Atheists’ Political Holy Grail February 10, 2012

Atheists’ Political Holy Grail

My friend Paul Fidalgo has written a Kindle-only book called “Under the Stained Glass Ceiling: Atheists’ Precarious Place in Modern American Politics.” (The title is self-explanatory.)

One of the chapters from the book discusses the prospect of an atheist getting into the Oval Office and Paul was kind enough to let me reprint it here (I’ve omitted all the footnotes below, but I assure you they are there):

The 2000 film The Contender featured as its protagonist an avowed atheist senator, selected to fill a vacant vice-presidency. The contender in question was eventually confirmed, but even the character’s portrayer, Joan Allen, found the prospect unrealistic. “That’s where the film takes latitude,” she has said. “It’s idealistic, I knew it was a very gutsy thing for my character to say. But I don’t think Americans could tolerate an atheist in that office.”

Allen’s political analysis is right on. As the New Yorker’s Hendrik Hertzberg wrote in 2000:

Forty years [after John F. Kennedy was elected president] religious prejudice, which never carried quite the sting of racism, has never been weaker. Only nonbelievers are left out of the atmosphere of ecumenical warmth: it is inconceivable that a professed atheist or agnostic could be elected President today, and even an unchurched Deist like Jefferson wouldn’t stand a chance.

Had Kennedy been an atheist, he would have never been given a chance to tell the country what it ought and ought not ask of its country. Gallup polls leading up to the 1960 presidential campaign showed heavy resistance to a hypothetical atheist candidate, with outright refusals to vote for such a person never dipping below 74 percent. Not until the turn of the millennium did polls begin to show that a majority of Americans would at least refrain from ruling out voting for a well-qualified atheist candidate for president. In 2000, a Zogby poll showed that figure to be at 59 percent, dipping seven years later to 51 percent. In the 2007 survey, no group fared more poorly on the presidential level than atheists. 39 percent declared that atheism would rule out the possibility of their vote, while gays, Mormons, and Arab-Americans all outperformed atheists.

Different surveys from the same period can yield very different results on the question of the acceptance of an atheist presidential candidate. While some polls did show the tide turning in the 2000s in the atheists’ favor, a Princeton survey in 2006 showed the percentage of Americans who would vote for an atheist candidate mired at 33.

In 2006, a Gallup poll showed that a meager 14 percent of Americans thought their fellow citizens were “ready” for an atheist president. Democrats were the most pessimistic for nonbelievers’ chances, with only 8 percent thinking the country prepared, as compared to 14 percent of Republicans and 21 percent of independents. This is mirrored in a 2007 Fox News poll that had the number at 15 percent confidence in the prospect. One must take into thorough consideration, however, what is meant when a poll asks whether the respondent feels America is “ready” for one kind of candidate or another. Certainly, the question can be heard as to ask the respondent what they think of the current cultural climate, but it can also be filtered by the biases of the respondent or the prejudices of their immediate surroundings. To what the respondent thinks they are responding can make a great deal of difference, and may not reflect the reality of the public’s attitudes as a whole.

In the face of these daunting numbers, Christopher Hitchens, characteristically, scoffs. “How do they know they wouldn’t [vote for an atheist]?” he asks, “They haven’t had an offer from a decent atheist yet…if Republicans had been asked in the seventies, ‘would they vote for a divorced ex-movie actor for president,’ they probably would have said ‘no.’”

John C. Green of the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life knows that an atheist would have great trouble reaching national elective office, but offers a remedy: “A good way to change perceptions is to have effective atheist candidates and officeholders.” In other words, some atheists will have to throw their hats in the ring to begin making gains for future office seekers. Of course, Pete Stark is the beginning of realizing this prescription, but there is little else on the horizon.

But if we suppose the polls look harsher for atheists than is actually the case, what would happen if a plausible atheist candidate took a run for the White House? Fearing for the prospects this candidate, atheist blogger Brent Rasmussen has written in fervent opposition, believing that the current political climate allows only for a major backlash against atheists should such a candidate run. “I believe that a candidate who made an issue of their atheism would become a laughingstock gimmick,” he has written. Rasmussen thinks the only chance for an atheist candidate is for a series of closeted atheist politicians to declare themselves to the point that the concept becomes dull and insignificant. But for now, he insists that someone waiting for an atheist to throw his hat into the ring is “dreaming,” saying, “It’ll never happen in our lifetime. In fact, if the country swings back towards the conservative end of the spectrum again in a few years…I wouldn’t be surprised if atheists were rounded up and placed into detention camps — just for being atheists.”

If an atheist were to fight his or her way to the general election, that candidate would almost certainly be a Democrat. Those describing themselves as liberal were far more likely to support an atheist candidate for president, according to a February 2007 Gallup poll. 67 percent of liberals showed a willingness to support an atheist candidate, versus 48 percent of moderates and only 27 percent of conservatives. (Blogger Robert Ellman, however, imagines an atheist presidential prospect rising from the Republican ranks, musing, “Wouldn’t it be wonderful if an attractive atheist candidate with a photogenic family took on the GOP’s radical Christians? I suspect many secular minded civil libertarians would be both relieved and appreciative.”)

