Could an atheist win the White House? It's not as crazy as you might think.
These are pretty good times for non-believers
These are pretty good times for non-believers.
Our ranks are growing rapidly, with nearly a quarter of Americans now claiming no religious identification. Even if most of those don't emphatically declare themselves atheist, but say their religion is "nothing in particular," there are surely plenty of people who call themselves Catholics or Jews or something else but whose belief in an all-knowing, all-seeing god is tenuous at best. The number will keep growing, because religiosity and age are strongly correlated today, with older people being the most religious while a full third of millennials claim no religion. It's no longer considered scandalous in many, if not most, places to say that you aren't a believer. And the War on Christmas is going pretty well, too (kidding).
But it's going to take a while for politicians to catch up to the rest of the country, as it usually does. Right now there are no avowed atheists among the 535 members of Congress (though if you ask the secularist organizations, they'll say there are at least a couple of dozen who are closeted), and only one member who doesn't claim an affiliation with any religion, Rep. Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona. As for someone who doesn't profess a belief in the Almighty running for president? Forget it, right?
Maybe — but maybe we aren't quite as far from that day as it seems. It's certainly true that you aren't going to find a lot of love for non-theists in the political world. Asked at a gathering of conservative evangelicals last week how important it is for the president to fear God, Ted Cruz said, "Any president who doesn't begin every day on his knees isn't fit to be commander in chief of this country." You could probably get more than a few of his opponents to agree — maybe all of them.
But consider that nobody really bought it when Donald Trump claimed to be a man of deep faith (asked what God means to him, he talked about what a great deal he made in buying a beautiful golf course, I kid you not) — but it didn't hurt him in the primary polls. Yes, there are many Republican voters who think they absolutely must vote for someone who shares their faith, but there are plenty of others who'll overlook that question for someone who's a compelling enough personality. And Republicans ended up voting for Mitt Romney, despite the widespread belief among evangelicals that Mormonism is a cult. That's not to mention the fact that while in 2012, no fewer than three candidates (Michele Bachmann, Herman Cain, and Rick Santorum) said that God had personally told them to run for president, no one that I've heard has made that claim this year. Maybe it's because getting such an instruction seems to mean, "I want you to run so your humiliating loss may be a lesson to others."
There is one other secular candidate running for president, at least measured by the time he spends in services: Bernie Sanders. While Sanders hasn't talked much about his Jewishness, what he has said suggests that for him, like for many American Jews, Judaism is much more a cultural identity than a set of shared beliefs about God.
I don't know what Sanders would say if someone asked him a direct question about his personal beliefs on matters theological, but at the very least he doesn't seem concerned with the public expressions of piety nearly all presidential candidates make sure to enact. It's particularly important for Republicans, but even Democrats perform that ritual, usually when they start visiting black churches as their minds turn to voter turnout. Hillary Clinton will no doubt be spending ample time in church during this campaign (she already has), and the Republicans she served with in the Senate can testify to her attendance at Bible study.
That doesn't mean religious conservatives will believe it; don't be surprised if you hear people on the right questioning the sincerity of her faith. That happened more to Barack Obama than any president in history, with significant chunks of the Republican electorate believing him to be either a secret Muslim or a secret atheist (or maybe both; he'd be just diabolical enough to pull it off). I've long said that it's one of the ironies of his presidency that some of his most fervent supporters and most fervent opponents share the conviction that Obama's Christianity is just for show, the former because they're sure he must share their secularist beliefs, and the latter because they can't accept that he might share their Christian ones.
But the public may be slowly warming to the idea of a president who doesn't in fact start the day on his or her knees. In the latest Gallup poll on the topic, 58 percent of Americans said they could vote for an atheist presidential candidate if he or she was their party's nominee. Yes, that was the lowest of any religious group, below a Catholic (93 percent), a Jew (91 percent), a Mormon (81 percent), an evangelical Christian (73 percent), or a Muslim (60 percent). But it's still a majority, and one that has been slowly but steadily rising since Gallup first asked the question in 1958 and found only 18 percent of people would vote for an atheist.
So who knows, perhaps within a few election cycles we'll see someone who doesn't claim any religious faith make a serious run for the White House. It might be a conservative Republican, in an only-Nixon-could-go-to-China kind of development. Or it might be that the "nones," already an overwhelmingly Democratic group, will continue to grow in numbers and see one of their own lead the party. But it could happen sooner than you might think.