakfast. And I wish you the best. But if you want to be a leader, you’ll have to make decisions.

Where Would Jesus Vote?: I have always voted at a local church. It’s very convenient and I never really gave it a thought. But lately I’ve been hearing it’s inappropriate to use religious sites as polling places. It doesn’t bother me. What do you think?

–Chads in the Chapel

Dear Chad,

Polling places in houses of worship do indeed cross the line of separation of church and state. And these days, many churches are getting into blatantly attempting to influence voters—a no-no that should cost them their tax-exempt status. But there is a long history in this country of muddling the meaning of the First Amendment, such as “In God We Trust” on our money and “under God” in our Pledge of Allegiance. And let’s not forget all those elected officials swearing in on the Bible. So we’ve been living, often obliviously, with lots of infractions. But just because they may seem traditional or trivial doesn’t mean we should blithely perpetuate them.

While it would be nice if we could just snap our fingers and whisk away all these misdemeanors, things with deep roots can be tricky to transplant. Fortunately, there’s no particular urgency to change overnight or to turn a small issue into a big battle among neighbors. One of the many lovely things about humanism is there’s no strict dogma or doctrine. We are not preoccupied with rules set down in the distant past or promises to be fulfilled in the hazy hereafter. So we can live in the here and now, guided by good sense, practicality and a penchant for the greatest good.

You say your polling place is convenient and it’s been working fine all these years. But surely there must be another place—a public school, library, community center—that would work just as well, without throwing faith in your face. Why not contact your board of elections and propose moving to an equally convenient but completely secular location? Talk it up among your neighbors and local politicians. If necessary, enlist help from a secular organization’s legal team. De-sanctifying your polling place doesn’t have to happen in time for the next election, but maybe by the time we’re picking another president, you’ll have a convenient faith-free voting venue. In the meantime, people who are haunted by the holy ghost can vote via absentee ballot. The key thing is to vote.

Experiencing an Ethical Dilemma and need advice? Send your questions to The Ethical Dilemma at