George Clooney, the godless politician

I begin today with a REELigion quiz.  And for the impatient, worry not: it’s only one question long.

Of the 535 men and women who are currently members of Congress, how many are professed atheists?

While you ponder your answer, I’ll hum a verse from the atheists’ anthem, “There Is No God,” by the Boston-based nineties rock band Extreme, who can be forgiven for this song only because they also gave us “More than Words.”

Aw hell.  Let’s just listen to “More than Words” while you think:

Ready for the answer?


As Herb Silverman, president of the Secular Coalition of America, reports, the only atheist in federal government today is Congressman Pete Stark, (D-CA). When the news broke a couple years ago, reported that Stark was the first elected federal office-holder ever to “come out” as an atheist.

The only other well-known politician (that I can think of ) to self-identify as an atheist–in decidedly more, um, colorful terms–is former Minnesota Governor Jesse Ventura, who compares the idea of God to the tooth fairy, Santa Claus, and the Easter bunny in this recent interview with Piers Morgan:

I stumbled across a much slicker version of Stark and Ventura when I watched the George Clooney joint Ides of March this weekend.  (I’ve decided to use Spike Lee’s phrase to identify all  films going forward.  Hence Sleepless in Seattle is a Nora Ephron joint. Lost in Translation? A Sofia Coppola joint.)

For a while, Ides is a progressive Democrat’s wet dream. It traces the ascent of Mike Morris (Clooney), a smart, polished governor who runs for president using a stump speech that includes all the ballsy things big lefties hope Obama would yell at Eric Cantor. (It turns into a progressive’s nightmare when–spoiler alert–Morris turns out to closely resemble the post-Rielle Hunter John Edwards.)  The film stars Ryan Gosling as an up-and-coming staffer who discovers Morris’s dirty secrets, and Evan Rachel Wood as the woman I hope appears in every dream I ever have again wearing only a white, button-down dress shirt.

It also features Paul Giamatti and Philip Seymour Hoffman, who appear as jaded campaign veterans only to solidify their shared reputation as Actors-Who-Only-Act-In-Serious-Independent-Minded-Films.

I mention Ides tonight not because I found it particularly good, but because it featured a political oddity: the Morris character is an atheist–or at the very least, an agnostic–who runs for president as an atheist.  In his opening speech, he lays out his rationale: “I am not a Christian. I am not an atheist. My religion is the Constitution of the United States of America.”  He continues, later on, “If I’m not religious enough for you, don’t vote for me.”  Further, by the end of the film, it becomes clear that this unbelieving candidate will go on to become an unbelieving president.

Reflecting later, I could only recall one other “candidate” from film or television who takes a similar view: Arnold Vinick (Alan Alda), the Republican candidate for president who appears in the final season of The West Wing.

But of course, The West Wing is another liberals’ political utopia, and these two characters–atheist politicians with real power–are the least believable of fictions. For while Pete Stark can hole up in San Francisco, he’d never survive as a national candidate.  And Jesse Ventura can only “come out” as an atheist because he’s reverted to a version of his old pro-wrestler persona, and his only job now is to play the crazy provocateur on late-night interview shows.

It occurs to me that Clooney and West Wing creator Aaron Sorkin give us atheist power-brokers because they dream of a political world where the separation of church and state dictates that an unbeliever would be the best president. After all, who could do a better job defending the Constitution’s Establishment Clause–“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion”–than an elected official with no horse in the race?

However, that is not the world we live in.  The United States has a religious test for holding national office, and it has just one question: Do you believe in God?

And there’s only one right answer.

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