This is a guest post written by New Hampshire State Rep. Brandon Phinney.
Atheism in politics is a polarizing and even taboo subject. We know atheists exist in state and federal legislatures, but we never really talk about it and neither do they. Why is that? Are people somehow afraid if they find out their elected official is an atheist, somehow that person cannot be trusted to govern? Or is the politician more concerned about voter bases and pandering to everyone than their own personal integrity?
Last week, I penned a letter detailing the rise of secularism in New Hampshire and my stance as a non-believer has gained some attention. Being a Republican in a largely Democrat region of the nation is certainly an uphill battle at times, and I have no doubts that my open atheism will not win me any friends. However, I found it necessary to distinguish the separation of religion and politics because the influence of religion in the Republican Party, specifically, is something I simply cannot accept.
The Republican Party, due to its conservative nature, has a history of pandering to the Religious Right — whether it’s through pro-life rhetoric, penny-pinching on social programs, strong opposition to sexual freedom and orientation, or other platform issues that go against whatever Democrats believe. Republicans tend to base their political beliefs on their religious beliefs.
I am affiliated with this party, not on a social platform, but of an economic and liberty-minded one. As a libertarian-leaning Republican, I oppose broad-based taxation and fee increases, mass immigration, government-subsidized programming, and other issues normally associated with “big government.” The Republican Party is certainly fractured and fallible. It needs unification. It needs a new path. I’d like to see my party focus on increasing civil liberties by downsizing or even eliminating wasteful government agencies, stop trying to pass intrusive regulations on private matters like sexual orientation or a woman’s right to choose, and allow the free market to work.
We are not a Christian nation. We are not a Muslim nation. We are not a Jewish nation. We are not a nation with any state-sponsored religion, although the influence of certain faiths is prevalent. It is expected, in most parts of the country, that elected officials profess some sort of religious affiliation to attain political office or keep that office. I see this as disingenuous. Frankly, it’s unconstitutional: No religious test is required to attain political office. More to the point, if you do not believe something, why lie about it just for the sake of earning some votes? We can progress as a society — and our government will improve — if we simply acknowledged the truth of our reality and accepted ourselves and others as we are. The federal government would do well to only focus on policy issues, not the meandering supernatural beliefs of its people.
Morality and politics seem to be mutually exclusive, hence the assumption that if a politician sanctions religious influence in their life and policymaking, they are more trusted. There is this school of thought that a politician, along with people in general, must answer to a higher authority to hold a positive moral base. If a politician admits to an absence of faith, they are accused of lacking a moral compass and therefore cannot lead others.
I refute that statement and would say in response that politicians are better off making decisions that benefit all their constituents, not just one particular faction within them. Let’s not do what religious groups often do: Exclude others who don’t always agree with us.
It’s also a dangerous idea to mix morality and politics. How often do we see our leaders in some sex scandal or another bombing campaign that destroys homes and kills innocent civilians? Policymaking should be done in the interest of liberty, protecting individual freedom, and fostering a business climate free from bureaucratic and oppressive regulations.
In a 2012 Pew Research poll, 43% of those surveyed claimed Republican as their political party. In contrast, 48% of those surveyed claimed Democrat. Of the 43% of those surveyed who identified as Republican, 26% said they were unaffiliated with any religion, opposite the 63% unaffiliated Democrats.
The unaffiliated closely mirror the general public in their views about the role of government. Half of the unaffiliated say they would rather have a smaller government with fewer services, while 42% would rather have a bigger government providing more services. The views of those with a religious affiliation are roughly the same: 52% of this group prefers a smaller government with fewer services, while 38% would rather have a larger, more activist government.
It is striking that a larger percentage of the unaffiliated seek smaller government than a larger government. Does religious belief affect that view? There is a consensus among most people that less government involvement in our lives is preferable to more government bureaucracy on an array of issues. We want tax money going toward essential programs and funds, not to be wasted on short term ideals.
What does this have to do with atheism in politics? A lot of religious voters and politicians believe that God and the churches should have influence in decision-making for the American government. For those of us who are not religious, it’s clear that many of these policies explicitly benefit the religious groups. Government should be secular to provide services for all, without bias. Church and state are and should remain separate.