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Keli Goff Headshot

Would an Agnostic Make the Best President?

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It's always refreshing when religious leaders strive to embody the very best values their faith has to offer. I have been reminded of this often over the past year, which is shaping up to be banner one for Christian leaders in the "practice what you preach" department.

For starters there is Kansas Pastor Curtis Knapp, who argued that the U.S. should put gay people to death. Pastor Charles Worley of North Carolina shared similar sentiments, stating that he figured out a way to "get rid of all the lesbians and queers... Build a great big, large fence -- 100 miles long -- put all the lesbians in there, fly over and drop some food... Do the same thing with the queers and homosexuals and have that fence electrified so they can't get out ... and in a few years they will die out." (It appears the Christian churches, not to mention Christian school, I attended over the years utilized different versions of the Bible that omitted the section that talks about putting "queers" behind an electrified fence, because this edict doesn't ring any bells with me.)

Whenever I hear the angry and hateful rhetoric of religious leaders like Knapp or Worley, or their cohorts like the notorious Fred Phelps of the Westboro Church of "God Hates F*gs" fame (or rather, infamy), or when I hear of yet another priest accused of abusing a child (or covering for one who did), I can understand how people become fed up and disillusioned with organized religion altogether. Particularly when the anger, hatred, corruption and intolerance displayed in some pulpits finds its way into politics. (Here's looking at you, any religious leader who filed swift lawsuits to battle birth control access for women but moved slowly, or not at all, to prosecute clergy accused of sexually abusing kids.)

Of course, the irony is that many people who flee the anger and intolerance of organized religion appear to replace it with the anger and intolerance of atheism. I know I will spark outrage with this declaration, but I have never personally met an atheist who isn't angry. (Before anyone completely freaks out, I'm speaking from my own personal encounters with atheists, which is admittedly limited to four people. Although I will say they are four people from very different walks of life, ages and racial and ethnic backgrounds so I wouldn't call them a terrible sample. Perhaps not a great one, but not terrible either.) Each of them had a specific grievance in his or her life that he or she blamed on God. One was a black male friend who said, "If God existed, why would he let our people suffer the way that we have, from slavery until now?" including his own personal hardships in adulthood. He went on to explain that he was a "recovering Catholic." (Strangely, three of the four atheists I have known fit this category.)

One had a childhood friend who was abused by a priest. Another was from a family divided by an interracial relationship. The religious side disapproved of the coupling. (Similarly, my mother has a friend who went through a comparable evolution from Christian to atheist. His parents attended church every Sunday but were incredibly racist, specifically about black Americans, behind closed doors. So in adulthood he made the choice to disavow what he saw as their hypocritical religious beliefs.)

Even famous atheists often seem angry with a litany of grievances against what they consider the non-existent man upstairs and his "brainwashed" followers here on Earth. George Carlin, anyone? (Carlin was kicked out of Catholic high school after a few tense years there as a youth, years that would shape his work of which mocking organized religion became a defining component.)

But this anger pales in comparison to the anger that rears its head when any subject mentioning Christianity in a positive light comes up in the mainstream media. One of the most recent and appalling examples was the numerous comments, one more disappointing than the next, left by atheists regarding the story of Austin Anderson, a Marine who died after rescuing a woman from a plane that crashed on the way to a Christian rally. If there was ever a story that every reader, regardless of political or religious affiliation, should have found something kind to say about, this should have been it. Instead Austin's family will get to read comments like, "That god of yours seemed to want to bless his family with a tragedy... What a loving god you ppl have."

Another read sarcastically, "It's a miracle! except... I doubt the parents of those who died feel that way...God works in mysterious ways... if acting just as if you don't exist is mysterious. Well, at least one father is happy. Good for him. On an aside, what was the rally called again? Capture the fire?"

There were many more like them.

Maybe I'm naïve but I just don't get all of the anger -- among the religious or the avowed non-religious. I simply do not believe that just because someone else's belief system is different from mine that automatically makes it a threat to me. Why should it be? If you choose to believe in God and someone else does not, why insist that person is morally inferior to you? Similarly, if someone chooses to believe in God and you choose not, why go on message boards and insist that those people are intellectually inferior to you?

(For the record, I am someone who defines myself as a Christian and I also believe in evolution. When non-religious friends ask how someone "like me" could believe in something I can't prove or see, I pose the same question. "Why do you believe your parents, or spouse, or partner love you? You can't prove it. Maybe they fed, clothed and supported you simply out of obligation, or to avoid being arrested for child abuse or neglect. Maybe your spouse or partner is only with you for strictly financial reasons or for your insurance. You can't prove he or she's not. My point is we all use some form of faith to get through life. I won't judge where you use yours if you won't judge where I use mine.")

Our country has a long and complicated relationship with the role of religion in politics. Many early Americans were fleeing some form of religious persecution themselves, yet today studies show an avowed atheist less likely to be elected president than someone who is openly gay or openly Jewish. (Shameless plug alert: my latest book explores the campaign of a black, Jewish candidate.) But the more that anger continues to dominate the conversation about religion in our country, the more I appreciate those who say, enough is enough with the politics of religion hijacking our political discourse. While this election season President Obama will spend much of it subtly reminding voters he is not Muslim, and Gov. Romney will spend much of it trying convince voters not to care that he is Mormon, a little over a decade ago one presidential candidate showed more courage than both of them by saying, essentially, my religious beliefs are none of your business. That candidate was Sen. Bill Bradley.

During the 2000 Democratic primary in which Bradley faced sitting Vice President Al Gore, there were endless questions regarding Bradley's religious beliefs, all of which he declined to answer. He spoke of being spiritual but that was about it. Speculation abound that he may have evolved from Presbyterian (which he identified himself as a young man) to an agnostic, based on his more vague discussions of faith over the years. Since an agnostic is defined as "a person who holds that the existence of the ultimate cause, as God, and the essential nature of things are unknown and unknowable," or "a person who denies or doubts the possibility of ultimate knowledge in some area of study" an agnostic is someone who basically admits, "I don't have all of the answers and I don't believe any of us here on Earth do." No anger. No pretense. I think we could actually use more people in politics who admit they don't have all of the answers. Our political discourse would be more honest, less divisive and yes, less angry.

What do you think?

To see a list of religious leaders who became prominent American politicians, click here.


Keli Goff is the author of The GQ Candidate and a Contributing Editor for Loop21.com where this post originally appeared.