On September 11, 2015, Megan Barry made history when she was elected Nashville’s first female mayor. Barry’s win is significant because it chips away at the glass ceiling women still confront in politics, but it’s also significant because it draws attention to the pervasive role that religion plays in US politics.
Nashville’s mayoral campaign was particularly partisan, with Barry, a Democrat, running against David Fox, a Republican. Fox’s campaign released ads targeting Barry for having the audacity to support the constitutional right to separation of church and state by opposing actions such as prayer in public schools. Others with a stake in the campaign also sent out emails that “accused” Barry of being an atheist and of leaving “under God” out of the Pledge. Fox himself referred to the ads calling Barry an atheist as “malicious gossip.”
Though Barry does, fortunately, support the separation of church and state, she does not identify as an atheist and says that she recites the Pledge of Allegiance with the “under God” language. (Perhaps if someone informed her that “under God” was only added to the Pledge as recently as 1954 during the McCarthy era, she’d change her mind?) In fact, Barry has openly insisted that she is a Christian. But it’s worth noting that Tennessee is one of several states in the country that still have laws on the books banning atheists from holding public office. These laws are not enforceable, but they do send a symbolic message to atheists, humanists, and other nontheists that their participation in politics is not welcome, supporting the idea that those who lack a belief in gods are somehow less patriotic and less deserving of full citizenship than other Americans.
The larger point is that Barry’s personal religious beliefs should have no bearing on how the public perceives her ability to govern. The Establishment Clause of the First Amendment demands separation of church and state, and candidates for any form of public office should show deference to this right by debating issues, not slinging mud over who is more pious. Voters should be presented with information about candidates’ positions on the economy, job creation, education, the environment, and a whole host of other pressing political concerns, and they should receive this information and make knowledgeable decisions about which candidate is best without bringing faith into the equation.
Megan Barry managed to become Nashville’s first female mayor despite facing “accusations” of atheism. Knowing that being called an atheist did not hinder her campaign is a relief. However, what would be truly gratifying would be reaching a point in which politics remain secular so that candidates’ personal beliefs are not even a topic of discussion in campaigns. When we achieve such a cultural climate, being an atheist running for public office will be perfectly acceptable, not the liability that it is still all too often perceived to be.