God Doesn’t Get a Vote

Fellow Patheos Atheist blogger Libby Anne has a great post up on whether a candidate’s religion would affect her vote. Her opening almost perfectly parallels my own position:

I personally feel that no, a candidates faith does not matter, but his or her values do. In other words, I don’t care whether a candidate is a Mormon or a Christian or a Muslim or a Jew or an Atheist or a pagan but I do care whether a candidate values secularism, social justice, equality, and science.

This may seem odd: why, as someone who frequently finds himself opposed to the ravages of conservative religion in American public life, do I not care too much about the religious leanings of a potential president?

Consider this thought experiment:

If I could vote in this election, I’d vote for Obama (or, perhaps, if voting in a safe Democratic state, a third party candidate). Imagine that the religious identities were reversed: Obama is a Mormon, Romney an Atheist, but their policies and values stay the same. Would that change my vote?

Nope. I don’t think it would. What’s primarily important about a candidate, as Libby Anne argues, is their values, those ideal and principles which guide them in their policy decisions, not their membership of a given religious denomination. In asking how a potential President will dal with a foreign policy crisis, for instance, it is less useful to know that they are a Catholic than to know that they are an Isolationist.

However, there is one nuance I would add to Libby Anne’s argument. She states the following at the conclusion of her piece:

Does a candidate’s faith inform his or her values? Sure. But as I’ve pointed out, no religious tradition seems to result in a monolithic set of values.

While its certainly true that a candidate’s faith will inform their values – often in unpredictable ways – it is also true that faith itself is a sort of value. And it’s not the sort of value I appreciate in potential world leaders.

Think of George W Bush and the revelation that he genuinely seemed to believe that his mission in Iraq was supported by God. According to Palestinian ministers he said, justifying his actions:

“I’m driven with a mission from God. God would tell me, “George, go and fight those terrorists in Afghanistan.” And I did, and then God would tell me, “George, go and end the tyranny in Iraq .” And I did. And now, again, I feel God’s words coming to me, “Go get the Palestinians their state and get the Israelis their security, and get peace in the Middle East.” And by God I’m gonna do it.’”

Clearly, for W, faith was an important value. Expressed explicitly, he had a value something like this: “I should seek to find what God desires of me, and I should attempt to do what God desires.”

I don’t want my elected officials thinking this way. Faith, as a way of coming to decisions and orientating oneself toward the world, is problematic. It places the locus of concern somewhere outside the proper area of consideration for an elected leader, who should be doing the people’s work, not the work of The Lord. Their thought should be “how will this affect the people I represent”, not “is this the will of God”.

For this reason, all other things being equal, I’d prefer to vote for someone who does not value faith over someone who does. We elect them to serve us. God doesn’t get a vote.

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About James Croft

James Croft is the Leader in Training at the Ethical Culture Society of St. Louis - one of the largest Humanist congregations in the world. He is a graduate of the Universities of Cambridge and Harvard, and is currently writing his Doctoral dissertation as a student at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. He is an in-demand public speaker, an engaging teacher, and a passionate activist for human rights. James was raised on Shakespeare, Sagan and Star Trek, and is a proud, gay Humanist. His upcoming book "The Godless Congregation", co-authored with New York Times bestselling author Greg Epstein, is being published by Simon & Schuster.

  • http://www.heresyclub.com Alex Gabriel

    I don’t think it’s the label that matters, but the actual beliefs. If Obama called himself a Mormon, but wasn’t supporting the day-to-day atrocities of the LDS church or convinced of any of its funnier claims, I could probably live with that. If, however, he really believed he’d get his own planet, that Jesus appeared in North America or that the Garden of Eden was there, I’d start to have problems with his finger being on the big red button.

    • http://irritually.org Per Smith

      Wouldn’t you want to see, at minimum, a solid statistical correlation between holding a certain belief (e.g. that Jesus came to N. America) and acting in an undesirable way (e.g. pushing the red button) before making this kind of judgement? People who share various beliefs often behave in drastically different ways…and that goes for religious believers as much as it does for atheists. Sometimes there are generalizable similarities in the behaviors of a majority of people who claim certain beliefs, but in that case empirical evidence is available. I don’t think it makes sense, from a rationalist or materialist perspective to conclude anything about a person’s likely behavior without this kind of evidence. In fact I think drawing such evidence free conclusions based only only the (ir)religious beliefs someone holds is what theists have done for centuries while claiming that one simply cannot be good without God. Cheers.

      • Baal

        Absent sending candidates off for psych evaluation, the data we’d like is hard to come by. I don’t think judging a politician by their words (and votes!) is without merit. If a guy running for Senate says, “women can’t get pregnant from rape” and hand waves away the question of how (well it just shuts down) that’s not the same type of person as one who says (and this is fictitious!) “In Sweden in the 1980s their national health project measured cortisol (a stress hormone) levels in women and found that high cortisol (stress) is negatively correlated with fertility rates; from that I infer that it’s not possible to get pregnant from rape”. The later is bad science but at least there is a plausible mechanism and some basis for the initial assertion. Similarly, the more and more incredible statements a politician makes, the less likely it is that they are capable or willing to make good decisions. I suggest that biblical (book of mormon) literalism is not a rational perspective.

  • http://jondreyer.com Jon Dreyer

    You seem to be making this argument: Faith doesn’t matter; values matter. But faith is a value so faith does matter. In other words, faith does matter. I think there’s another reason faith matters. The wackier the belief, the more credulous the believer. And the more credulous the believer, the less I want that believer in a position of power.

    I think the way I’d put it is that the label doesn’t matter, but the belief does. For example, some Catholics believe, as the catechism requires, that communion wafers are literally the body of Christ; others less unreasonably appreciate the ritual. I have certainly voted for Catholics on occasion, but I would have a hard time voting for one who literally believed in transubstantiation.

    • James Croft

      I think what I’m trying to argue is that religious faith does not matter THAT MUCH. It matters somewhat as one value among many, but its certainly not a deal-breaker for me.

  • http://patheos.com/blogs/lovejoyfeminism Libby Anne

    Interesting point, James! While I am more than happy to ally with progressive Christians and progressives of other religious traditions on issues like equality and social justice, the problems I see with the very idea of “faith” hold me back from taking a completely “whatever you believe is just fine so long as your values are progressive” stance with regards to whether one believes in a God or not. And that’s something I didn’t address at all in my post, thanks for pointing that out!

  • http://jondreyer.com Jon Dreyer

    I think James is right that it’s complicated. Most likely I’d vote for a progressive Christian over a libertarian atheist, but I’d be conflicted because I’d be concerned about both of their judgment! Of course some political values are strongly correlated with faith (e.g. views on reproductive choice or gay marriage) in which case they make the choice easy.