The Eisenhower Test

The Eisenhower Test July 6, 2007

The campaign of Mitt Romney, a Mormon, for the Republican presidential nomination has caused rifts within the party’s base, as evangelical Christians agonize over whether they could support a candidate who believes slightly different things about God than they do. The latest spat in this conflict comes in a post by Albert Mohler, president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, who argues that Mormons are not Christians. Sci-fi writer Orson Scott Card, himself a Mormon, fires back. (Via.)

I have little interest in watching angels dance on pinheads, so I don’t intend to take sides in that debate. However, some of Card’s offhand remarks are worthy of a much more in-depth response.

Card makes some trenchant remarks about how America was founded with a look back at the bloody religious wars of medieval Europe, and how our founders sought to distance themselves from faith-based slaughter by creating a republic where church and state would be kept separate. He perceptively notes that Mitt Romney is not running for “Pope of America”, which made me laugh.

Then his essay starts to go off the rails:

That’s something that I would look for about any candidate, from any religious tradition. Does he live by what his religion teaches? Or is he a member in name only?

[Romney’s] profession of membership in a Church gives us a way to find out about the standards of good and evil, of right and wrong, that his religion teaches. Where I would be worried is when we have a candidate who does not profess any religion, or does not live up to the standards of the religion he professes.

Yes, folks: apparently, as far as Orson Scott Card is concerned, atheists are unfit to be president. And yet, just a few paragraphs later, he says this:

We are as legitimate, as citizens and therefore as potential officeholders, as anybody else in America. Because there is no religious test for holding office in America.

And if you try to impose one, by saying that all persons belonging to this or that religion should never be elected president, then who is it who is rejecting the U.S. Constitution? Who is it who is saying that people with certain beliefs are second-class citizens, for no other reason than their religion?

The aroma of hypocrisy lingers thickly over this piece. Card says that we are voting for a president, not for a head rabbi or chief minister: in other words, the office of president is a secular position, not a religious one. So far, so good. He also says that there is no religious test for office, should be no religious test for office, and anyone who says otherwise is un-American. Again, I cannot disagree with that. But sandwiched in between those two sensible assertions is a careless, dismissive slap at atheists, saying that an atheist, regardless of experience or qualifications, is unfit to serve in national office. How can he overlook the glaring contradiction that rips through the heart of his own words? For someone who is so sensitive to prejudice directed to his own religion, he seems far too ready to dispense it to others.

Card’s sole explanation for this ugly prejudice is that he doesn’t think he can tell what an atheist thinks and believes, since they do not belong to churches or profess creeds that lay this all out for onlookers:

How then would we find out what he really believes? What his standards are? How well he keeps his commitments?

I have a simple suggestion, Mr. Card: if you want to know what an atheist believes, ask him. Is that such an outlandish suggestion that it has somehow escaped you? If you want to know whether an atheist keeps their commitments, research their background and their history. If you want to know what an atheist’s moral standards are, just ask. I’m sure there are plenty of us who’d be happy to tell you.

In any case, evaluating a candidate as an individual is the only option for a voter who cares about making the right choice, regardless of that candidate’s religion or lack thereof. People are not herd animals whose distinguishing characteristics can be completely summed up by the religious brands stamped on their foreheads. Simply because a person professes a creed is no guarantee that they believe it or will follow it; simply because a person belongs to a religion is no guarantee of how they will interpret it or act on it.

Card himself notes this, yet inexplicably fails to draw the obvious conclusion from it. Like far too many religious people, he seemingly has no qualms about dismissing atheists as a class without making any serious effort to understand them. In fact, he suggests that all religious believers should join together to suppress atheism, rather than fighting over theology with each other. He even throws in the by-now standard, utterly fictitious, claim that atheists want to “exclude” religious people from public life, which is ironically hypocritical considering his own essay expresses that very desire directed at atheists.

This is the sort of bigotry that atheists must routinely confront. In truth, Card’s sentiments are probably shared by a great number of Americans, people who feel a vague discomfort about atheism and feel more confident voting for a candidate who believes in some religion, any religion. It’s reminiscent of the remark attributed to President Eisenhower: “Our government makes no sense unless it is founded on a deeply held religious belief — and I don’t care what it is.”

In spite of its widespread adoption, this claim is terminally incoherent. It makes no sense to say that any religious person, regardless of their beliefs, is morally superior to any atheist, regardless of their beliefs. I have dealt with this fallacy before. If this prejudice is widely held, that is only all the more reason to attack it and show it to be false.

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