The President’s Religion

My latest column for the Washington Post On Faith blog deals with the question: “Does it matter what religion the president is?

… The Constitution says that there can be no religious test for office and society needs to catch up to that idea.

But there is a point when religion should come into play.

Do you really want a president who could launch a nuclear attack… who also believes he/she will be in “God’s glorious presence” in the afterlife?

Do you really want a president who can appoint important positions in the field of science like the head of the National Institutes of Health… who also believes the Earth was created about 6,000 years ago and that evolution is a lie?

Do you really want a president who has the power to veto legislation regarding women’s health care… who also believes abortion is equivalent to murder and that life begins at conception?

I wouldn’t feel comfortable voting for those people. It has nothing to do with the labels they give themselves and everything to do with what they will do with those beliefs. I want a president who makes decisions after hearing from experts on the issue, not after hanging up on a conference call with a group of pastors.

If you like it or hate it, leave a comment there! (The comment system should be working this time around…)

  • David

    Agreed.

  • LeAnne

    great piece. i really enjoyed colin powell’s quote. had no idea he said that.

  • Bill

    I also agree but want to add to it the military in charge of said missiles who also believe that way, there might be the place for a test!

  • Ron in Houston

    I agree, but the scary part is that there are a number of people who WOULD vote for that hypothetical person.

  • adam

    I Agree as well

    However this is also the reason why the religious keep harping on the theological beliefs of there/our elected officials.

    Remember they think that being a atheist or Muslim, depending on who you talk to in regards to Obama, is bad and will have some negative consequence on his decision making which will effect them.

  • Christophe Thill

    I somewhat agree, but…

    It’s not just a problem with religion. What kind of policy would you expect from a President who believes that all diseases are caused by negative thoughts, or that germs are the product of infection, not its cause, or that anthropogenic climate change is a myth, or that a certain category of people are actually evil sub-humans who should be eradicated? What about a flat-earther, a hollow-earther, a geocentrist? All those irrational, pseudo-scientific or just plain wrong theories ha nothing to do with religion and can be very harmful. On the other hand, within the same religion, you can find literalist fundamentalists as well as believers in a liberal theology. So I think religion isn’t the biggest problem.

  • Ben

    Christopher Hitchens has stated that he thinks Obama is an atheist, even though he went to a rock-and-roll church in Chicago and speaks of god and faith in some speeches. There was also a speech that Obama gave here he stated that he was a skeptic or that he questioned. Yeah, I think he’s really an atheist too. Of course he can’t say that politically.

  • Dan Covill

    I don’t think you want a President (or any senior policy-maker, for that matter) who bases his decisions on an ideology. Any ideology.

    That includes not only the hard-core religious, but Neocons, Free Market idealists, ardent Pacifists, Right-to-Lifers, Libertarians, and (real) Communists.

    Coping with the world’s problems is difficult enough if you approach them rationally, with rational advice based on objective analysis. Trying to implement theories from a Book ain’t the way to solve them.

  • Dwayne

    Agreed Christophe – all of those are red flags for poor decision-making and potentially dangerous logical gaps.

    By far – I do not want someone who is looking forward to Armageddon in any way. The president has way too much power to help expedite that.

  • http://hoverfrog.wordpress.com hoverfrog

    I tried commenting but apparently I’m not registered. (I am). This is what I tried to post and what I’ll try again later.

    Quick check. Pick a leader of a nation in the developed world. What religion is David Cameron (UK PM)? What religion is Nicolas Sarkozy (French President)? What religion is Julia Gillard (Australian PM)? What of Angela Merkel of Germany, Naoto Kan of Japan, or Jacob Zuma of South Africa?

    Don’t know? Would it matter if one was a Buddhist, a Hindu, a Roman Catholic or an atheist?

    OK then, what about the founding fathers? Of the seven key founding fathers (Benjamin Franklin, George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, John Jay, James Madison, and Alexander Hamilton) at least two were nominally Deists and two more appear to have no religious beliefs. Of the first half dozen US Presidents the religious affiliation of three are up for debate.

    Of course it is their ideas and skills in office that got these men and women into power. Not the church that they attend or the deity that they may or may not pray to. I have no faith in those who claim religion in place of policies. It demonstrates a lack of substance to their arguments.

    Excellent article.

  • Bob

    @Hoverfrog:

    The facts about our founding fathers’ individual beliefs are irrelevant to the ‘Christians’ trying to make the country over into a theocracy.

    Take, for example, Rep. Steve King’s (R-Iowa) resolution from a couple of years back ‘On the Importance of Christmas and Christianity’. It’s chock full of historical half-truths and misquotes. Oh, look, John Adams said ‘God’! He’s a Christian!

    They will lie, repeatedly and egregiously, in order to secure their ‘faith’ (which apparently consists of little more than browbeating others into joining the same club).

    America is in serious jeopardy. Sadly, it’s the rational, free thinkers who will be paying the price for this wholesale embrace of religious flim-flammery.

