A Future Atheist Politician’s Dilemma October 8, 2009

A Future Atheist Politician’s Dilemma

A reader would like to run for public office, but there’s a major question he’s not sure how to answer.

He writes in an email:

I live in a very conservative, religious part of the my state and am very active in Democratic Party politics. I am considering running as a Democrat against our incumbent U.S. Representative (a Republican) who is an ultra-conservative, reactionary, theocratic politician who is an embarrassment to many of us, but unfortunately fits the bill for this very Bible-Belt area. He had no opponent in the last election and my main goal (being pragmatic) would be to at least provide our voters with a choice.

I’ve been thinking it through and one of the problems I’ve mentally come across is my faith (or lack thereof). In a region where even the liberal Democrats tend to be devout Southern Baptists, I want to be a semi-viable candidate. I think my issues could resonate, but if the question of personal faith ever came up, I’d find myself torn between being honest about my atheism or coming up with some white lie (I attend the Unitarian Universalist Church would be a decent one since it at least implies that I’m “church-going” despite the fact that it would be criticized. I have gone occasionally but am not a member and haven’t been in over a year. Thus, it would simply be untrue). So, if I were to undertake this venture, would it be better to avoid the issue or be honest and forthcoming if asked?

I’m sure there are ways of saying you do things that many church-going people tend to do (donate money, volunteer, work with the community, etc.) without necessarily saying you attend a church. But will anyone listen if you say you don’t belong to their club? I doubt it. Will the Republican opponent use it against you? Probably.

It’s a tough sell either way. I imagine you’d have a hard enough time running for office in a blue state as an atheist. In a red state? Good luck.

But still, it’s worth trying. It’s good to let people know other options are out there. Just ask Herb Silverman, who ran for governor of South Carolina as the “candidate without a prayer” — mainly to make the same point this reader is trying to make.

What would you advise him?

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  • beckster

    Run and be honest about who you are when asked. More politicians willing to be honest about being non-religious will lead (eventually and hopefully) to voters being less shocked by it and more willing to vote for someone who shares their opinions and values, if not their religious beliefs.

  • schism

    Well, he definitely won’t get elected if he doesn’t run.

    I suppose you have to take a long view on this. The more atheists that run for public office, the more exposure we get to the public, therefore the less othering the god botherers can sucessfully create.

  • REX

    Run and be honest about your worldview!

    You probably won’t get elected, but you will raise awareness, and hopefully illuminate bigotry.

    We have to start this process if we are ever going to hold some of these offices and truly be heard.

    If nothing else, your campaign should earn style points for a politician being honest about an unpopular idea!

  • I don’t suppose just not bringing it up until ‘they’do would work?

  • From what you described, since you probably don’t have a chance on winning, you might as well “take one for the team” and be honest about your beliefs. Like others have said, it will serve the purpose of softening up the electorate with getting them used to atheists running for office.

    If it were to be a close election, then you might want to plan on becoming more involved in the UU…

  • Alec

    For me, it’s all about honesty. If you’re honest and you lose, oh well. At least you stood for what you [don’t] believe, and you did the right thing.

  • If you’re actually looking to get elected, my advice would be to carefully avoid volunteering the information and have a media plan at the ready in case your opponent tries to use it against you. You should be ready to respond to ANY attack within 24 hours.

    Not volunteering the information is more difficult than it might seem – ignore any mailed questionnaires that include religious questions all together, use language that the religious find familiar (framing education as a family value, for example), don’t schedule or attend events on Sunday mornings, avoid addressing “the religious community” (which suggests you’re not a part of it), etc… Also, keep in mind that many voters will forgive a candidate they ‘know’ of anything short of murder. Hit the streets, talking to voters door to door regardless of their political affiliation. Answer the campaign phone yourself as often as possible.

    If your opponent still finds a way to finger you as an atheist and goes on the attack, I wouldn’t necessarily recommend defending your lack of faith – you might see better results by simply turning the attack back on your opponent, accusing him of using ridiculous claims to cover for his diminishing relevance. Non-answers work – that’s why politicians use them so often.

    If, however, you just want to make a statement and maybe make it easier for the next guy – let the flag fly, print your Atheism on your fliers and business cards. Just be sure they’re produced by a union printer or the Dems will eat you alive. *grins*

    Either way, I don’t think it’s something you should keep to yourself once the election is over.

