The Last Veto

12/30/2011 04:07 pm ET | Updated Feb 29, 2012

"Let's pray."

The leader of the community center in Petersburg, Virginia, ordered everybody to stand up and join the prayer circle. Between all the Afro-American attendants, a white man doubted for a second, before finally joining the circle.

He had a powerful reason to join the prayer: he was running for Congress, and this evening he was campaigning in the community center. But he also had one powerful reason to doubt: he is an Atheist.

His name is Wynne LeGrow, and his story explains the struggle of non-religious persons in American politics.

"African American communities don't separate politics and religion," LeGrow explained. "In my Congressional District (Virginia's 4th), the Democratic Party is largely Afro-American, and the party meetings always start with a prayer."

For an Atheist candidate in the United States, a campaign is full of awkward moments. "It was expected that I went to black churches, presented myself and delivered a political speech. So I went to four churches on Sunday mornings, and everybody assumed that I was a Christian," LeGrow recalled. "In the last one, the Reverend called me out to the front and asked me to speech. I was so uncomfortable that I decided that this will be the last time. So I wrote a public letter, explaining that I am an Atheist."

The letter undermines LeGrow's campaign. But, in the first place, why should anyone care about a candidate's beliefs, in the country that invented the freedom of religion?

In God We Trust

Think about a democracy in which a religious minority represents 15% of the population and is growing quickly, but is virtually excluded from the exercise of power. For half of the country, just being a member of this distrusted minority disqualifies a person for holding public office.

No, we are not talking about oppressed Christians in some Muslim country. We are talking about non-religious persons in the United States of America.

Freedom of religion is one of the greatest contributions from the United States to the world, since the First Amendment. And religious minorities are well represented in the most relevant public offices.

The first minority (Roman Catholics, 24% of the adult population) comprises 29% of the Congress. Jews and Mormons are overrepresented in the Senate and the House. In the current primaries, two Mormons (two, 8% of the population) are running for President. It is a matter of debate if their faith could hurt their campaigns, but it doesn't seem to be the case: one of them (Mitt Romney) is widely seen as the front-runner for the GOP nomination. Americans elected their first Catholic President (John F. Kennedy) fifty-one years ago. In 2000 an Orthodox Jew (Joe Lieberman) won the plurality of votes to be the Vice President of the Union.

But there is an exception to the tolerance: non-religious Americans, or "none." In 2006, a Gallup Poll asked if America was ready to have an Atheist President; a stunning 84% answered "No."

Another Gallup Poll, in 2011, asked a more personal question: If your party nominated a generally well-qualified person for President, who happened to be an Atheist, would you vote for that person? 49% recognized that they would not vote for his party's well-qualified candidate (other 49% said that they would). Americans would rather vote for a gay or lesbian (67% would) than for an Atheist.

This level of bigotry is similar to discrimination against Afro-American before the Civil Rights Act; in 1958, 53% of the citizens said they would not vote for a Black candidate. Or against women before World War II; in 1937, 64% said they would not vote for a female candidate.

Americans are now considerably more tolerant about race, gender, sexual behavior and faith. But not too much about the lack of faith.

In one of the GOP Presidential debates, the candidate Newt Gingrich emphasized that only deeply religious persons are fit to exercise the Presidency.

"How can you have judgment if you have no faith? And how can I trust you with power if you don't pray?" asked the former House Speaker. "The notion that you are endowed by your creator sets a certain boundary on what we mean by America."

"In the United States, religion serves as a proxy for morality. The way we try to figure wherever or not a political candidate is good, trustworthy and honest, is we ask if he or she is religious," said professor of American religious history Randall Balmer. "Is a bad question, because it assumed that someone who is not religious cannot be a moral person, and that is demonstrably false. But we don't have any other way to answer the question."

"Atheists are at the bottom," admitted Herb Silverman, President of the Secular Coalition of America, an umbrella association for nontheistic organizations, which acts as a pressure group in Washington, D.C. "Many Americans still think that if you don't believe in God, you will not have any moral standard. And they are wrong; the less religious countries, like the Scandinavian, are very ethical countries," said Mr. Silverman.

Coming out of the closet

Pete Stark is the 0.2% man. The one and only of 535 members of the US Congress who recognized in public that he does not believe in God.

But this full disclosure was not easy. Congressman Stark spent his first 34 years in Congress in the closet -- in the religious closet, I mean. Since his arrival to the House of Representatives, in 1973, he defined himself as "Unitarian." In 2007, he added a supplementary description about his beliefs: "I am a Unitarian who does not believe in a Supreme Being." With these twelve words, Mr. Stark made history: he became the first U.S. Congressman ever to describe himself as non-religious.

"It is our hope that Stark will become an inspiration for others who have hidden their conclusions for far too long," said a 2007 statement of Roy Speckhardt, director of the American Humanist Association. But four years later, his hopes are still only hopes: no other Congressman followed Stark's steps.