  • Roxane

    I was really terrified when I heard that former French President Jacques Chirac said in his autobiography that he had received a disjointed, incoherent call in the middle of the night from Bush, saying that his Middle Eastern wars were going to cause Armageddon. That, even more than 9/11 itself, was what made me come out as an atheist.

  • Nordog

    What then must an atheist do to purify the Earth and rid themselves of these billions of perfidious people of faith?

  • Shawn

    I want a president who makes decisions after hearing from experts on the issue, not after hanging up on a conference call with a group of pastors.

    -1 for ambiguous phrasing. I do want a leader who will hang up on a conference call with pastors. :) It took me a second to understand what was being said.

    Do you really want a president who can appoint important positions in the field of science like the head of the National Institutes of Health… who also believes the Earth was created about 6,000 years ago and that evolution is a lie

    I realize this is hypothetical, but it’s perhaps a bit too close to reality (Collins’ appointment being heavily criticized in atheist blogs). As a result, I think you run the risk of people taking this as a misstatement of Collins’ beliefs.

    Other than those two things, great column.

  • littlejohn

    George H.W. Bush once said, in response to a question, that atheists are not true American citizens.
    We can’t bar people from public office on account of their religion, but we can certainly decide not to vote for them.
    And I agree with Hitch – Obama’s parents were atheists and he’s simply too smart to believe in sky-daddies.

  • narpas

    Too late now, but you missed a good opportunity to include rational conservatives and help Christians see your point, as well as zing new-agers. Like so,

    “Do you really want a president who could launch a nuclear attack… who also believes in the healing powers of crystals and believes magnets are mystical?”

  • Jason

    Shawn I agree completely on the pastor comment.

  • Anthony

    i understand the points you are trying to make.. but they don’t seem to relate.. for example-

    “Do you really want a president who can appoint important positions in the field of science like the head of the National Institutes of Health… who also believes the Earth was created about 6,000 years ago and that evolution is a lie?”
    -regardless of when or where you think physical matter came from, doesn’t change how one would appoint leaders in the scientific discovery to the aid of human health
    it is naive to rest solely on science in order to make sense of life.. as science is merely our increasing understanding of physical things; and there’s still SO much more to learn and discover. it is foolishness to be so proud, with the very limited base of knowledge that we have.

  • http://yetanotheratheist.net Yet Another Atheist

    Didn’t we already have a president who thought that God spoke to him and wanted the two pointless wars he initiated?

    Yeah, that turned out wonderfully. Why don’t people use recent history as evidence of what can happen when religion interferes with leadership?

  • Miko

    The questions are even more interesting if you drop the part after the ellipsis:

    Do you really want a president who could launch a nuclear attack…?

    Do you really want a president who can appoint important positions in the field of science like the head of the National Institutes of Health…?

    Do you really want a president who has the power to veto legislation regarding women’s health care…

    I answer: no, no, and no.

    Dan Covill:

    I don’t think you want a President (or any senior policy-maker, for that matter) who bases his decisions on an ideology. Any ideology.

    All policymakers base their decisions on ideology. The “I’m not an ideologue”-ideology is perhaps the scariest one of all because it allows the policymaker to pretend that her decisions really are intended to promote the general good (and thus allows her to be deaf to all criticism), and it is certainly the ideology that has caused the most death, destruction, and deprivation throughout history.

    That includes not only the hard-core religious, but Neocons, Free Market idealists, ardent Pacifists, Right-to-Lifers, Libertarians, and (real) Communists.

    So, basically disallow everything except Progressivism. Yeah, that’s not ideological. ;-)

  • nankay

    Yeah.hmm…in theory I agree, but when it gets right down to it I’m not sure I could vote for someone who believes in the power of magic underwear, holds a sincere belief in Xenu, or disputes the age/existence of dinosaurs. I know all religions have their crazytown beliefs, but I just can’t work around that level of irrationality. It’s a case by case, purely subjective bias. I admit it.

  • Dan W

    Great article. I agree with pretty much all of your points. I more often vote for candidates based on their actions and how they stand on various issues than on their religion (or lack thereof). Though I would be less likely to vote for a candidate who trots out his or her religion at every opportunity, because I’d rather vote for a candidate who holds views more in line with reality.

  • Heidi

    I totally signed up at that site just so I could comment, Hemant. Appreciate me. LOL.

    And no, I certainly would not vote for that “hypothetical” scary republican person.

  • http://hoverfrog.wordpress.com hoverfrog

    littlejohn

    Obama’s parents were atheists and he’s simply too smart to believe in sky-daddies

    I do not believe that it is a lack of intellect that makes a person a theist. I believe that it is an emotional need to have something larger than yourself that you can rely on that makes someone susceptible to religious belief. We might all enjoy mocking Bush as a stupid President but he was an intelligent man. His IQ was estimated at 125 based on his SAT score and he was smart enough to win two elections (or con his way into winning them). We already know that he was highly religious.

