Can An Atheist Be Elected President Of The USA? genre: Hip-Gnosis & Polispeak & Six Degrees of Speculation

Conventional wisdom suggests that an atheist could not be elected president of the United States despite the fact that our constitution grants no fewer rights to those who do not believe in a higher being. I find that improbability rather troubling since most atheists have no fundamental objection to those who do believe in god. In fact, by and large, atheists vote for theists in virtually all elections even though they may not hold such beliefs.

The obvious question is why would this be the case? BBC News explores the question in a new article. I’ve always found the European perspective rather insightful if for no other reason than they tend to be amused by our somewhat strict adherence to connecting religion and politics…something that many inhabitants of European countries take for granted and assume that it would not and should not occur.

In the last election, President George W Bush, a born-again Christian, won the support of the vast majority of evangelicals, while his Democratic opponent John Kerry talked as little as possible about his own Catholicism.

But in the crowded field of candidates this time, it is the Democrats who are finding it easier to describe how their faith in Jesus informs their political beliefs and experience.

Three of the Republican candidates at a recent primary debate were happy to admit that they did not believe in Darwinian evolution, due to their Biblically-founded beliefs.

So what lies behind the new Democratic candidates' confidence in professing their faith in public? Is it just a question of - in effect - playing the "God card" with a view to peeling off as many evangelicals as possible?

But in purely electoral terms, there is a danger for Democratic candidates in lunging too far towards the faithful, and away from the secular, non-religious voter.

John Green is the senior fellow in religion and American politics at the Pew Forum, in Washington DC. He said: "It's possible that too much talk of religion might drive those votes away."

I tend to agree with Green and might even take the thought a step further. I suspect that the 2008 election will mark a shift away from faith based politics as many voters will be suspicious of those who attempt to capitalize on the subject in order to win voter support.

That skepticism will likely come from both the liberal left and the religious right. I say as much because the left has found the politics of faith to be very divisive and some on the right feel that the actions of their elected officials failed to match the campaign rhetoric.

Given that prospect, I think it is safe to argue that 2008 will usher in a sea change in the dynamics of U.S. politics. While I don’t expect those on the religious right to be any less focused on their issues; I do think they may find themselves with a choice of lesser evils rather than another candidate cut from the George Bush born again evangelical cloth.

At the same time, I would caution Democratic candidates to avoid too much of a shift towards faith and a focus on moving further right on values issues in order to appeal to more independent voters as well as secular Republicans. My hunch is that the independents that supported Democrats in 2006 will continue to be concerned about the war in Iraq and the image of the United States in the world…an image that many believe was jeopardized by the words and actions of a president who sought to characterize his authority as an adherence to a “theological perspective".

On Capitol Hill, it is a sign of just how important religion is to US politics that only one member of Congress has ever admitted to being an atheist - and that admission came just a few months ago.

The BBC's Heart and Soul programme visited Democratic Congressman Pete Stark, of California, in his busy ground-floor office, to find out what reaction there had been to his declaration.

He said the vast majority of e-mails he had received were from secularists around the world, praising his courage, and most of the critical response had been from Christians who said they "felt sorry" for his inability to embrace God.

On the presidential race, he had blunt advice: "Who can say more rosaries than the next person in a certain given amount of time, hardly seems to me, to be a qualification.

"I'd like to hear much more specifics about how they plan to get us universal health care," he said.

I think Congressman Stark’s views will mirror the views of many voters in 2008 especially if the issues that led to a Democratic sweep in 2006 continue to plague the country…something that seems to be likely given the President’s ever advancing ideological absolutism. The fact that polls show a strong dissatisfaction with Congressional performance indicates the degree to which voters want change.

It also affirms the anger that was included in the message they delivered in 2006. Any significant deviation from those relevant issues will not be met with favor and overlaying the discussion with an air of religious rhetoric will only accelerate the anger and frustration that is palpable in the electorate.

In the US, where freedom to practise religion - or to have no religion at all - is enshrined in the constitution, the consequences of being an atheist are electorally dire for anybody seeking public office.

Until a few years ago, the Colorado businessman Dave Habecker had served on his local town council for 13 years.

One of his fellow councillors successfully introduced the reciting of the national pledge of allegiance - in response to the Iraq war - as a sign of support for US troops, said Mr Habecker.

Ever since the mid-1950s, the pledge has contained the phrase "Under God" and at the height of the anti-communist era, US bank notes were also changed to include the inscription: "In God We Trust".

Mr Habecker refused to stand and recite the pledge, and after being branded unpatriotic, was forced to enter a fresh election contest to remove him from office. He lost by some 300 votes.

"Deep down they know that I was removed for my religious beliefs, which is anti-American. We brag about being the freest country in the world. Why do we coerce our citizens to stand and recite a pledge of allegiance? It's a paradox."

While it may be virtually impossible to survive in office without faith in a supreme being, it remains to be seen how successful the Democratic Party's new confidence in the power of personal testimony will prove to be with a divided and volatile electorate.

While Habecker may have been ill-advised to object to the pledge of allegiance, his actions should not be construed as a repudiation of his patriotism or his love of his country. In fact, his choice to object to the religious inferences in the pledge was in fact an expression of all that this nation was founded upon…a freedom to believe as one chooses without the loss of the liberties afforded by the Constitution and the Bill Of Rights.

America is a fine nation and an example of the value of freedom…but the fact that
Mr. Habecker would be removed from office for exercising his freedom suggests that we have yet to achieve the potential our forefathers likely envisioned.

I have no idea if or when an atheist might be elected to the presidency. At the same time, until the issue of one’s belief or disbelief is irrelevant to the decision making process, I believe it is safe to conclude that America will be viewed as an anomaly by those who have moved beyond the bias that can accompany a belief in god.

Tagged as: 2008 Election, Atheism, BBC News, John Green, President

Daniel DiRito | July 20, 2007 | 1:36 PM
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