The Stained-Glass Ceiling

Back in November, U.S. senator John Kerry made some probably accurate, if rather unfortunate, remarks about the probability of an atheist being elected to national office:

“The vast majority of Americans say they believe in God,” Kerry said, responding to a question about the likelihood of an atheist or agnostic winning the presidency. “The vast majority of America, at some time, goes to church, and I think it matters to people. When you are choosing the president of the United States, people vote on the things that matter to them.”

The U.S. Constitution forbids the creation of a de jure religious test for public office. Nevertheless, it seems clear that such a test does exist de facto. The percentage of voters who say they would refuse to consider an atheist for office is higher than the percentage of those who admit to the same prejudice against any other group. Most atheists justly feel snubbed and excluded by the obligatory Christianity that permeates American politics. Historically, our choices have been to hold our noses and vote for candidates who drench their campaigns in religion, or to stand by and do nothing, potentially assisting an even worse theocrat to get elected. Even the announcement of the first openly nontheist office holder, California Representative Pete Stark, although it’s a hopeful sign, has done little to change this state of affairs.

The prejudice and hostility against atheists exists in spite of the U.S. Constitution, one of the world’s most progressive legal frameworks. In fact, Thomas Jefferson explicitly defended the fitness of atheists to hold office (as did other founders):

“If we did a good act merely from the love of God and a belief that it is pleasing to Him, whence arises the morality of the Atheist? It is idle to say, as some do, that no such being exists… Diderot, D’Alembert, D’Holbach, Condorcet, are known to have been among the most virtuous of men. Their virtue, then, must have had some other foundation than the love of God.”

Sadly, the beneficial laws of this document, although they’ve more or less safeguarded atheists’ rights, have never persuaded the population in general to follow their good example. However, this situation may be changing.

This blog has previously discussed the evidence that the non-religious tend to be independents and may in fact constitute a crucial bloc of swing voters. And not only that, the non-religious constitute an extremely involved and motivated voting bloc, according to a recent article from Reuters:

But those who say they are “unaffiliated” or atheist are very keen to cast their ballots. Pew data shows that 82 percent of them are very or somewhat likely to vote. At 90 percent, evangelicals are the only group more likely to vote.

82 percent of nonbelievers are motivated to vote. This stunning number, coupled with the other facts mentioned above, should be enough for politicians to sit up and take notice. We are eager and informed voters, we are more than numerous enough to change the course of an election, and we are not a group whose loyalties can be taken for granted. Why are candidates still spending all their time pandering to Christians? Why aren’t they devoting more effort to winning us over and addressing the issues that we care about?

The American electorate is saturated with god-talk, and most religious voters already have well-established loyalties. Politicians competing to see who loves Jesus more is not a tactic that is likely to turn the tide of an election. If a candidate was willing to pay some attention to nonbelievers and freethinkers, on the other hand, the effort might well pay surprising dividends.

I don’t think we’re asking for much. I don’t expect a candidate for national office to be a fire-breathing atheist – that day is far in the future, unfortunately. (We could stand to emulate the example of the Dutch, whom polls show would be perfectly happy with an atheist prime minister.) But I don’t think it’s too much to ask for a candidate to show some sensitivity to nonbelievers: to recognize that we exist and acknowledge that we deserve the same right to freedom of conscience that all other Americans have. It would be even better to see a candidate who defended – and more importantly, upheld by their actions – the principle that America is a secular nation with a separation of church and state, and that it is the job of an elected official to represent all citizens equally without regard to creed. These are basic elements of American democracy! It’s astonishing that supporting them has become so controversial, which is itself an indicator of how far the religious right has skewed the national debate.

But this state of affairs is not unchangeable. The problem is that, despite our numbers and our readiness to vote, nonbelievers are considerably less organized and more heterogeneous than conservative Christians, who for the most part have been turned into a lockstep political machine voting in favor of a specific, identifiable agenda. That degree of organization is what politicians see and respond to. If we’ve been ignored by candidates, it’s probably because we still don’t have the kind of political organization that would make them take us seriously and realize that they can’t cast aspersions on us without paying a price. Organizations like the Secular Coalition for America are a good start, and if we can build on them, then we may in time be able to shatter that stained-glass ceiling and turn secularism into a political force to be reckoned with.

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About Adam Lee

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


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