The Christian right is in retreat, but don’t expect an atheist president any time soon

Editors’ Note: This article is part of the Public Square 2014 Summer Series: Conversations on Religious Trends. Read other perspectives from the Atheist community here.

In the past, I’ve written about how the Republican party is going to have to pivot away from reliance on the religious right fairly soon. Indeed, in my last post on the subject, I noted signs that this is already happening. So when Patheos asked us to comment on when we’ll have an atheist president, it was a great opportunity to say there’s no way this is happening any time soon.

A boring way to look at this is to compare America’s evolution on issues like race and gender. By the late 60s, it was pretty clear that racism was in retreat. That doesn’t mean it was vanquished. It took another 40 years for us to get our first black president. And even then, we still haven’t totally overcome racism.

Or: Americans’ willingness to vote for an atheist in 2012 was ">about where our willingness to vote for a woman was in 1958. But we still haven’t had a woman president. And women are 50% of the population! That implies that even if atheists grow to 50% of the population by 2064 (which I’m not sure about), we might still not get an atheist president by then.

But a more interesting angle is to point out that politicians have incentives to approximate a bland average of the electorate. This is really easy to forget when you’re in the thick of an ideological movement, but its implications are with thinking about.

In the case of religion, polling has supposedly shown that, “we want persons of faith as candidates for president, but we don’t want our president to be too religious.” I mean, when have we had a president that was a foaming at the mouth fundamentalist? George W. Bush relied heavily on support from the religious right, but never went beyond saying he talks to God, and once mentioning support for Intelligent Design.

That implies that we may not have an atheist president until atheism becomes so common as to be almost boring, and that honestly I’m not sure that will happen within my lifetime. Atheist activists get excited about polls showing increasing numbers of Americans have no religious affiliation, but when you read the polls themselves it’s conspicuous that only a fraction of the “nones” explicitly self-identify as atheists.

So it seems likely we could get a vague unaffiliated president, before we get an explicitly atheist one. Maybe we’ll get a Unitarian Universalist “non-theist” like Pete Stark, or a secular Jew who’s quiet about his disbelief, like Barney Frank, or maybe we’ll get someone who just doesn’t want to talk about the question, like Kyrsten Sinema.

Even if we do get a self-identified atheist president some day, expect the first one, at least, to be someone who tries to make their atheism as non-threatening as possible. My impression is that the story of Barack Obama is, in large part, the story of Obama successfully appealing to voters who thought Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton were scary. As much as activists may like to believe otherwise, in electoral politics, bland averages rule the day.

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  • Machintelligence

    I guess you are talking an openly atheist president. There have almost certainly been atheist presidents in the past, but none of them were able to admit it for political reasons.

  • bill wald

    Regression to the mean is the safest policy.

  • Sophia Sadek

    At the time of the founding of the Republic, it was believed that belief in a supreme being was necessary to lend weight to the oath of office. Oaths are taken in the name of a deity with the intent that the believer will not violate the oath for fear of pissing off the deity and incurring divine wrath. One of the ironies of this is that people who claim to be believers violate oaths regularly. There is a great deal of pressure on people in the military to violate their oath to uphold the Constitution. Failure to violate the oath can mean a truncated military career.

    • JohnH2

      To say anything meaningful about irony and oath violation one would have to have reliable statistics on the violation of oaths between those that believe in a supreme being and those that do not, as well as in the case of the military if those in the military that you consider to have violated their oaths themselves consider their oath as being violated.

      • Sophia Sadek

        Good point. There are lies, damned lies, and statistics. Given that the Supreme Court is the final arbiter on what constitutes the Constitution, I am not optimistic that military oath violations will stand up in court.