God and Elections: Political Challenges for Atheists

In a nation founded on a premise of religious freedom, politicians are struggling with a new dimension of faith: atheism. The United States is one of the most religious of the Western industrialized nations. A 2011 Pew Research Poll found that 50 percent of Americans consider religion to be very important. Comparatively, only 22 percent of Spaniards, the most religious Europeans, believe the same, and only 13 percent of the French consider religion to be very important. With religious affiliation at an all time low in the United States — in 2012, 20 percent of Americans considered themselves unaffiliated (i.e., agnostic or atheist) — one might expect that politicians’ religious affiliation would lose significance as well. However in 2011, the Pew Research Religion and Public Life Project found that atheists are the most disliked group in the United States, receiving negative ratings from roughly 40 percent of respondents. The country’s nuanced and intrinsic ties to religion are in large part responsible for this distrust, but the New Atheism movement may also be preventing itself from gaining the acceptance it needs to break political barriers throughout the United States. While fewer Americans than ever are religious, this has yet to translate into a shift in American political realities.

Distrust in atheists is rooted in American civil religion (civil religion refers to a nation’s inherent religious values) and its role in American ideals of morality and patriotism. In 2012, Pew Research found that 53 percent of Americans think that believing in God is “a necessary foundation for morality and good values.” The necessary association between religion and morality for Americans hails back to a vibrant civil religion founded on the English colonizers’ Protestant and Puritan values. To this day there are still prevalent signs of theology in public spaces, and the idea of a divine power appears often in public spaces, from “In God We Trust” on our currency, to the 1956 insertion  of “one nation, under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance.

While most secular countries have a religious tradition, American civil religion is unique in that it extends well beyond civic life into American political life. American politicians, and the president in particular, have not only fully embraced the United States’ vibrant civil religion but are often required to do so for the sake of their political careers. Showcasing religion is expected on the campaign trail — President Obama often referenced his Christian faith during the 2008 election, particularly after conservatives claimed he was Muslim. Every year on his birthday, Obama invites pastors to hold prayer calls; He has also spoken to pastors before presidential debates. Former President George W. Bush — a self-identified born-again Christian — often worked theological rhetoric into his addresses on foreign policy, with words like “mission” and “crusade” along with allusions to hymns. Over 90 percent of speeches by Presidents Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush mentioned God. The use of religious rhetoric extends across party lines, despite the right’s typically stronger religious affiliation. As mentioned above 90 percent of speeches by President Clinton mentioned God, and both of President Obama’s inaugural addresses mentioned God five times, twice more than his predecessor.

Although inaugural addresses have seldom omitted God — Theodore Roosevelt and Rutherford B. Hayes are exceptions to the rule — the use of God in American political rhetoric has actually increased in the past 30 years. Up until 1980, “God Bless the United States or America” was used once in a “major national political address.” Since then, it has been used upwards of 49 times. While the country is becoming less religious, politicians seem to be following the opposite trend.

The presence of religion in American politics contrasts starkly to a country like France. Sessions of Congress open with prayer, while religious invocations and symbols are forbidden in French governance. The degree to which civil religion is embedded in American politics suggests why atheism is met with such great uncertainty.

No current member of Congress is an open atheist. Even openly gay, former Massachusetts Representative Barney Frank only admitted his religious affiliation after leaving office in 2013. The only other avowed atheist Congressmen is former California Representative Pete Stark, who announced his religious affiliation, or lack thereof, only after losing his reelection bid in 2012 and after 30 years of serving in the House.

The Pew Forum on Religion detailed the religious affiliations of the 113th session of Congress in late 2012. It found that 57 percent of House representatives identified as Protestant, 31 percent said they were Catholic, 22 members are Jewish and five associate with a non-Western religion, such as Buddhism or Hinduism. Representative Kyrsten Simena of Arizona said she is religiously “unaffiliated” but not an atheist, and was sworn in using a copy of the US Constitution.  In the Senate, 53 members are Protestant, 27 are Catholic, and 18 others specify another religion. There are no unaffiliated or atheist Senators. Currently, James Woods, an Arizona Democrat, is contesting for a seat in the House as an “out” atheist.

Wood’s, or any “out” atheist’s race, will not be an easy one. A 2011 Gallup poll reported that 43 percent of respondents would not vote for a “well-qualified” presidential candidate if he happened to be an atheist. This point is further emphasized along party lines: 70 percent of Republicans wouldn’t vote for a well-qualified atheist, as compared to 43 percent of Democrats. Furthermore, seven states in the union — Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Maryland, Texas, Arkansas, and Tennessee — have articles in their constitutions prohibiting atheists from being elected to public office.

Atheists, alongside Muslims, Sikhs and Hindus — groups that have faced increased discrimination since September 11 — are a distrusted crowd in the United States. But atheists have a luxury other marginalized religious groups have not had: more control over their public image and public opinion.  As a relatively new movement in the United States (although certainly not in many other Western nations), atheism has not had to contend with the negative stereotypes and associations that have become attached to Islam through global events – much out of American Muslims’ control, namely terrorism, American war in the Middle East and the new surge of Islamic extremism. With the number of atheists and agnostics in the United States on the rise, atheist groups have the opportunity to steer their persona favorably, however they have not done so. The New Atheist movement may be perpetuating the idea that unreligious people are immoral and unpatriotic.

Because atheism lacks the same institutionalized leadership positions that religions have through church representation, the group has been left at the hands of the loudest. Yet the loudest often laud controversial points that only help to reinforce American’s distrust in atheism. Sam Harris wrote The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason in 2004, criticizing Islam, Christianity, and Judaism and their role in both moderate and extremist religion war, terrorism and society. His highly controversial work is affiliated with the New Atheism movement; New Atheism asserts that “[r]eligion should not simply be tolerated but should be countered, criticized, and exposed by rational argument wherever its influence arises.” Harris’s writing has been lauded by Richard Dawkins, an evolutionary biologist, writer and fellow atheist.

Dawkins wields considerable influence among the atheist movement, however, he is no stranger to controversy. Recently, his tweets about rape victims and prosecuting alleged rapists have outraged many, widening the already large schism present between those who identify as non-believers and those who identify with a religion. In a response to another user, he wrote, “If you want to drive, don’t get drunk. If you want to be in a position to testify and jail a man [referring to rape survivors], don’t get drunk.” He also stirred uproar about degrees of crime: “Date rape is bad. Stranger rape at knifepoint is worse. If you think that’s an endorsement of date rape, go away and learn how to think.” While these views are personal and certainly not espoused by the community of atheists as a whole, given the lack of official atheist leadership and Dawkins’s prominent position within the New Atheist movement it becomes hard for the public to differentiate between his personal views and those of the movement. The lack of the same institutionalized leadership that religions have keeps atheism from presenting a united face and message, and only serves to fortify voters’ distrust of the group.

According to the Pew Research Center, 2.4 percent of Americans identify as atheists. Of those 67 percent are men,  38 percent are between 18-29 years old and 43 percent of atheists have a college education. New Atheism has caught the attention of the public, with books debuting on the New York Times Bestsellers List and well-known “freethinkers” discussing their ideas on talk shows — some believe that Americans are more willing to call themselves atheists now more than ever. But the nature of the movement has not swayed the opinion of other Americans in their favor — it may have only made it worse. While the electorate may be less religious than ever our politics are not moving in the same direction.