If there is to be any plausibility to such a run, national political figures who are not atheists themselves (and none of them seem to be) will have to do some convincing on nonbelievers’ behalf. Indeed, very few of any import since George H.W. Bush have gone so far as to utterly dismiss atheists as potential commanders-in-chief. Al Gore was asked in 2000 whether it would bother him if a non-believer ascended to the presidency, to which he responded:

No, it would not. I think that it would depend on who the person was, of course. But do I believe that someone can have an understanding of our Constitution [and] a true spirit of tolerance without affirming a particular and specialized belief in God? Yes, I do. I think that is incumbent upon anyone who affirms a respect for tolerance.

Such a candidate would face their first hurdle vying for the nomination of their party, and for argument’s sake we will assume the party to be the Democrats. As we have seen, the nonreligious are most plentiful in the West, and that may well be where our atheist Democrat makes his or her stand, gathering up delegates in Oregon, Washington, and Idaho. In order to make it out West, though, the atheist candidate would need to prove themselves in the first slate of contests. The Iowa caucuses may be trouble for such a candidate, but the first actual primary may hold more hope. New Hampshirites were given the chance to expound on their attitudes concerning politics and irreligion as their state was readying to be invaded by the 2008 primary season, and emblematic of the Granite State’s penchant for independence, 61 percent chose, in a hypothetical match-up, the candidate who was an atheist that shared their political views, versus only 21 percent who would opt for the candidate of their same religion, but did not agree with them on the issues. If New Hampshire is a bellwether, as it often is, the atheist candidate could find the potential for an early victory, or at least a respectable showing, here.

Still, the prospect for a presidential Bright looks, well, dim in the current political climate. Short of a major cultural change toward tolerance of the irreligious, such a candidate would likely need to benefit from a disaffected party that is refraining from turning out for primary elections, leaving many contests to the energized secularists who finally have one of their own on the ballot. Maybe, just maybe, the party of Jefferson might then nominate the personification of the wall of separation.

The general election would be an even steeper hill to climb, of course. The GOP would likely need to have nominated someone as fervently religious as the Democratic candidate was nonreligious, someone so zealously right wing as to turn off the moderate center of the electorate. Even that seems less than plausible, as a Pew survey in 2007 revealed that 69 percent of Americans felt that a president should have “strong religious beliefs,” while only 27 percent disagreed. As Kenneth Woodard of Newsweek once advised, “If you want to be president of all the people, invoke a generic deity everyone can salute.”

Of course, Michael Medved rejects the idea of an atheist president out of hand, writing in a column that there would be no way to bridge the spiritual gap between the president and his religious constituency, given that belief “drives the life and work” of the vast majority of Americans, and asserts that a president who rejects such a fundamental belief held by so many will be seen as condescending, no matter his or her intentions. There is certainly some truth to this claim, especially at a time in American politics when condescension is seen as the most mortal of sins (as Barack Obama has learned following comments that “bitter” religious Americans “cling” to their faith due to difficult and unsure times).

America may need a generation or two before such an atheistic ascension could truly take place, and it would almost certainly have to be an America in which Muslims and homosexuals could be considered to have respectable chances for the same (we have established now that Jews, African Americans, women, and Mormons are no longer relegated to the back bench, even if they have not yet sat in the Oval Office).

The work would have to start now, of course. Atheist politicos would need to begin nurturing and training candidates for offices at all levels, and be prepared to lose many, many elections, if only to begin to wear down Americans’ resistance, and make the idea of atheist candidates commonplace. They will have to make common cause with organizations and interests in areas unrelated to faith or lack thereof. They will have to prove to religious voters, at least liberally religious voters, that they pose no threat, and will be a friend.

Those candidates will have to be charismatic, eloquent, and approachable, and spotlessly moral. They must tap enthusiasm within Americans for things that are not limited to the supernatural, but tied to the best of what humans can do right now, right here on Earth, both for themselves and for the many generations they will leave behind. Indeed, atheists will need their own Great Communicator, less reactionary than the policers like Michael Newdow, and less confrontational than instigators like Sam Harris.

If so, perhaps Pete Stark is right about Ron Reagan Jr. What better name to ease the concerns of Americans who wish to see a new morning in America? Atheist Americans will not have faith in this possibility, but they might have hope.

Is there really any hope for atheists in the political arena? What do we have to do to make a secular America a reality? What would a victory even look like? Those are the kinds of questions Paul addresses in Under the Stained Glass Ceiling and the book is now available on Amazon.

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What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • Anonymous

    $0.99 for the Kindle edition? How can I not download it at that price. Thanks for the heads up, Hemant!

  • Anton

    There are several high-profile people who would command a great following but they are too busy making money while sustaining the belief in the greatest religion, namely, worship of the United States of America and its perverted ideas of capitalism and democracy. Try Bill Gates or Warren Buffet. And, while he was alive, there was Steve Jobs. Hasn’t anybody noticed that atheists were responsible for several of the most revolutionary applications of “high tech” in our world? Now, if the Christians were commanded not to use devices created by “non-believers”, they would be without their personal computers. And if the Christians banned all products created by  activities taking place more than 1o,000 years ago, every diamond wedding ring could be classed as a “work of the devil”.