  • Spurs Fan

    This is defintely a win-win for the potential candidate in a way-after all, as stated above, if there is little chance of electoral success, then being honest is a luxury he can afford.

    However, I too live in an area where very politically progressive folks are still predominantly religious. So, if the candidate’s main goal is to push a political agenda, make numerical gains, and not necessarily make it an “atheist crusade” (for lack of a better term), it might need to be handled more sensitively.

  • You should regard running for office as a learning experience -not for you but for the people who are exposed to your campaign. Think of the opportunity you’ll have to expose them to the values of free-thought and critical thinking. You’ll start speeches saying, “Yes, I’m an atheist. I don’t believe in gods or magic. Here’s what I do believe in…” And think of how many brilliant atheists would jump at the chance to help you write those speeches, if only to give exposure to those beliefs in front of a wider audience. So what you don’t win office? You’ll have put a sizable crack in the wall of ignorance that keeps our ideas out of the mainstream of American life… and with enough cracks, that wall will someday tumble down.

  • TXatheist

    I’ve thought about running too and in conservative Williamson County Texas I’d run as a atheist Republican. Why? Because I’ve met 3 of the last 3 Democrats who were very intelligent and tried to defeat John Carter and Dems have next to no chance. I am fiscally conservative so I wouldn’t have to lie. I’d just say I’m like Goldwater.

  • Siamang

    I think you should do lots of volunteer work with a cause you believe in.

    So that when your opponent asks your religion, you can say, honestly, that you used up all your sunday mornings caring for sick children or feeding the poor, or building houses for families in need.

    You can say “my religion is ‘helping people,’ I don’t care for dressing up on a Sunday morning to see who you can impress and who you can gossip with. There’s work to be done, roll up your sleeves and hand me that hammer.”

  • If you did run “out of the closet” it would be politically astute to call yourself an agnostic rather than an atheist.

    Far too many people consider “atheist” as meaning people who are damn sure that there is no God and will do everything in their power to turn everybody away from religion. As opposed to the technical meaning of “atheist” as someone who merely doesn’t happen to believe in god or god(s).

    Of course if you did run as an atheist you could at least increase public awareness of this softer, more gentle, “friendly” version of atheism (as you get trounced in the polls).

    As others said, you running would also be a good way to train people in your area in how to run a campaign.

  • I’ve thought about running too and in conservative Williamson County Texas I’d run as a atheist Republican

    It would be healthy for the Republican party and healthy for the country in general if some people ran as atheist republicans. Think about it!

    Hell, I’ve been life-long Democrat, but I would even consider throwing some money your way.

  • Drew

    Well, I am going to go the other way in my advice: lie as if your political life depended on it, for it does. Your goal is to win in order to effect change, and if you “come out” as an atheist in your first political run, you’ll be dead in the water before you can say “socialist”. Ergo, no opportunity to effect change. Ever (at least in that region).

    Bible belt, eh? Yeah, I’m with you….Ohio here. Not quite as bad as southern bible country, but plenty bad enough. So I know of what you speak. And it’s my opinion that you won’t have a chance if you’re honest. Sorry.

    I wouldn’t be the one to bring it up if I were you, but when the issue does arise (and it will…guaranteed), then you’ll need to be prepared with some backstory. The UU option seems viable. I know it sucks that you can’t be true to your beliefs, but you already have an uphill battle as a Dem in a Republican territory; don’t be a glutton for punishment.

    The unpleasant fact: We as a country have not evolved to the point where voters can see beyond a candidate’s religious beliefs or habits (the habit being the church part). Heck, if you come out as an atheist politician, you’re liable to get airtime on Glenn Beck! “How will he swear an oath of office???”, “He can’t even say the Pledge of Allegiance!!!”. Not sure Mister Beck will paint you in the best light if that happens. As I see it, you can prove a point (which will be quickly forgotten) or you can (maybe) win an election. I don’t see you doing both where you live. For what it’s worth, I’m a reformed republican (now a dyed in the wool atheist Libertarian type).

    Be honest when you run for your second term. 😉

    Best of luck to you. 🙂

  • Drew

    I also meant to add that all coming out as an atheist will do is motivate your opponent’s base beyond all measure. It’ll be the equivalent of jihad in their eyes since you’re a godless heathen.


