By Tom Krattenmaker
Guess how many of the major-party candidates in next month’s congressional elections are openly atheist. Hint: You can count them on one finger.
It tells you something that in a time when “no religion” is the category of roughly 20% of Americans, virtually none of the hundreds of Democrats and Republicans vying for congressional seats identify as a religious “none.”
Whether it’s because some consider their atheism, agnosticism or indifference a deal-breaker and don’t even try for office, or whether it’s because some non-religious candidates fudge the truth for political viability, this much seems clear: Candidates have to at least feign some religiosity to qualify for prominent political office, despite our Constitution forbidding religion tests of this sort. And atheism and related forms of non-belief are about the worst thing a candidate can be associated with.
This situation should not, and will not, hold for long.
Just in time for the “silly season,” otherwise known as the elections, a coalition of secular organizations is launching a campaign to destigmatize non-belief in the public square. It’s called Openly Secular, and if that brings to mind people coming out of closets as we saw with the gay-rights movement, well, that’s the idea.
Explaining the need for the campaign, Carolyn Becker, spokesperson for Openly Secular, points to polling data showing that 53% of Americans think it’s necessary to believe in God to be moral. Other survey data show that being an atheist is more injurious to one’s shot at political office than being an adulterer.
These trends would likely bend if more Americans got to know people who were openly non-religious and saw them working hard, taking care of their kids and neighborhoods, and being generally kind and honest in their dealings with other people.
In other words, seeing them do what most everyone does, whatever our ideas about God. (It’s useful to remind ourselves, too, that the ranks of rogues and miscreants include plenty of people who tout their religious bona fides.)
Not all the leading atheist voices agree it’s a good idea for secular candidates to show their non-believer stripes explicitly in politics.
Sam Harris — author of the best-selling atheist anthem The End of Faith, as well as a new book called Waking Up, which explores the benefits of non-religious spirituality — says these candidates should be “rigorously secular.” They should challenge dubious religious ideas when they intrude in public life and protect church-state separation.
“I’m not recommending that anyone go soft on religion,” Harris says. “I just don’t think we need to identify as a victim group.”
That might be smart for the short term, but victimhood aside, will it do enough to change the climate and address the de facto religion test we seem to have in our high-level politics?
These days, candidates often rush to outdo one another in showing how religious they are. Those who are quieter about such matters are frequently asked where they stand on matters of faith. Non-believers — and you know they’re out there — should not have to lie to remain viable.
Get this: Even some conservatives don’t believe in God. The prominent columnist George Will, for instance, recently revealed that he is an atheist — albeit an “amiable, low-voltage” one, as Will put it. Low voltage or high, Will has come out.
So has his conservative column-writing compatriot Charles Krauthammer, who recently distanced himself from conventional belief in God by saying that reverence for the mystery and awesomeness of the universe was as far as he could go.
These are neither laudable nor lamentable. They are simply examples of overdue candor and, I suspect, a sign of things to come.
Decades ago, President Eisenhower articulated a principle that still holds sway today. “Our form of government,” the World War II hero and 34th president declared, makes “no sense unless it is founded in a deeply felt religious faith, and I don’t care what it is.”
Our new, more secular century calls for an update to Eisenhower’s idea: Our democracy cannot function well unless its participants have deeply felt ethical commitments that get them beyond their own self-interest. And I don’t care where they get them.