In light of President Barack Obama’s signing of the Frank R. Wolf International Religious Freedom Act, the first piece of legislation with specific language protecting nontheists, humanists, and atheists, it is clearer than ever that the nontheist movement has gained significant traction in politics. But is it enough for the next president to be an open nontheist?
In an election season where Marco Rubio urged Republican voters to choose him because he was the most Christian, Hillary Clinton’s religious beliefs were questioned, and the current President-elect openly pandered to the Religious Right (ultimately winning four in five Evangelical votes), one wonders whether religion’s stranglehold on politics will ever end. In an article written on the eve of the election titled, “Why an Atheist Won’t be Elected President,” Christian evangelical Ray Comfort argued that this can never happen because of his view that atheists are inherently untrustworthy and their morals are groundless. But this insistence that those of a minority (in this case, nontheists hold minority views on religious questions) could never be elected our nation’s leader is one that tends to get disproven time and again.
As much as analogies between movements are fraught with difficulties, it’s instructive that Barack Obama’s historic rise to the presidency in 2008 shattered the previously-held notion “not in our lifetime,” alluding to the belief that there could not be an Black president due to the historical context of slavery less than 150 years ago and the daily reminders of continuing racial prejudice. Interestingly, raised in a secular humanist household, Barack Obama displayed qualities of kindness, compassion, and empathy unseen in the “moral majority,” who fronted a large amount of the pushback Obama faced due to his race. Also relevant to the rise of nontheists, Obama is the first president to include specific language in legislation, speeches, and addresses pertaining to the nontheist community. Even religious radical Senator Ted Cruz has called for the inclusion of atheists in religious freedom, showing a significant shift in the American mindset.
Obama’s victory, the first by any non-white male, helped ensure that the conversation surrounding Hillary Clinton’s campaign was less about her gender and more about her policies. The women’s suffrage movement culminated in women gaining the right to vote in 1920, and less than 100 years later, Hillary Rodham Clinton became the Democrat’s nominee for the presidential election. Despite her electoral college loss, Hillary Clinton won the popular vote by nearly 3 million votes, with the majority of Americans preferring her over Donald Trump. With more and more candidates veering from the old white-male norm, it’s time to start considering an atheist president’s chances with less skepticism.
Indeed, not only is such a phenomenon possible in the near future, we came astonishingly close in the recent election. Bernie Sanders sought the Democratic nomination against Hillary Clinton and surprised many by the degree of success he achieved. Although Sanders was raised Jewish, he previously stated that he is “not particularly religious,” and that he is “not actively involved with organized religion.” While scrupulously avoiding religious pandering, Bernie Sanders energized many American voters, and according to some, would have defeated Donald Trump in the general election. If the hypothetical scenario were true, and Bernie Sanders were to have won the presidency, then America would have elected its first non-Christian, not particularly religious president.
Some argue that an atheist president could never emerge from a majority Christian country, but there are a plethora of examples of atheist heads of state winning an election despite being in the minority. In Chile, a country where nearly 70 percent of the population identifies as Christian, Michelle Bachelet won the presidency twice, first in 2006, and again in 2014 while identifying as agnostic. In Australia, a country that has consistently ranked in the top ten for happiness, quality of life, and economic freedom, eleven of the past twelve prime ministers have been atheist. In France Prime Minister Francois Hollande is an atheist in a country that is predominantly Christian. Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras, an atheist, didn’t participate in the religious portion of his swearing-in despite the dominant role the Greek Orthodox Church plays in his country.
Despite what Ray Comfort said about lack of trust in atheists, a growing number of Americans see no problems with not believing in gods. Many Americans, as well as people worldwide, are moving away from religion. In Europe, religion is becoming a non-factor in society, as churches are closing, leaving many religious leaders to wonder whether their message has any chance of surviving into the next generation. In the US, we are also seeing a steady shift in demographics towards more who choose “none” when asked with which religion they identify. It’s only a matter of time before these changes impact the political prospects of those detached from traditional religion. The number of people who would vote for a candidate for public office who didn’t happen to believe in a god has steadily increased in recent years and is poised to jump to still higher levels.
There’s a disconnect between the politicos who trash atheists and continue to assume they have no weight in public life, and the rapidly rising numbers of self-identified atheists and their allies. America is moving on from blind allegiance to faith, but most politicians haven’t got the memo. So what we see today, the overwhelming majority of American candidates and federal office holders stating (and often overstating) their Christian beliefs, is about to be a relic of our past. Not only are future openly nontheistic leaders likely, but there will be a point in the not too distant future when nontheists are pandered to much in the same way as evangelicals are today.
Those still clinging to the hope that there will never be an atheist president fail to acknowledge just how much how inevitable change is in our country. The presidency of Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton’s popular vote win, and Bernie Sanders’ popularity among young voters all speak to the fluidity of opportunity of those whom don’t represent the old paradigm. Politicians largely ignore nontheists in America, but they do so imperiling their future election hopes. There is a growing understanding in America with regards to acknowledging non-theists in the public sphere—and yes, there will be an atheist president one day. But Christians need not fear that day. Unlike some, nontheists understand that they have no religious privilege—that they must serve all their constituents equally.