The 2016 election presents atheists with a strange contrast. In contrast to Hillary Clinton, who by all accounts is a conventional liberal Protestant, Donald Trump has never had a reputation for being religious. It’s no great secret that his outreach to the GOP’s Christian-fundamentalist base has consisted of clumsy pandering. For example, here’s Trump with Jerry Falwell Jr., with a framed Playboy on the wall behind them:
Literally a framed pic on the wall of the candidate and a porn star, as a major evangelical leader endorses him. pic.twitter.com/ErYG57zcFb
— Nathan Lino (@nathanlino) June 21, 2016
But in spite of this, Trump is the nominee. He’s taken over the GOP and won the allegiance of their voters despite his barely-even-pretending-to-care attitude toward Christianity. It’s fair to ask if his rise means the downfall of the religious right as a political force in America. Sam Harris, though he didn’t endorse Trump, went so far as to say he could be “the first atheist president“.
Despite everything that makes him appalling, Trump’s irreligiosity gives him appeal to a minority of liberals who’d otherwise never vote for a Republican. Bernie Sanders supporters are disproportionately non-religious, and with him out of the race, about one-fifth of them currently say they’ll vote for Trump in the general election. Here’s one of them from the comments of an earlier post:
Trump and Sanders are the two candidates that post the least threat of allowing the country to move toward being a theocracy.
I doubt if there are a lot of people who think this way, but I’m sure there are some. This post will point out some things that they should consider.
Although he’s not a conventional Republican nominee, Trump is reaching out to the religious right in mostly conventional ways. In June, he met with hundreds of conservative evangelicals. He promised to appoint anti-abortion Supreme Court justices and to repeal the Johnson Amendment, the section of the tax code that bars churches from endorsing political candidates. According to the Washington Post, he got a standing ovation from the attendees when he called “religious liberty” the “number one question” in America. He even bragged that he’d make department store employees say “Merry Christmas” to everyone:
The audience included leaders and founders of many segments of the Christian Right, the evangelical movement that began in the 1970s under people including the late Jerry Falwell. Among those present and involved in the program Tuesday were Focus on the Family founder James Dobson (who is no longer with that group), former Christian Coalition head Ralph Reed and evangelist Franklin Graham (son of evangelical icon Billy Graham).
Many conservative evangelicals — particularly their leaders, many of whom were supporters of Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) — are skeptical about Trump’s commitment to everything from abortion opposition to religious liberty. But they see him as more of an ally than they do Clinton, and many are attracted to his nostalgic framework about taking America “back” to a better time.
But even if you dismiss all this as mere pandering, even if you write it off as the routine promises that any Republican candidate would make to shore up their base, there’s another, much bigger problem.
Trump’s signature campaign pledge is to ban Muslims from immigrating to the United States. He’s even suggested that Muslims who are American citizens shouldn’t be allowed back in if they travel out of the country. This isn’t a last-minute pander to win support from suspicious evangelicals, it’s been part of his platform from the beginning. And it showcases a total lack of understanding or respect for the First Amendment or the no-religious-test clause.
Secularism means that no religious or atheist group should get special privileges, or special disfavor, depending on whether the government that’s currently in power likes or dislikes them. Clearly, Trump couldn’t care less about this core atheist principle. If he wants to ban an entire religion from the country with the stroke of a pen, what else might he want to do? Decree special privileges for pastors who are friendly to him? Make it possible for churches to sue atheist groups whose critique upsets them? We know that he’s dangerously willing to hand out favors to those who stroke his ego.
The most baffling thing about the atheists-for-Trump faction is that most of them don’t believe he would do what he’s promising to do. The fellow I quoted earlier, when Trump’s Muslim-ban proposal was pointed out to him, claimed that this was just “pandering to ignorant voters” and that the president “does not have the constitutional authority to enact any such ban”. (Somehow, in this person’s thinking, the Constitution wouldn’t prevent President Hillary Clinton or President Ted Cruz from creating a theocracy, but would constrain President Trump.) In this mindset, Trump’s promises to do the opposite of what his confused supporters say they want can be safely disregarded.
Contrary to the rhetoric of flip-flopping politicians, history shows that presidents mostly keep their promises. Yes, the Constitution and resistance from opposing politicians limits their power, but it would be utter foolishness to vote for someone under the assumption that he won’t be able to do what he says he wants to do. That’s a lesson learned the hard way by the British citizens who voted to quit the European Union believing that it wouldn’t actually happen.
All else being equal, I’d probably vote for a less religious candidate over a more religious one, but this is a case where all else definitely isn’t equal. I’d much rather vote for a principled religious believer who respects the separation of church and state, than for an irreligious person who has no concern for the Constitution and is willing to throw secularism to the wind as soon as it suits his immediate interest.