The Eisenhower Test

The campaign of Mitt Romney, a Mormon, for the Republican presidential nomination has caused rifts within the party’s base, as evangelical Christians agonize over whether they could support a candidate who believes slightly different things about God than they do. The latest spat in this conflict comes in a post by Albert Mohler, president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, who argues that Mormons are not Christians. Sci-fi writer Orson Scott Card, himself a Mormon, fires back. (Via.)

I have little interest in watching angels dance on pinheads, so I don’t intend to take sides in that debate. However, some of Card’s offhand remarks are worthy of a much more in-depth response.

Card makes some trenchant remarks about how America was founded with a look back at the bloody religious wars of medieval Europe, and how our founders sought to distance themselves from faith-based slaughter by creating a republic where church and state would be kept separate. He perceptively notes that Mitt Romney is not running for “Pope of America”, which made me laugh.

Then his essay starts to go off the rails:

That’s something that I would look for about any candidate, from any religious tradition. Does he live by what his religion teaches? Or is he a member in name only?

[Romney's] profession of membership in a Church gives us a way to find out about the standards of good and evil, of right and wrong, that his religion teaches. Where I would be worried is when we have a candidate who does not profess any religion, or does not live up to the standards of the religion he professes.

Yes, folks: apparently, as far as Orson Scott Card is concerned, atheists are unfit to be president. And yet, just a few paragraphs later, he says this:

We are as legitimate, as citizens and therefore as potential officeholders, as anybody else in America. Because there is no religious test for holding office in America.

And if you try to impose one, by saying that all persons belonging to this or that religion should never be elected president, then who is it who is rejecting the U.S. Constitution? Who is it who is saying that people with certain beliefs are second-class citizens, for no other reason than their religion?

The aroma of hypocrisy lingers thickly over this piece. Card says that we are voting for a president, not for a head rabbi or chief minister: in other words, the office of president is a secular position, not a religious one. So far, so good. He also says that there is no religious test for office, should be no religious test for office, and anyone who says otherwise is un-American. Again, I cannot disagree with that. But sandwiched in between those two sensible assertions is a careless, dismissive slap at atheists, saying that an atheist, regardless of experience or qualifications, is unfit to serve in national office. How can he overlook the glaring contradiction that rips through the heart of his own words? For someone who is so sensitive to prejudice directed to his own religion, he seems far too ready to dispense it to others.

Card’s sole explanation for this ugly prejudice is that he doesn’t think he can tell what an atheist thinks and believes, since they do not belong to churches or profess creeds that lay this all out for onlookers:

How then would we find out what he really believes? What his standards are? How well he keeps his commitments?

I have a simple suggestion, Mr. Card: if you want to know what an atheist believes, ask him. Is that such an outlandish suggestion that it has somehow escaped you? If you want to know whether an atheist keeps their commitments, research their background and their history. If you want to know what an atheist’s moral standards are, just ask. I’m sure there are plenty of us who’d be happy to tell you.

In any case, evaluating a candidate as an individual is the only option for a voter who cares about making the right choice, regardless of that candidate’s religion or lack thereof. People are not herd animals whose distinguishing characteristics can be completely summed up by the religious brands stamped on their foreheads. Simply because a person professes a creed is no guarantee that they believe it or will follow it; simply because a person belongs to a religion is no guarantee of how they will interpret it or act on it.

Card himself notes this, yet inexplicably fails to draw the obvious conclusion from it. Like far too many religious people, he seemingly has no qualms about dismissing atheists as a class without making any serious effort to understand them. In fact, he suggests that all religious believers should join together to suppress atheism, rather than fighting over theology with each other. He even throws in the by-now standard, utterly fictitious, claim that atheists want to “exclude” religious people from public life, which is ironically hypocritical considering his own essay expresses that very desire directed at atheists.