    (fellow godless heathen)

  • Alan E.

    Compare religious terms to your daily life. For me, “Nature” is my temple. Show how your daily life already lives up to some of their standards. Making them feel empathetic rather than sympathetic will garner more votes. I like the approach Siamang uses above.

  • Miko

    I’d just say I’m like Goldwater.

    Well, that certainly worked for Goldwater. 😉

  • Is it OK to lie to gain political office? No. No ends justify means; no noble lie for me.

    Would it be OK to pander to the fiscal conservatives and say you are a fan of Reganomics, when really you just used to like his films when you were a kid? I don’t think so.

    You don’t have to make religion or atheism an issue if you stand for office, but if asked you should tell the truth. Just because every other politician in the world lies doesn’t make it right.

    Plus if someone asks “Do you believe in God?” do you really think they’re going to be fooled by the answer “Well I attend a UU church”?

    Finally: if you did get elected, then some blogger outs you as a lying atheist…

  • Delphine

    I would recommend lying. Pretend you’re a Southern Baptist devoted Christian and run for office. Hopefully you win.

    I would much rather have a ton of closet atheists infiltrating the largely religious political field, than have people run on honest platforms and get shot down.

    There is only one openly non-religious congressman, Pete Stark, and he’s in California where we’re largely liberal.

    There are supposedly 22 closet non-religious people in the House of Representatives. Maybe they should invent some kind of secret handshake to identify each other.

  • muggle

    Some good advice above. This is a tough one.

    I’d say the suggestions to focus on other things is best. Focus on what you want to accomplish. If your opponent slings mud refuse to sling back. I’m guessing if you want to run for office, you’re already in some way involved with the community. Use that and say, honestly, that you want to run for office to help even more, that the community and your fellow citizens mean that much to you. Be sincere.

    I wouldn’t hit them over the head with the A word. I wouldn’t even use the lesser A word Jeff suggests. Follow the movie stars’ examples on this if directly asked, shrug and say I’m not particularly religious and if asked if you go to church, tell them you sometimes attend the Unitarian. And do start attending again before you even put your hat in the ring (because it’s too obvious after). You must have liked something about them and they can be your friend here.

    Don’t be dishonest, be involved. Do be realistic. People need baby steps here. They’re only going to accept tiny doses. So concentrate on your community involvement and being their public servant because that’s what you feel your calling is.

    And compromise that tiny bit by going to a church you already found something in. (If you hadn’t, I wouldn’t recommend your returning but finding some other way of appearing “good”.) You don’t have to go every week. Just to the extent you used to for that connection and maybe for a home base. They can’t endorse you but they might be very supportive since it isn’t like you’re a total stranger just coming to get the cred. And, hey, it looks good.

    There shouldn’t be a religious test for public office but every election turns into this. You have to spin somewhat to get in and you won’t do that on the “I’m your Atheist candidate” when only 15% of us are nonbelievers. It does us no good to run on an Atheist platform (which btw is just as wrong as running on a Christian one; I was pissed at Ventura’s remarks from public office even while I agreed with them) and lose.

    I guess what I’m saying is run on who you are and what you are.

    And hell refrain from mud slinging even when it’s slung at you. Duck! But refuse to stoop to those tactics. Return not with but this is what you are but with what I am.

    I can remember a Republican who got me to vote for him with these tactics and he was a Senator for a good many years. Google Ben Nighthorse Campbell and see for yourself. I’ll give you that I’m still having trouble believing this pony-tailed Native American was Republican but he was.

    I was living in Denver when he first ran and Denver’s very conservative. Opponents slung he supports abortion. He ducked and merely said, I support abortion because I used to work as a paramedic and saw too many back alley abortions. His opponent said he supports the poor and women over business interests. He’ll support welfare mothers. He explained why. He did not take like potshots at his opponent (I can’t even remember who that was).

    I pulled the lever for a Republican, something I’ve done rarely because his standing tall like that was impressive and because he was pro-choice and for women and the poor. I thought he didn’t stand a chance in hell but I pulled it because he impressed me. I’m still not sorry I helped elect him even though I don’t agree with him on everything.

    Frankly, I think people are tired of all damned mud slinging and pomptous airs if you campaign on who you are and running to serve the people whatever you privately believe, you have a chance. A slim one but a chance. Don’t freak out if outed, treat it casually and don’t beat them over the head with not sharing their beliefs. Just stress the good you want to do.

