Written by Ms. Madeline Richer. Madeline is a rising sophomore in a double degree program with Barnard College and the Jewish Theological Seminary and is interning at Interfaith Alliance summer 2011.

When I think of what makes me proud to be an American, one of the first things that come to mind is religious freedom. The ability to freely practice and express one’s beliefs and, beyond that, the right of an individual of any religion (or no religion) to run for office are foundational American rights that are taught to children as early as elementary school. The US Constitution states that “no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States.” This seems pretty simple – there is no religious requirement for serving any governmental office in this country.

And yet, whenever we have a presidential or vice presidential candidate of a religion that has never been seen in office before – whether it was John F. Kennedy’s Catholicism, Joseph Lieberman’s Judaism, or now, Mitt Romney’s and John Huntsman’s Mormonism – the individual religious practices and beliefs of the candidates become a hot topic for debate. On June 2, the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press released the results of a poll on of Americans’ attitudes towards various traits of a candidate. The poll shows that 25% of Americans would be less likely to vote for a Mormon presidential candidate and, even more disheartening, that 61% of Americans would be less likely to vote for a candidate who does not believe in God. A similar poll was conducted in 2007, and the likelihood of Americans voting for an Atheist has barely changed in the past 4 years.

Sixty-one percent of Americans – that’s a very clear majority.  What ever happened to that “No Religious Test” clause? Can its use of the word “religion” somehow be misconstrued by certain communities to mean that candidates must at least practice religion in one form or another? If this is the case, we need to reconsider how we teach about this freedom. It appears that nowadays, Atheists face even more prejudice than any particular religious group, when it comes to seeking elected office.  In American history, we’ve made great strides in combating anti-Baptist feelings, anti-Catholic sentiments, Anti-Semitism, and we are now working tirelessly against Islamophobia and anti-Sikh prejudices. I think it’s time to start raising awareness of the prejudice faced by atheists so that Americans understand that a person’s lack of belief in God does not imply they lack a sense of morality and that furthermore, that atheists are as entitled—and qualified– to hold office as anyone else.

I look forward to a time when, upon discussion regarding a presidential race, it is the instinct of all Americans to disregard the religious affiliation – or lack thereof – of every candidate.

For more on the role of candidates’ traits, including religion, in elections, listen to this State of Belief episode in which Greg Lebel, Assistant Professor of Political Management at George Washington University, discusses how Michelle Bachmann’s identity affects her political chances.

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  • Ayelet

    It’s true that religious bias is a problem, and in general, no one should be discounted for a position because of their religious beliefs, but when Americans choose not to vote for someone based on religion, it can sometimes go deeper than that. Religion to many is not just a label, but it’s a set of values and ethics that someone has chosen to follow. Judging a person based on their self imposed morals is not a bad thing; judging someone based on arbitrary labels, like the color of their skin, is.

    To not vote for someone just because they are born of a certain faith is often wrong, but to feel uncomfortable voting for someone who indicates that they subscribe to certain values that you may not agree with is not. In a time where religion can almost always be decided by the individual, it has become more and more an accurate reflection of a person’s beliefs. Just like someone who labels themselves a Democrat is automatically discounted by many Republicans, labels matter because of what they represent.

  • Joe Bencini

    The religious test that was banned by the Constitution was a test to determine what sect or branch of Christianity that one endorsed. It was presumed that Christianity was the religion of the United States. In fact, John Adams admitted that the Constitution itself was wholly inadequate for a people who did not believe in God (Christ). But, as usual, unbelievers (atheists et al) twist the truth and make it unrecognizable.

    The Constitution may not require a test, but that does not mean that the citizen may not require one, or SHOULD NOT require one. To say that one’s lack of belief in God has no effect on their public and private behavior is absurd. And to say that the God that one chooses to worship is the same as any others or none at all is also absurd.

    To lament the fact that a full 61% of Americans refuse to vote for an atheist is itself lamentable. It is to be commended that IN SPITE of the lies and distortions that have been brought to bear in the attack against those who practice as FAITHFUL CHRISTIANS in the United States, there are still 61% who refuse to bow their knee to the unrighteous unbeliever. GOOD JOB, AMERICA !!!

    There MUST BE something unseen at work here, perhaps? And that is what upsets the atheist/unbeliever. Despite all of the lies and propaganda for over 100 years now, a full 61% have resisted and are unpersuaded.

    There IS a difference between America and Europe and the rest of the world. And if the atheist/unbeliever cannot win in an righteous manner (reason and persuasion), then they will resort to unrighteous means (ridicule, force, propaganda, lies, threats and distortions).

    And another thing the “wall of separation” is not in the Constitution nor the Bill of Rights, nor the Declaration of Independence. It is not in any law. It was fabricated from a distorted interpretation of a private communication between two of the founding fathers and refers to the protection provided to religion from the federal government and NOT VICE VERSA !!!

    But, as usual, the atheist/unbeliever must lie, distort and propagandize in order to have any chance at arriving at a successful result. Truth and righteousness does not play any part in their belief system nor in their “persuasion”.

  • Rachel

    It’s fair to want to evaluate a candidate’s ethics before giving her or him your vote, and a member of your religion or another, similar faith may be likely to share your particular morals. However, many ‘unbelievers’, to quote the gentleman above me, have managed to find alternative methods of developing a strong moral compass. Organized religion is but one path towards creating decent human beings. Additionally, due in part to the 61% of Americans who would deny an atheist their support, many candidates feel the need to engage in public displays of religious observance that may not necessarily reflect the degree of devotion in their hearts and minds. Better to form opinions on the moral credentials of a candidate based on their actions and policies than on how well they can act the part of a committed member of a particular faith.

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