This is the sort of bigotry that atheists must routinely confront. In truth, Card’s sentiments are probably shared by a great number of Americans, people who feel a vague discomfort about atheism and feel more confident voting for a candidate who believes in some religion, any religion. It’s reminiscent of the remark attributed to President Eisenhower: “Our government makes no sense unless it is founded on a deeply held religious belief — and I don’t care what it is.”

In spite of its widespread adoption, this claim is terminally incoherent. It makes no sense to say that any religious person, regardless of their beliefs, is morally superior to any atheist, regardless of their beliefs. I have dealt with this fallacy before. If this prejudice is widely held, that is only all the more reason to attack it and show it to be false.

About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Broken Ring, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • http://spaninquis.wordpress.com/ John P

    People who are religious are almost to a man brought up to believe in that old adage “Faith is a virtue”. The obvious converse of this is that those without faith are not virtuous, and I really think that is the unspoken, subconscious assumption when idiots like Card assume that atheists cannot be analyzed by simply treating them as individuals, and as you suggest, ask them what they believe.

  • http://spaninquis.wordpress.com/ John P

    People who are religious are almost to a man brought up to believe in that old adage “Faith is a virtue”. The obvious converse of this is that those without faith are not virtuous, and I really think that is the unspoken, subconscious assumption when idiots like Card assume that atheists cannot be analyzed by simply treating them as individuals, and as you suggest, ask them what they believe.

  • http://thegreenbelt.blogspot.com The Ridger

    Besides, the atheist would just lie. I mean, we have no reason to tell the truth, do we?

  • rob

    “Mr. Card: if you want to know what an atheist believes, ask him.”

    It is impossible to find out what a politician believes just by asking him, regardless of his professed religion.

  • rob

    “Mr. Card: if you want to know what an atheist believes, ask him.”

    It is impossible to find out what a politician believes just by asking him, regardless of his professed religion.

  • David Ellis

    If you think Card’s comments on atheism are bad you should read some of the things he’s written about homosexuality and gay marriage.

    It’s a shame since I happen to have thoroughly enjoyed several of his science fiction novels (particularly ENDER’S GAME and SPEAKER FOR THE DEAD).

    Though I think a work of art should be judged on its own merits it has partly soured the experience of reading his books for me.

  • David Ellis

    If you think Card’s comments on atheism are bad you should read some of the things he’s written about homosexuality and gay marriage.

    It’s a shame since I happen to have thoroughly enjoyed several of his science fiction novels (particularly ENDER’S GAME and SPEAKER FOR THE DEAD).

    Though I think a work of art should be judged on its own merits it has partly soured the experience of reading his books for me.

  • David Ellis

    The funny thing is he’s actually portrayed atheists/humanists quite sympathetically in serveral of his books—included to two I mentioned.

  • David Ellis

    The funny thing is he’s actually portrayed atheists/humanists quite sympathetically in serveral of his books—included to two I mentioned.

  • marty

    Yeah, I used to enjoy Card’s work, but I don’t even bother buying it anymore. The writing went from great to turgid, and his public pronoucements are blatant crap.

  • Polly

    I didn’t know Card was Mormon until a friend of mine, who went to school with his son, told me recently. I really loved the Ender series (though I didn’t read the “Shadow” books). I can’t believe he thinks like this! It’s a real disappointment – especially from a sci-fi writer.

  • Polly

    I didn’t know Card was Mormon until a friend of mine, who went to school with his son, told me recently. I really loved the Ender series (though I didn’t read the “Shadow” books). I can’t believe he thinks like this! It’s a real disappointment – especially from a sci-fi writer.

  • http://elliptica.blogspot.com Lynet

    He even throws in the by-now standard, utterly fictitious, claim that atheists want to “exclude” religious people from public life

    To be fair, when I read that, I thought there might well be atheists out there who would say that holding a religion — particularly a fundamentalist religion — might be an indication that a candidate for office lacks critical thinking skills. Such comments are comparable (albeit probably not in accuracy) with comments by theists that atheism might indicate a lack of morality in that neither specifically states that members of a particular group ought to be excluded from office; they just give reasons (not necessarily good ones) why such a person might not be best.