  • CarolAnn :)

    It’s simple. If you lie, you will get caught. When you get caught you are not only an atheist/agnostic, you are a lying atheist/agnostic.

  • False Prophet

    Gather every bit of scripture you can find that a) argues for the separation of faith from government and business, b) criticizes religious institutions, and c) stresses social justice issues like poverty. It shouldn’t be hard–there’s a lot of Bible passages criticizing the actions of God’s anointed kings (Does “traditional, Bible-sanctioned marriage” include hundreds of wives like Solomon?) and plenty more stressing the importance of helping the poor and “the lowest among you”. Jesus hung out with beggars, lepers, tax collectors and prostitutes, not kings nor wealthy merchants, and every time he encountered other religious authorities he criticized them too. Be prepared to use these as counter-arguments in debates, town hall meetings, etc.

    Find the articles of faith the Christians in your district uphold that you agree with. There are probably several. Stress those whenever your faith is called into question.

    Try and find religious and community leaders in your district who have issues with the incumbent. Try and sway them to your side–how will you be different from him? If you can convince the influential people in your area that you’re the better choice (even if it means an atheist is doing God’s work better than a so-called Christian), they might be able to influence their congregations or members to vote in your favour.

    And, to cover all bases, thoroughly research your opponent’s record and character. In addition to things like not fulfilling campaign promises or whatever other problems you’ve implied he’s caused for the district, try and dig up any bit of dirt that suggests he is less than faithful to his religious beliefs. I’m just an outside observer from the Great White North, but I’ve noticed that Republicans will almost always play hardball, and thinking you can have a clean, fair election is delusional. When your opponent goes negative, be prepared to hit back twice as hard. I’m tired of seeing Democrats and American liberals cave to moronic conservatives and Republicans, and would like to see them grow a spine. Like Barney Frank’s justly-praised response to a teabagger or Michael Moore’s recent performance on Hannity. Some people are bullies or idiots–the former you hit back twice as hard, the latter you ridicule, and if someone is both, go for the combo. Voters will respect someone they disagree with who sticks to his guns over someone who is easily cowed.

    Good luck to you!

  • Stephen P

    Very tricky one. On the whole I like muggle’s approach best, though Siamang’s recommendation about voluntary work is also good. There doesn’t seem much point in calling yourself an atheist when the majority of the population (a) don’t know what it means, but (b) think they do.

    Whatever you choose, make sure you have your approach clear before you start and stick to it. Changing your mind about specific policies is not fatal to your crdibility (provided you don’t try to hide the fact that you changed your mind) but changing who you say you are will destroy your credibility completely.

    (Ah, comment preview is working for me again. Good.)

  • Tommaso

    I think you should turn any question you receive about religion around. Ask them:

    Why do you ask that? Are you asking me:
    What are the tenets of my morality?

    What are the values that guide me?

    Then tell them about the work you do to help people, that you believe in strong families, in education, in everyone’s right to belong in whatever congregation they choose. They can’t attack you if you say this, and if they do they’ll just look foolish.

  • Stephen P

    Murphy’s law of commenting: if there is no edit facility, you spot a typo in your post just as you hit submit; if there is an edit facility you don’t see it until the moment the edit timer runs out.

  • gsw

    If the “2% of the population” who are muslim can force the UK government to pass laws favouring them and disadvantaging everyone else, think what “15% of the population” who are atheist could do, if they only had the courage.

    Unfortunately, most a-theists I know seem ashamed and bend over backwards to ‘tolerate’ people who refuse to return the favour. They even go to church and help finance the catholic cause!

    I say: SHOUT IT OUT! I am just sorry I don’t live in your area so I could vote for you.

  • Never lie. Nobody has a good enough memory to keep all their lies consistent so why put yourself under the stress of worrying which ones you’ve forgotten. A political candidate needs to demonstrate how they have served the community in order to assure voters that they will continue to serve the community once in office. You need to be active and in a leadership role and, unfortunately, a church provides a ready made structure for this.

