A Brief, Depressing History of Open Atheists and the U.S. Presidency September 28, 2016

A Brief, Depressing History of Open Atheists and the U.S. Presidency

Religious historian Leigh Eric Schmidt, whose new book Village Atheists comes out next week, has an excellent piece at Religion & Politics about the difficulties of being an open atheist trying to get into the highest office in the land.


He starts by bringing up Donald Trump‘s comments to an evangelical Christian audience back in June, where he suggested “there’s nothing out there” about Hillary Clinton‘s religious background. (Even though there is, and it’s extensive.)

This much we have certainly learned by now: Facts rarely get in the way of Trump’s fearmongering. If it pays to suggest that Barack Obama is a secret Muslim, then surely there is something to be gained from darkly implying that Clinton might just be a closeted unbeliever. After all, the two groups that polling has consistently shown to evoke the most distrust among Americans are Muslims and atheists.

This isn’t new, though. Schmidt has a number of examples of how atheism has been a thorn in the side of people trying to play politics at that level.

If you’re looking for historical optimism, however, he points out that atheists have had some success at lower rungs of elected office:

An atheist alderman in Lyons, Iowa — one Samuel Penn — served for years as a member of the City Council in the 1850s despite his ungodly opinions being widely known in town. His “unflinching integrity” won out over ministerial criticisms and pious misgivings. Or, then there was the freethinker who won a county election in Petaluma, California, in 1862. His opponents circulated handbills identifying him as an atheist and infidel, both names in “big capital letters,” trying to convince local Christians to vote against him, yet in his case to no avail.

There’s hope! It’s rare and it’s on the local level… but it happens!

One thing Schmidt didn’t bring up that I think is worth mentioning is the fact that atheists are planting seeds that will hopefully pay off in the long run. Not only is there a long-serving atheist state senator in Nebraska (Ernie Chambers), there are a lot of open atheists running for state and federal office this year — and a few of them have very good chances of winning their seats.

It’s not the presidency — which is the focus of Schmidt’s article — and even Congress is a long shot, but getting open atheists in elected office at any level is the first step to making atheism less of an issue for campaigns in the future. Even for offices like the presidency.

So for all the polling that says atheism is a political death sentence, there are people working to change it, and some of them may soon be our elected representatives.

Side note: The funniest part of Schmidt’s piece has to be his mention of the rumor that William Howard Taft had “no particular religious belief.” Taft’s campaign countered that claim in 1908 by promoting his youth pastor, who told the New York Times that young Will was a long-time member and even played a “very plump fairy” in a church play.

Check out the actual article and headline:


See? It could be worse.

(Image via Shutterstock)

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