Bring out the pitchforks and torches now.
Let me start by saying I do not know what is out there before I die, and to be honest — I do not know what I should believe in, if I should believe in anything at all. I do feel there is an energy that connects us; whether that is “God,” “a god,” “gods” or just the science of positive and negative electrons making this universe dance, I do not know. But now that the Presidential election is over, I think it is time to ask a very fundamental question in lieu of some of the issues voters faced. Is the United States of America remotely ready to vote for an atheist to hold the highest office in the land?
In 2012, for the first time since the Gallup organization began asking the question, a majority of Americans found in its poll that 54 percent would vote for an atheist. What could that mean for the future of the free world? There are several issues of the day — most of them social — that could wind up being trivial or even more heated in future elections.
Of course, in its current landscape it may be a virtual impossibility for someone who sees God as a nothing more than a flying spaghetti monster to hold the Presidency, but I am certain based on the Gallup poll that someone in that mindset is gearing and planning to make a substantial run on their own. It is possible after all: Article 6, Clause 3 of the Constitution states: “… no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States.” I am sure that intimidates some — a theocracy based on their own religious beliefs would be right up their alley. Seven states have unconstitutional laws preventing atheists from holding public office. I would like to speak to conservative Constitutional literalists about this.
Of course, dividing the voting population into subsets doesn’t show equal results. Republicans aren’t on board with voting for either Muslims (47 percent) or atheists (48 percent). There is also the age of voters to consider. Atheists get majority approval only among those under the age of 50. More people over 65 would vote for an atheist (40 percent) than for a Muslim (35 percent), but that’s hardly a comfort for either. While Americans have been open to electing a Mormon President for 45 years, the percentage who says they’d vote for one did not show any significant change until this year; Republicans were much more willing to vote for a Mormon (90 percent) than either Democrats (72 percent) or Independents (79 percent). My sarcasm meter explodes as I wonder why that was.
So far, all Presidents have been presumed to be at least nominally Christian. Lincoln — arguably the greatest — was a church attender but not identifiable as a member, something that frustrated his critics. Jefferson — almost certainly the most brilliant — was a Deist whose approach to religion was scientific and intellectual more that it was scriptural and spiritual. Yet, his moral center accommodated a belief that “all men are created equal” with innate rights that include “liberty” alongside a belief that human beings could be owned as private property — as slaves, something that Lincoln argued against.
The major concern here is the ethical base for action and the moral choices a President faces. A believer has a sense of accountability to God and to things larger than himself that do not exist for an atheist. Some may inevitably believe an atheist might not have a moral compass. What does this say about us from all sides? Are we more comfortable thinking that somebody who believes in a higher power deserves to live in the White House? Do we believe that a religious person would be better handling health care, or commanding the military? Is God necessary for advocating tax policy? Do we need to believe in God to protect Medicare? Must a president hold values that come from any religion?
Remember all the rumors and conspiracy theories during the 2008 Presidential election about then-candidate Barack Obama being a “super-secret Muslim cell?” Some of my most memorable conversations are with those who still hold onto the idea. I still firmly believe the only person who got a rational handle on the whole debate was Colin Powell, who honestly and bluntly stated “What if he is?” The idea may hold weight with the idea of an atheist as well. I stand with Powell: The notion of disqualifying a candidate with ideas that affect our community based on what they believe (or not believe) is not America. Not if we believe this is a truly “free” nation. In today’s political climate an atheist candidate for the presidency would likely have to spend more effort explaining the framework of their moral code than their political belief. That may be natural, but is it reasonable?
Only God knows, I suppose.