What does it take to be electable? The answer to that question underlies the successes and failures of any democracy, and the United States is no exception. The demographic makeup of America’s elected offices has slowly diversified over the years, with one exception: religious affiliation. Almost the entire Congress identifies as Christian, as has nearly every president and vice president to date. Article Six of the Constitution mandates that no religious test or qualification can render a candidate ineligible for any public office, yet it is plain that government remains somewhat hamstrung by religious values. In fact, voters oppose an atheist candidate more than one that has committed adultery or one that has no experience in Washington. Atheism is not only unappealing in a candidate but also a barrier to entry in some cases; in seven states—all in the Bible Belt—legislation bars atheists from running for office, though these acts are technically unenforceable.
This election season, the question of whom the American public considers electable has become particularly salient. During the current election cycle, the major candidates from both parties have expressed their deep commitment to faith—some Christianity, others Judaism—demonstrating that religiosity remains a de facto requirement for office. Is an atheist president electable in 2016? More importantly, should secular practices and values have a more prominent place in our government?
Bias Against Atheists
Americans tend to dislike atheists, an attitude based in traditional biases. Atheists seem particularly threatening to Christian morality and value systems, even when compared to other stigmatized groups such as American Muslim and LGBTQ+ populations. This fear of secular immorality has psychological roots. Matthew Baum, an expert on public policy at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, told the HPR that, in many cases, religion serves as a sort of heuristic or mental shortcut that can communicate a candidate’s likely values and policies to voters. America’s comparative religious fervor, which forces candidates to disclose their personal religious views, is thus prompted—at least in part—by a need to know candidates at a glance.
Because of the pressure to hold a religious identity, particularly of a Christian religion, politicians often feign religiosity. Donald Trump’s “Two Corinthians” gaffe exemplifies these often-farcical efforts to court evangelicals and other religious groups during elections. The practice of cultivating a religious persona occurs on both sides of the aisle as Democrats . Only certain religions possess this appeal, of course. Rumors that President Obama was Muslim captivated his opponents and enraged his supporters during his campaign for Senate in 2004 and for president in 2008. Still, polls suggest that Americans by and large would prefer a candidate of any mainstream religion to a secular one.
A recent Gallup poll on the presidency found that atheists were the least electable group listed in the survey except for socialists, which seems ironic given socialist Bernie Sanders’ significant popularity this election season. The results revealed that 40 percent of Americans say they would not vote for an atheist, demonstrating that atheists receive even less support than other frequently stigmatized groups like Muslims and LGBTQ+ individuals. Moreover, atheist activism has little traction in the political sphere and fails to make headlines or arouse sympathy from outsiders.
While the portion of voters who would not vote for an atheist comprises less than half of the electorate, even 40 percent opposition can condemn any candidate to electoral failure. When only 60 percent of voters across party lines would even begin to consider voting for a candidate, the likelihood of winning an election is low. Former U.S. Representative Barney Frank (D-Mass.) does not align himself with any particular religion nor does he identify as an atheist, but he has experienced firsthand Congress’s palpable religiosity. Frank told the HPR, “As long as there is a significant percentage of people who will not vote for a certain individual, then it becomes very hard to get the 50 percent. It doesn’t have to be that a majority is against you becoming president for that to become politically impossible.” The same Gallup poll showed that atheists could glean support from 64 percent of Democrats, 61 percent of independents, and 45 percent of Republicans. Thus, though an atheist or secular candidate would fare better among liberal voters, his chances of election would still be slim.
These pressures help explain why candidates tend to put on religious performances regardless of the sincerity of their beliefs. As of 2014, almost a quarter of Americans self-identified as irreligious, almost double the number from the previous year, which suggests that the religious makeup of government does not reflect the changing electorate. It might also imply that a significant portion of election officials exaggerate or fabricate their religiosity, as many Americans believe Donald Trump does. This would indicate the full extent of the social pressures placed on politicians to include religious rhetoric in their political personae. Baum acknowledges these norms, explaining, “We have not in modern times had a major presidential candidate who has gone on to win a nomination, let alone be elected president, who hasn’t invoked their religious faith as part of their strategy for electoral success.”
A Place for Secularism
While attending the National Religious Liberties Conference in Iowa, Ted Cruz professed to an enthusiastic audience, “Any president who doesn’t begin every day on his knees isn’t fit to be commander-in-chief of this country.” Such statements characterize the ferocity with which many Americans regard religion and the presidency. In fact, the vast majority of our nation’s presidents have been Christians, only two—Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln—have had no formal affiliation with a religion, though both were deists.
The presidency may still be unreachable for atheist candidates, but secular candidates could have an easier time in the near future, especially if secular and non-secular political blocs and organizations make a good-faith effort to cooperate. Frank emphasized to the HPR that despite the frustrations nonreligious people may experience at the hands of religious opponents, they “should not reciprocate by being disrespectful of sincerely held religious views.” Perhaps practicing mutual respect will lead to more equal treatment of beliefs in American government.
The merits of European secularism demonstrate the potential for a similar system in America. The religiosity that is infused in American politics can amplify biases and deepen ideological rifts by creating yet another criterion on which politicians publicly disagree. A candidate’s religion should never overshadow their qualifications for office, yet our nation has come to a point where that phenomenon can readily occur. Granted, these questions are never simple. Look at how French laïcité has contributed to Islamophobia, and it is evident that extreme secularism can be just as problematic as extreme religiosity. In the end, Americans should remember that moderation and cooperation are just as important to religious identities as they are to party identities in our political system.
Image Credit: Pete Souza/White House