Why are U.S. voters so wary about electing atheists?
THE RELIGION GUY’S ANSWER:
Political firsts are piling up!
Joe Biden was America’s first Catholic vice president elected alongside the first Black president, Barack Obama, and hopes to be its second Catholic president. Running mate Kamala Harris would be the first female, first African-American, and first Asian-American as vice president. Jimmy Carter was not the first evangelical president but the first whose faith got such scrutiny. (See note below on how Americans view evangelical candidates.)
In other landmarks on major party tickets, losing nominees for president include the first woman, Hillary Clinton, the first Latter-day Saint, Mitt Romney, the first Eastern Orthodox candidate, Michael Dukakis, and the first Catholic, Al Smith, in 1928. Vice presidential hopefuls on losing tickets include the first Catholic, William Miller, the first woman, Geraldine Ferraro, and the first Jew, Joseph Lieberman.
Ted Cruz was the first Latino to win a primary election, and Pete Buttigieg the first openly gay candidate to do so. The halls of Congress have welcomed numerous Blacks, women, Latinos and those of other immigrant ethnicities, as well as Buddhists, Hindus, and Muslims.
One exception. “Why is it so hard for atheists to get voted into Congress?” That’s the title of an October article by Pitzer College sociologist Phil Zuckerman for theconversation.com that was picked up by The Associated Press, patheos.com, Religion News Service, and other outlets. (See https://theconversation.com/why-is-it-so-hard-for-atheists-to-get-voted-in-to-congress-146748.) In a Gallup Poll last year, Americans said they’re willing to elect a president who is —
Black, 96 percent
Catholic, 95 percent
Hispanic, 95 percent
Female, 94 percent
Jewish, 93 percent
Evangelical, 80 percent (note the drop-off from the above five groups!)
Gay or lesbian, 76 percent
Under age 40, 71 percent
Muslim, 66 percent
Over age 70 (e.g. Biden and Trump!), 63 percent
Atheist, only 60 percent acceptability
In a 2014 Pew Research survey, a majority of 53 percent said they’re “less likely” to vote for a presidential candidate who’s an atheist, a far higher rejection rate than the 36 percent for another A-word, adulterer, with 17 percent for an evangelical and only 8 percent for a Catholic.
Zuckerman finds it odd that despite America’s growing diversity otherwise “there is no self-identifying atheist in national politics.” Throughout U.S. history the only example he finds is Pete Stark, a California Democrat in the U.S. House who died January 20. Stark won re-election twice after publicly professing atheism in 2007 (while also identifying as a Unitarian).
This is something of an American anomaly, Zuckerman says. He notes that popular “godless” or “openly skeptical” national leaders elected elsewhere have included Jacinda Ardern, who just won a smashing victory in New Zealand, Golda Meir of Israel, Jawaharlal Nehru of India, and Olof Palme of Sweden.
This sociologist proposes two answers to the “why” question.
Issue #1 is history and what happens when atheists devoted to Marxist Communism gain government power. “Talk about a branding problem,” Zuckerman remarks. The tens of millions of innocent victims, religious believers among them, who’ve been imprisoned, tortured and slaughtered by Communists will forever be beyond counting. On a per capita basis, Pol Pot of Cambodia was probably the worst of the autocrats.
Oddly, Zuckerman dismisses this concern because “such regimes have long since met their demise” though somehow “the association of atheism with a lack of freedom lingered.” You think? Consider the current depredations under North Korea’s Kim gang. True, Communist China’s deadly rampages have subsided, but ask Buddhists, Catholics and Protestants, Muslims, human-rights attorneys and would-be democrats how things are going.
Issue #2, he thinks, is the “irrational linkage in many people’s minds between atheism and immorality” and the assumption that without “a deity watching and judging their every move” people “must be more likely to murder, steal, lie and cheat.”
In 2014, British social psychologist Will Gervais tested study subjects’ reactions to fictional examples of a person committing heinous acts like serial murder, dismembering of homeless victims, incest, cannibalism, and abuse of living and dead animals. Result: “Participants readily and intuitively assumed that the person was an atheist,” with general agreement that “belief in God somehow inhibits people from engaging in immoral behavior.” Even atheists who participated held that view!
Actually, there’s no necessary correlation between a specific individual’s morals and religion or non-religion. But in terms of the general population, such American Founding Fathers as the heterodox John Adams believed democracy cannot thrive without moral strength from widespread religious belief.
One might expect thinking on this will change with the recent rise of Americans lacking any religious affiliation, the so-called “nones.” One might be wrong. The large Religious Landscape Study in 2014 from Pew Research, which charts this trend, found that 22.8 of U.S. adults were “nones” without any religious ties. But only 4 percent of Americans were agnostic (unsure if there’s a God or think there’s no way to know) and 3.1 percent outright atheists (convinced there is no God).
The remaining and dominant group among the unaffiliated said they’re “nothing in particular,” which doesn’t necessarily mean they reject belief in God. Pew asked “nones” why they lack religious affiliation. Only 21 percent in the sizable “nothing in particular” category said it’s because “I don’t believe in God,” compared with 37 percent of agnostics and (naturally) 89 percent of atheists.
Currently, 18 representatives in the U.S. House decline to list any religious identity. In 2018, members established the Congressional Freethought Caucus. The caucus advocates “secular” government based on “reason” and opposes “discrimination against atheists, agnostics and religious seekers,” which many religious believers favor. The13 Freethought members, all Democrats, aren’t necessarily atheists. They include three who list no identification, two Catholics, three Jews, and one each for Episcopal, Lutheran, Buddhist and Muslim.
Also caucus co-founder Jared Huffman of California, who came out as the only openly non-theistic member of Congress in 2017. He had no trouble winning re-election the following year. However, even Huffman does not call himself an “atheist” but rather a “non-religious” humanist and seeker.