    Still, I agree that Card’s (and most of his commenters’) utter blindness to the idea that there could be anything wrong with being prejudiced against electing atheists to office is breathtaking hypocrisy.

    I really loved the Ender series (though I didn’t read the “Shadow” books).

    Likewise. There’s depth in the Ender series and I gained a lot from it, but when it was done it seemed finished and beautiful already; no need to go over it again.

    Card writes with true sympathy for a wide variety of characters (even one homosexual one), but apparently he’s still willing to make bigoted political statements nevertheless.

    It is impossible to find out what a politician believes just by asking him, regardless of his professed religion.

    There are still plenty of ways of assessing the sincerity of an atheist candidate, though. You can ask, and then check the candidate’s actions and see if they match the reply.

  • http://onlycrook.wordpress.com Jude

    Mormons are trained to be slightly more insane than the average religious person, because they’re all trained to be devout. It’s a religion where drinking a cup of coffee is regarded as evil. It’s the whole thing the Jews had going for them–we are different, enlightened, separate, and superior.

    The best reason to never vote for a Mormon, though, is what happened in my town when we had a Mormon city manager–the only people who were hired for city jobs during his tenure were Mormons. I was glad to see him go.

  • http://onlycrook.wordpress.com Jude

    Mormons are trained to be slightly more insane than the average religious person, because they’re all trained to be devout. It’s a religion where drinking a cup of coffee is regarded as evil. It’s the whole thing the Jews had going for them–we are different, enlightened, separate, and superior.

    The best reason to never vote for a Mormon, though, is what happened in my town when we had a Mormon city manager–the only people who were hired for city jobs during his tenure were Mormons. I was glad to see him go.

  • Mrnaglfar

    America…. Fuck Yeah.

    That’s really all I can think of right now.

    Bill Maher Time!
    Mormons and Politics
    http://youtube.com/watch?v=7xqNbZKIQUs
    The French and Politics
    http://youtube.com/watch?v=sqZg-KsSB0k

    Do contrast and compare

  • Samuel Skinner

    I do think knowing if someone is a Fundamentalist or a Mormon is important. After all, if evidence doesn’t matter you get people like Bush. It isn’t the fact he disagrees with some of the things I think are true; it is that he offers no justification what so ever. The man wants to invade Iran even though our own intelligence agency says they aren’t producing the Bomb. He wants to start another war because he thinks they are evil. He believes.

    This is almost as scary as during the Republican debate one person asked “do you think this book is absolutely true” (holds up Bible).

    I have no problems discriminating against a person who refuses to think on the ground they refuse to think. I’m sort of depressed that Card is a Mormon; I loved Ender’s game, Children of the Mind and Pastwatch: Redemption.

  • http://ggracchus.blogspot.com/ Gaius Sempronius Gracchus

    Frank intolerance of atheism was not unpopular during the Enlightenment even among advocates of tolerance extending to at least all Christian denominations.

    Locke was by no means the only figure to insist on teleration while advocating suppression of atheism, even to the death penalty.

    What’s more than a little scary is that it is not at all unusual even today to find our fellow Americans thinking tolerance is or ought to be due only, or at most, to fellow Christians.

    And I am talking about legal tolerance, not mere personal tolerance.

    Frighteningly many would accept legal suppression of advocacy of atheism, criticism of belief in God, or eligibility of atheists for office.

  • http://ggracchus.blogspot.com/ Gaius Sempronius Gracchus

    Frank intolerance of atheism was not unpopular during the Enlightenment even among advocates of tolerance extending to at least all Christian denominations.

    Locke was by no means the only figure to insist on teleration while advocating suppression of atheism, even to the death penalty.

    What’s more than a little scary is that it is not at all unusual even today to find our fellow Americans thinking tolerance is or ought to be due only, or at most, to fellow Christians.

    And I am talking about legal tolerance, not mere personal tolerance.

    Frighteningly many would accept legal suppression of advocacy of atheism, criticism of belief in God, or eligibility of atheists for office.


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