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.