Every few years, Gallup asks Americans a version of this question: “If your party nominated a generally well-qualified person for president who happened to be _____, would you vote for that person?”
Just about every time they’ve asked that question, “atheist” has been at the bottom of the list. (Atheists are unelectable! the headlines always say.)
In 2012, there was cause for celebration simply because more than half of those surveyed said they wouldn’t hold atheism against a politician. Then, in 2015, for the first time ever, “atheist” wasn’t the worst trait in a presidential candidate. A “Socialist” performed slightly worse. (Thanks, Bernie Sanders!)
Gallup said last year that while there was no change in the unpopularity of “Socialist” — only 47% of Americans would support that candidate — “atheist” received another tiny jump. A record 60% of Americans said they would consider voting for an atheist.
It was still next to last on the list. But it was clearly becoming less of a stigma.
Today, Gallup released an updated poll confirming what it found last year. Atheist remains at 60% while “Socialist” has dropped slightly to 45%.
While just about every category Gallup asked about saw an increase in support — suggesting Americans are becoming comfortable with a more diverse group of candidates, including gay or lesbian ones — “atheist” saw the smallest increase since 2015 among those polling at below 90%, an uptick of only 2%.
I would argue that may be because we just don’t hear that conversation discussed very much in the media. With Pete Buttigieg in the race, there’s reason to support a gay candidate as well as one under age 40. With Elizabeth Warren and Amy Klobuchar, there’s renewed interest in a female presidential candidate. You get the idea. But without an atheist candidate to talk about, there’s no reason to bring it up.
There’s more reason for optimism, though, when you consider the different parties. Among Democrats alone, an atheist candidate would see 69% support. That’s higher than people older than 70 (66%). Among Republicans, not surprisingly, atheists stand at a mere 41% approval.
As the 2020 Democratic presidential primaries get underway, it may be instructive to know that little prejudice stands in the way of Democratic as well as national support for candidates who happen to be Catholic, Hispanic, Jewish or female. Being especially young or advanced in age could pose minor appeal problems.
Being gay or lesbian, Muslim, an atheist or a socialist wouldn’t cause much stir among Democrats, but these candidates could have difficulty attracting support from Republicans and, to a lesser extent, from political independents.
We still have a long way to go, but it’s worth acknowledging just how far we’ve come given where we started. That’s a huge change in terms of acceptability.
That’s good news even if we won’t see an open atheist on a major party’s presidential ticket in 2020. Remember: There are dozens of openly non-religious politicians at the state level. Once some of them trickle up into national politics, and people just get used to the idea of an atheist politician, it’ll become even less of a concern. Sanders showed us how one person can change the perception of Socialists within a single presidential cycle. It may just take a formidable openly atheist candidate to do the same for us.
(Large portions of this article were published earlier)