"We know that other 27 members of Congress are Atheists. But they are afraid to recognize it in public, because of the reaction of his constituencies," said Mr. Silverman. "Most of them are in the Democratic Party, but we also have some Republicans." However, he refused to be specific about their party identification or the states they represent: "My job is not to force people out of the closet."

"If an openly Atheist or Agnostic person run for political office, that person is going to find a lot of suspicion about whether or not he or she is qualified for office," said Mr. Balmer.

If someone could afford this risk, it was Mr. Stark. By 2007, he already had won 17 consecutive elections, the last five of them with more than 70% of the votes. He represents a district in San Francisco Bay, likely one of the most liberal (and less religious) areas in the entire United States. And even so, he waited until his 75th birthday for disclosure.

"I received over 5,000 e-mails from around the world, 4,900 of them congratulating me," Mr. Stark recalled. And in his liberal district, he was not at all hurt by the revelation; he won easy reelections in 2008 and 2010, and will seek his 20th. consecutive term in 2012.

As Mr. Balmer joked: "For sure he can survive. It's California!"

God and the market

Outside the Golden State, the situation is different. Let's go back to Wynne LeGrow (paradoxically, the son of a Protestant minister), who in 2010 challenged incumbent Virginia Representative Randy Forbes, the founder and chairman of the Congressional Prayer Caucus. Mr. Forbes had proposed legislation to designate the United States as a Judeo-Christian nation. He also pushed for a formal declaration of the Congress, affirming that "the Holy Bible is God's Word."

LeGrow's campaign felt apart after his disclosure as an Atheist. The key Democratic leaders gave him the cold shoulder. One of them, Lionell Spruill Sr., refused to campaign for his party's candidate. "I can't take him to churches as an Atheist," Mr. Spruill said. "That would hurt me." Another influential Democrat, Rev. Jake Manley Sr., said: "I could not vote for a man who doesn't believe in some power higher than his."

With a huge lead on the polls, Congressman Forbes didn't attack Mr. LeGrow personally. But he accused non-believers of trying to exclude people of faith of government. "We have to make sure they don't succeed," Mr. Forbes said.

At least in Virginia, they didn't. Mr. Forbes won by a landslide: 62% to 38%. As Mr. LeGrow discovered, it is not easy to conduct an effective campaign being a "none," in a country in which a lot of the community life is organized around churches and religious communities. "American organize themselves by religion rather than by politics," said Mr. Balmer. "It is part of the culture. If you move to the South, probably your neighbor will knock on your door and invite you to the church on [the] following Sunday."

Why is the United States different than almost any other developed country in the world? For Mr. Balmer, the reason is the free market. Contrary to Europe, the freedom of religion and the lack of an official Church "set up a free market place for religious life, so many people are competing which one another for religious followers."

But, even in a religious culture, the God-centered politics is a new phenomenon. "Religion has become a major issue in politics over the last twenty or thirty years," said Alan Brinkley, professor of history at Columbia University.

Mr. Balmer is more specific: "Until 1976, there was very little interest in the religion of presidents. But Nixon was so corrupt and so awful, that this year a Baptist pastor called Jimmy Carter comes out of nowhere and said: Look, I am a newly-born Christian, I am a person of faith, I won't lie to you. And Americans said: He is our guy." After Carter's victory, public displays of faith became mandatory for any Presidential candidate.

The last civil rights fight?

Until today, in seven states the law formally excluded non-believers from public office: Arkansas, North Carolina, Maryland, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Tennessee and Texas.

But in a 1961 unanimous decision, the U.S. Supreme Court declared that the Constitution prohibits the requiring of any kind of religious test for public office, leading to a de facto repeal of these states' laws.

So, non-religious candidates are authorized to run (and, probably, lose). "The legal barriers do not exist anymore. Now the challenge is being able to win", said Mr. Silverman. At least, "none" won a symbolic victory, when they were mentioned for the first time in an inaugural speech in 2009. President Barack Obama said that "we are a Nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus, and non-believers."

And even if a 39.6% of the population still believes that Atheists "do not agree at all with my vision of American society" (more than 26.3% for Muslims or 22.6% for Homosexuals), maybe the demographic reality will change these perceptions. One in four young Americans is "none" and 660,000 persons added to this population every year, more than in any religious denomination.

In other words, now it is much more likely than an average American has an Atheist or Agnostic neighbor, classmate, friend, or son. And what about a President?

"We are a relevant and growing minority," said Mr. Silverman. "And we have rights. After all, this is one of the last civil rights fights."

"Atheists are at the end of the line. It will change slowly, but probably not in my lifetime," said Mr. Balmer. Then he paused and smiled: "But I never thought that I will see an Afro-American President in my lifetime. And here we are."

Wayne LeGrow also is cautiously optimistic. He plans to write a book about his failed candidacy, to raise money and maybe pay for another run. He laughed and said: "Surely, this time I will not join any prayer circle."