  • I’m sure many atheists and agnostics have already served in high government offices, they just pretended to be religious.

  •  There are indeed churches where the members are forbidden to wear crystals, because they may harbor demons.  Perhaps faceting a stone releases the demons.  Not sure if they avoid using sugar and salt, or what the minimum size for a demon is.  Wish I was making this up.

  • I think part of the problem with us getting into office is who we will be associated with. As much as the fire brands hate hearing this, they need to shut up about politics. Your views and soundbytes will come back to bite atheists running for office. There’s a lot of negative imagery that atheists can fix, but the problem is we need more Hemant Mehta-esque figures and less PZ Myers-esque figures to do this.

  • Anonymous

    Even that seems less than plausible, as a Pew survey in 2007
    revealed that 69 percent of Americans felt that a president should have
    “strong religious beliefs,” while only 27 percent disagreed.

    If you ever want to point to a clear distinction between American and Canadian culture, this would do the trick. I don’t have the stats, but I would speculate that in Canada, these numbers would be reversed. We don’t mind mildly religious politicians who keep their beliefs and practices largely at home (with occasional forays in public during ceremonial functions or holidays or merely displayed by the wearing of a turban or hijab), but are extremely wary of people in public office professing “strong religious beliefs”.

  • Anonymous

    I think it would be possible to get more atheists elected if only we got better – MUCH better – at representing what we believe to the public. The fact is that the values we stand for are broadly popular with the American people, but we often do a terrible job of explaining them. That’s one of the reasons we started The Humanist Community Project ( – to give concrete, evidence-based guidance to nonreligious people as to how to convey their values in the public sphere, and move our agenda forward.

    We currently have posts on billboard design, messaging, emotional appeals, targeting the correct audience, and much more: 

    If we take messaging seriously, follow what the evidence on effective communication tells us, and eschew attention-grabbing but ultimately counter-productive stunts like AA is so fond of, we could make huge gains in this area.

  • I’d like to see an atheist candidate. I can imagine the attack ads levied against him would be rife with vicious attacks about his lack of morality cause he’s an atheist, and yet with a visible presence of someone who’s not so evil and amoral, it would look completely ridiculous on the part of the attackers. Painting someone as the devil, when they’re clearly not is a quick method to get laughed at.

  •  Forty years [after John F. Kennedy was elected president] religious prejudice, which never carried quite the sting of racism, has never been weaker. 

    I wonder what Hertzberg would say today?  It’s very easy to not see religious prejudice when people from mainstream religions are running.  I have no doubt a Catholic could get elected today (so long as he didn’t act like Gingrich).  

    But the accusations that Obama is a Muslim (and the implication that this matters) and the groups of conservative Christians meeting to try to solidify support behind any Republican candidate who isn’t Romney speaks volumes about the religious intolerance still present in this country, let alone in the run for the White House.

  • Thanks for the heads-up on the book, Hemant, 99 cents? Bargain!

    Given that Obama just lost the battle over contraception to the Almighty Church,  I’d put an Atheist’s chance of being elected dogcatcher in this country somewhere between Slim and None. Will it change in my lifetime? No.

  • totally just bought it.

  • On the whole I agree, but I also think that the Obama-as-muslim is as much or more about racism than philosophical or theological differences. It’s racism dressed up as something else.

  • Thanks for the enthusiasm, folks. I will say that I think it’s incumbent upon would-be atheist officeholders to *start running* even if they’ll lose — Wynn LeGrow in Virginia in 2010 was a great example of this. More folks have to jump into the ring — with the understanding that crushing defeat awaits them — so that the public begins to get used to the idea, and then, little by little, election by election, it’s less and less of an issue. My motto for now: “run and lose!” Because eventually, slow and steady just might win the race. But we have to START the race first.

  • “…especially at a time in American politics when condescension is seen
    as the most mortal of sins (as Barack Obama has learned following
    comments that “bitter” religious Americans “cling” to their faith due to
    difficult and unsure times).”

    On the contrary, condescension is only a sin in a Democrat.  It was never a problem for GWB.

  • Anonymous

    I don’t see why this is such an unwarranted conclusion. People trust a politicians background a lot more than the things they say prior to the elections. Therefore, people will generally vote for candidates that are more like them. All things being equal, a Christian will vote for a Christian, a Hispanic for a Hispanic and an atheist for an atheist. People will not usually vote for someone who holds a completely opposite view from the one they hold. This is simple human sociology and it applies to many more things than just atheism.

  • Mylesbuell77

    I believe that in order for an atheist to hold public office atheists need to get out of the closet and join together. There are many atheists out there but until we join together we are weak. As the saying goes ” United we stand, divided we fall”. More and more people are turning to atheism or other forms of non-religious beliefs. The number is growing rapidly and we must take advantage of that now. 

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