Do the Nonreligious Have a Place in American Politics?

Do the Nonreligious Have a Place in American Politics? April 28, 2016

If you’re an atheist, agnostic, or otherwise religiously unaffiliated individual, do you have a place in American politics?

I’m not questioning whether you should take part in the political process. You should absolutely exercise your right to vote, regardless of your religiosity.

My concerns here are: where is our representation in government, and how do we get our voices heard?

It’s clear that the political landscape of the United States does not accurately reflect the religious breakdown. 73 percent of US adults say they’re Christian, but a puzzling 92 percent of the members of the House and Senate report as Christian. And good luck finding even one member of the Legislative or Executive branches who openly identifies as atheist or agnostic.

Photo credit: Ireneusz Skorupa/iStockphoto
Photo credit: Ireneusz Skorupa/iStockphoto

This obvious disparity is downright troubling. If we’re to live under the authority of a government that allegedly draws its power from the people it represents, shouldn’t that government take into account and at least attempt to appeal to demographic realities?

Of course, it’s reasonable to make the assertion that many of their number may not be as devout as they claim. There’s no doubt in my mind that many an ultraconservative is merely exploiting the extreme positions of their base. But without getting into how often members of our “leadership” crack a hymnal, let’s look at the bigger picture.

As the number of religious people in this country declines, our leadership seems almost statically religious, despite being the most diverse Congress ever. And with increasing partisan polarity, it’s likely the GOP at least will be ever more reluctant to accept the nonreligious.

Remember George H. W. Bush? At a 1987 Chicago news conference, a reporter asked him his thoughts on whether atheists could be patriots.

His response: “No, I don’t know that atheists should be considered as citizens, nor should they be considered patriots. This is one nation under God.”

Sure, that was nearly thirty years ago. In the time since, the number of nonreligious Americans has grown by leaps and bounds, on a path to catch up to the rest of the Western world. But rhetoric from firebrand theocrats like Ted Cruz does very little to convince the unaffiliated that the political structure of their country views them as equals.

In fact, it’s hard to imagine a Republican uttering any kind words toward non-Christians. It’s even harder to imagine a Republican atheist.

But Republicans aren’t the only problem. Former Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.) came out as a homosexual in 1987, but didn’t admit his status as a nonbeliever until after he retired. That’s right – Frank was more comfortable revealing he was gay to voters than he was admitting he wasn’t religious. And after he finally did, he had to clarify that he wouldn’t call himself an atheist.

So, what is it about the power structure (both right and left of center) that restricts the nonreligious presence? What mechanisms keep us from elected office? Are we shut down in our first excursions into official positions, told to keep our opinions on the supernatural under lock and key? Once we enter higher office, is it easiest to challenge a religious incumbent by incorporating into our campaigns a similar worldview to appeal to voters?

Why are we so frightened of admitting to the public that we don’t believe in magic?

The US Constitution specifically prohibits any religious test or requirement for public office. If it were ever made public that – gasp! ­– a person running for office was an outspoken atheist, the only thing they’d have to worry about would be the voters. And while that might be a big problem if they were seeking to represent Mississippi or Alabama, as long as their other policy positions were a proper fit for their constituency, public outcry would be more or less tepid.

If the public did panic and religious backlash ensued, the news coverage would be constructive in the long run. The world press would be alerted (not for the first time, mind you) to the intolerance of this country for those of different backgrounds, and the rallying cry in support of such a candidate might be a wonder to behold.

I’ll agree that this might be rather too optimistic. But long gone are the days of running someone out of town on a rail for not conforming. Any further criminalization of impiety today serves only to create martyrs for the cause. But if the nonreligious simply force the issue instead of holding our tongues, we might gain substantial ground in American politics.

There’s another possibility, however, that ignores the influence of the American predilection for holy rollers in deciding our leadership. Perhaps the reason why the nonreligious are so sorely underrepresented in mainstream politics is because atheists and agnostics around the US simply aren’t that interested in becoming part of the authority structure.

Supernatural beings and codified doctrine serve to control the masses – so maybe the nonreligious aren’t as hungry for power as their faithful counterparts?

Free thought should never be influenced by authority, tradition, or any other dogma. And as people who have already taken significant steps to separate themselves from such forces, why would the nonreligious want to become part of something so similar? Why would we seek the power to exercise legitimate violence against others in the name of upholding something like “American values?”

Regardless, until something changes, religious people will continue to dominate the political landscape of the United States. They’ll decide how to educate our children, whether or not we should go to war over land and resources, and how to tackle existential threats like climate change.

Do we trust them, or do we stand up and fight for our voices to be heard?

It seems like we have some soul searching to do.



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