No matter the outcome in the 2020 elections, it’s almost a given that the winner will be a religious person, at least by label. Even Bernie Sanders uses religious language to describe his secular version of Judaism, and while Donald Trump isn’t very convincing in his attempts to pass as Christian, he’s never hinted at anything else.
In an essay for the Washington Post, conservative (but no longer Republican) writer Max Boot says it’s about time we had an “unapologetic atheist in the Oval Office.” It would be a welcome change of pace that reflects where American society is going and a rebuke to the religious presidents who have disgraced the office.
Trump shows how immorally a supposed Christian can behave. Winston Churchill is the flip side of the coin, showing how righteously a nonbeliever can act. Churchill was a nominal Anglican but he had no belief in God. “In the absence of Christian faith, therefore,” writes biographer Andrew Roberts, “the British Empire became in a sense Churchill’s creed.”
If atheism was good enough for Britain’s greatest prime minister, it should be good enough for a U.S. president. We’ve had closeted freethinkers as president but never one who was out and proud. Thomas Jefferson, a deist who rejected the divinity of Christ, bridled when he was called an atheist by his opponents. Given how many taboos we have already shattered — making it easy to imagine a female president who is of Jamaican and Indian descent — I look forward to the day when we will finally have an unapologetic atheist in the Oval Office. But probably not in 2021.
He’s right with his conclusion, and Boot correctly notes the uphill climb any potential candidate would have to make, destroying all kinds of church-fueled stereotypes about the supposed immorality of atheists.
But as an unapologetic atheist, I’ll be the first to admit I have no problem voting for a religious candidate who promotes and practices church/state separation. Plus, while the symbolism of an openly atheist president would be incredible, it would also come with pitfalls. Every national crisis would inevitably get linked to and blamed on the president’s godlessness. So just being an atheist in that position isn’t enough.
Here’s one reason to defend Boot’s argument, though, and he never says it himself.
In just about every situation where someone is a prominent atheist, he or she (but probably he) is a writer or a speaker or a vocal celebrity. In all of those cases, we know about their atheism because they’re always trying to convince people to shed their faith or pointing out religious hypocrisies. Their atheism is central to what they do.
But an atheist politician? That may be the one job where your religious label, in theory, doesn’t matter because you’re supposed to represent everybody. It’s a position where you may get plenty of publicity for being an atheist even though it has nothing to do with your actual work.
There’s a huge opportunity there. A politician who fights for social justice, and health care, and civil rights — who also happens to reject God — would go a long way to changing what Americans think about atheists. (That said, it would be disastrous if that atheist president supported the current Republican agenda. It would be bad for atheists’ image and it would be bad for the country.)
Just as Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez have changed how many people view “Socialists,” an openly atheist politician at the highest levels of power could do the same. That’s the best argument I can think of for wanting an open atheist in the White House (as opposed to a religious person who shares all your values).
Incidentally, because I’ve been giving talks about this and kept track of it in 2018, I can tell you there are dozens of non-religious politicians at the state level. About 50. And they use a variety of labels to describe their beliefs.
As far as Congress goes, though, there’s only one non-religious member. And Rep. Jared Huffman uses the label “Humanist,” not atheist.
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