    Obama joined his former church because of the work that black churches were doing to improve society. His is a proactive, practical faith and I believe that it is genuine. Bush’s was a faith of trust in the divine and of service to that voice he supposedly heard. These are very different things. As long as the President is a secular leader I don’t really care what religion he claims (or doesn’t). Secular isn’t anti-religious, it merely keeps religion separate.

  • Shawn

    @Anthony

    regardless of when or where you think physical matter came from, doesn’t change how one would appoint leaders in the scientific discovery to the aid of human health

    If someones believes in a 6K year old Earth, they’ve demonstrated they’re ignorant of some very basic, well-established facts. This is not cutting-edge, debatable, young science. The age of the Earth has been known (by multiple methods) for a very long time. The only part left to debate is the number of decimal places.

    It’s unlikely such a person would not know that the Earth is much more than 6K years old. So they must have rejected the science in favour of (presumably) religious teachings. If they reject science in something as simple and innocuous as the age of the Earth, there’s no reason to think scientific merit would be a great factor in appointing someone who could influence policy regarding stem cells, sex education, family planning, etc.

    as science is merely our increasing understanding of physical things; and there’s still SO much more to learn and discover. it is foolishness to be so proud, with the very limited base of knowledge that we have.

    Science is our understanding of things, yes. But more importantly, the scientific method is the best approach we’ve discovered to evaluate reality, to increase further understanding and, perhaps most importantly, to show us when our beliefs are false. Yes, there is a tonne of stuff science doesn’t know. Yes, there have been times when science has pointed us in the wrong direction. But science is self-correcting. Eventually, wrong beliefs are exposed. Correct beliefs are enforced. Then we come as close to knowing anything as we possibly can.

  • http://thoughtsofsweetchuck.blogspot.com Charles W.

    “Do you really want a president who has the power to veto legislation regarding women’s health care… who also believes abortion is equivalent to murder and that life begins at conception?”

    I don’t see that this is specifically a religious issue… I am an atheist, and a scientist, and I can find no proof anywhere that life begins at birth. Defining what it means to be alive, to be human, to be sentient, these are science questions not religious ones. I don’t know at what point a fetus becomes alive, becomes sentient, and human. From the studying I’ve done I thing abortions after about 4 weeks are homicide, one human killing another.

  • muggle

    Okay, no, when you put it like that but why presume all Christians believe in a young earth for instance when many support evolution? Or that they’d be as nutters as Bush. (BTW, it was Bush Sr. who made that remark about Atheists shouldn’t be considered citizens.)

    Ideally, we shouldn’t have any clue (by words or actions) what our elected leaders’ beliefs or absences thereof are but that’s naught but a pipe dream, I fear.

  • http://www.correntewire.com chicago dyke

    lucky for you you’ll never have to worry about that issue personally, Charles W. you’re free to have your opinions, but you’re not free to tell me what to do with my body. not you or anyone. just to be clear.

    Obama joined his former church because of the work that black churches were doing to improve society. His is a proactive, practical faith and I believe that it is genuine.

    i completely disagree. what was Obama’s religious practice while a student? cause i’m fairly sure he wasn’t a regular church goer before he was a politician. sorry, but it’s sort of the oldest cliche in the book for democratic (or republican, for that matter) pols to get involved with churchies once they have political need to, and not before.

    it’s something i really despise democratic politicians for, their cowardice and unwillingness to say something as simple is “my religion or lack thereof is irrelevant in the performance of a secular office. ask me a question about what the voters elected me to do. they didn’t elect me to pray.” at least the republicans come right out and say they want Biblical Law in this country. democrats just pander to the believers, and for such pitiful lack of result. anyone who believes that Jeebus commands them to vote in a certain way is highly unlikely to ever, ever vote for a democrat. liberal and moderate Christians generally don’t need to be told of the religious beliefs of their politicians, they mostly don’t care or are tolerant. so what’s the point? in obama’s case, it was very specifically about getting elected, as an elite outsider from a mixed race, atheist/”muslim” family, with no natural connection to the district, becoming more “real” seeming to the mostly working class, fundie xtian Folk who lived there, and had little else in the ‘hood beyond churches. i lived on the South Side/Shore area for 10 years, including during the time Obama taught at UChicago, where i studied. the man is a believer like i’m a republican donor.

  • Staceyjw

    I love the article, these are things I think about a lot at voting time. I won’t vote for someone who pushes their religion, and makes it the central part of their campaign. It is scary to me to have any rapture believing fundy in charge of anything, as they have clearly shown they cannot think rationally.

    Also, Im with Chicago Dyke- Charles can think what he wants as long as he doesn’t try to take my rights away. I wouldn’t be the least bit surprised that Obama is an atheist or agnostic, I just don’t see a smart young free thinker turning into a xyian later inn life. and the timing is suspicious. I am Ok with him saying he is xtian, as he has enough hurdles to jump, but there ISS no reason to pander to the fun die right, they won’t change regardless.


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