    It may even be worth your while attending a UU church in order to gain the experience necessary to do the job (in the eyes of the electorate) assuming that you don’t have it already. You don’t ever have to buy in to the mythology or make a claim to religiosity, you’d be working there to gain experience. A humanist organisation would be just as good in my eyes (better really) but voters might see “humanist” and read it as “communist” or “satanist”. They have not been provided with the tools to appreciate the difference after all.

  • Curtis

    Say something like “My spiritual views are personal.” Add a good bible quote against religious boasting.

  • John_in_Oz

    If you think being dishonest would get you elected, and you’re considering being dishonest- then you shouldn’t be standing for office anyway.
    But you don’t even have that as a problem. You don’t expect to win, so you have no reason to lie. (Of course you do- it’s always tempting to try to go back into the closet when you know others will despise you, whether from politics, religion or sex.) But if you don’t have even that much moral courage, again you shouldn’t be standing for election.
    One day, someone will be the first Atheist president. It might even be you, unless you let your Atheism be portrayed as some sordid scandal, rather than the honest, principled stand it is.
    Another bonus is that your opponent and his contributers might well assume he has a ‘lay-down misere’, and not fund, or campaign strongly.
    Even if as an Atheist politician you merely give him a good scare, that’s all to the good.
    Oh- my State of Tasmania elected an openly gay politician at a time when it was strongly anti-gay in legislation and attitude, for what that’s worth. He definitely would not have been elected as a closeted gay; that’d have been a scandal.
    Oh- dogmatism alienates people. Be light-hearted.

  • Be honest, no matter what you do. Harvey Milk won the election for City Supervisor and he was an out gay man. True, this was in San Francisco but at the time, most of the city was deeply homophobic.

    Good luck. ^_^

  • Ibis3

    How about just saying ‘My relationship with god is personal. If you want to know what my morals and values are, look at my campaign platform.’ That’s not a lie exactly, just another way of phrasing ‘A candidate’s religion shouldn’t be a political issue, especially when the Constitution says there should be no test of faith for office.’ (which is why I wouldn’t suggest running as an atheist or agnostic or whatever).

    The fact that your personal relationship with god is non-existent because you don’t believe there is such a thing is kind of immaterial.

  • The Other Tom

    If you tell people you’re an atheist while running for office in the south, you will lose. Especially if you’re running for a seat in congress held by a republican: they will crucify you with your atheism in the press to make sure you lose. And then what you will have accomplished is handing a congressional seat to the republican party.

    If you lie, you’d better plan on attending church, starting about a year ago, and regularly (let’s say, not less than monthly) throughout your term of office, and keep it very, very much a secret that you don’t really believe. Your family had better attend church with you, and you’d better be okay with whatever effects that will have on your spouse and children. Remember that you won’t be able to tell your children you’re an atheist or instill your atheist values in them, because they’ll almost certainly let your secret out sooner or later. Remember that if it comes out that you’re an atheist, the republicans will not only be able to crucify you for the fact, but also that you lied about it.

    Were I you, I would do two things:
    1) Find a christian who I think could do a good job as my congressman, and throw my support behind him.
    2) Move to a blue state so I can make a more serious attempt at running for office while being truthful.

  • keddaw

    Quote the bible at them:

    Take heed that ye do not your alms before men, to be seen of them: otherwise ye have no reward of your Father which is in heaven.

    And when thou prayest, thou shalt not be as the hypocrites are: for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and in the corners of the streets, that they may be seen of men. Verily I say unto you, They have their reward.


    Oh yeah, and the constitution.

  • Doug

    Learn from the master (Karl Rove)… attack where you are weakest! quote Jesus’ peace and love statements liberally and insinuate that your opponent isn’t a “true” Christian if he doesn’t know that these are the most important.
    i.e. when he supports the war, “blessed are the peacemakers…”
    when he supports tax cuts for the wealthy, the eye of the needle thing
    when he supports cuts to social services, whatsoever you do to the least among you.

    I say use the gospels against him, and insinuate that his Christianity is outdated hateful and out of touch with modern America. He’s bound to have a sex or corruption scandal soon enough anyway, and then you can win his seat.

  • JR

    Attacking your opponent with Scripture will invite comparison to the Devil tempting Christ.

    Let other people work to reclaim “atheist”. Avoid labels when you can. Say “I don’t believe in a god” or, if it’s true, “I don’t know if there is a god”. Then say what you do believe. People ask about religious beliefs because they want to know about your morals, so tell them about that.

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