Majority of Americans would elect an atheist president. Sorry, Bernie.

Majority of Americans would elect an atheist president. Sorry, Bernie. February 12, 2020

A new Gallup poll released this month indicates that “democratic socialist” Bernie Sanders has a tough row to hoe in the 2020 presidential election, and that atheists, while still not beloved among Americans, would likely get more votes than Bernie (if they had anyone running).

But not much more.

atheism socialism politics presidential election gallup poll
Barack Obama, the 44th and first African-American U.S. president, is caricatured in a promo after winning a second term in 2012. (DonkeyHotey, Flikr, CC BY 2.0)

The poll shows that general tolerance by prospective voters for most key demographic groups has steadily increased to majority status since 2015, except toward “socialists.” Fewer tha half (47 percent) of polled electors in a 2015 Gallup survey said they would vote for a socialist presidential candidate, and that proportion dropped to 45 percent this year.

For atheists, in contrast, Gallup shows a majority 60 percent acceptance by voters today.

Although Gallup data for socialist preference doesn’t extend back beyond 2015, it shows data for most other groups back to 1958. So, the increase in tolerance overall is clear if you consider these percentage increases (see below) over the years leading to majority acceptance of possible presidential candidates from different groups:

  • African-American: In 1958, 38 percent of American voters said they would vote for a Black candidate. Ninety-six percent say they would today.
  • Catholic: an increase over the same period from 67 percent to 95 percent
  • Hispanic: from 87 percent (in 2007, the first year records were available) to 94 percent
  • Jewish: from 63 percent to 93 percent
  • Woman: from 54 percent to 93 percent
  • Evangelical Christian: from 73 percent (in 2015) to 80 percent
  • Gay/Lesbian: from 29 percent (in 1983) to 78 percent
  • Muslim: from 60 percent (in 2015) to 66 percent
  • Atheist: from 18 percent to 60 percent

Since this is a nontheist blog, the good news in the latest Gallup poll is that atheists, after a long spell in America’s political wilderness, are practically considered mainstream these days, to only slightly exaggerate the reality. The bad news is we’re still less trusted than also-unfairly-demonized Muslims to represent our fellow Americans in elected office.

And no wayward atheists have even crashed any airliners into skyscrapers yet. In America, nonbelief, apparently, is the second worse original sin, after socialism. Not that too many people even know what that is in this country. Many folks just think of it as “Communism lite,” which it’s nothing of the kind, of course, while atheists aren’t exactly Satanists on broomsticks, either.

But, still, this is welcome news for our team. I mean, if the country could elect its first Catholic (John F. Kennedy) president in 1960, and its first Black commander in chief in 2008, it could certainly elect an atheist to the White House in the 2020s, right?

In its latest poll, conducted in January, Gallup asked respondents this standard question:

“Between now and the 2020 political conventions, there will be discussion about the qualifications of presidential candidates — their education, age, religion, race and so on. If your party nominated a generally well-qualified person for president who happened to be [characteristic], would you vote for that person?”

The changes revealed by the poll reflect changing cultural mores.

“Since 1958, the sharpest increase in voting tolerance has been for blacks, followed by atheists, women, Jewish candidates and Catholics,” Gallup reported. “More recently, the biggest shift has been for gay or lesbian candidates.”

The poll also revealed some interesting political realities. It showed that Democrats were “at least somewhat more” willing than Republicans to support most of the demographic types posited in the survey.

“Republicans are more accepting than Democrats of evangelical Christians and candidates over 70,” the poll report noted. “While President Donald Trump falls into the latter category, so do four of the leading Democratic candidates: Bernie Sanders, Joe Biden, Elizabeth Warren and Michael Bloomberg.”

Hement Mehta, who blogs at The Friendly Atheist, also pointed out that the poll indicates more religious (or irreligious) tolerance among Democrats than Republicans. The poll reported that 69 percent of Democrat voters indicated they would be okay with an atheist candidate — nine points higher than overall poll preferences — but only 41 percent of Republicans said they would be.

Mehta argues that secular voters should not lose faith just because no atheists are running for president.

“Remember: There are dozens of openly non-religious politicians at the state level. Once some of them trickle up into national politics, and people just get used to the idea of an atheist politician, it’ll become even less of a concern,” he wrote.

The upshot is that a majority of Americas steadily appear to be growing more tolerant against “others” in general, which will likely have profound political implications in the future.

Rationally speaking, therefore, it’s probably just a matter of time — and perhaps not much time — before we heathens break out of our political dungeon.

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