Freethought NOW!

Banish de facto religious tests for presidency

The remark by presidential wannabe Ben Carson that a Muslim shouldn’t be U.S. president on “Meet the Press” yesterday is being roundly — and appropriately — condemned, with news agencies tackling the controversy.

Carson, a retired physician, said: “I would not advocate that we put a Muslim in charge of this nation. I absolutely would not agree with that.”

The Council on American-Islamic Relations correctly called the remarks “un-American,” pointing out that the U.S. Constitution prohibits a religious test for public office. We need to remind public officials who are properly condemning these remarks that it is equally reprehensible that such prejudices exist against the prospect of an atheist president.

Annie Laurie Gaylor outside the recently renovated Freethought Hall, home of FFRF. Photo by Chris Johnson

Polls show that a near majority of Americans would impose such a religious test upon atheist candidates. Yet such poll results have been met with silence, not censure. It’s such a given that Americans would discriminate against atheist public officials that it’s a non-story.

There is indeed bigotry against that hypothetical Muslim presidential candidate. According to the most recent Gallup poll, 40% would not support a “qualified” Muslim candidate. This compares with the 10% of Americans who would refuse to vote for a “well-qualified” Hispanic, Jewish, black, or female candidate. A gay candidate would be rejected by 26%.

But even fewer Americans would vote for an atheist presidential candidate than for a Muslim candidate. Only 58% of Americans would be willing to vote for an atheist for president. We are making strides, however. When Gallup first started asking this question in 1958, only 18% would back a nontheist. And this year, for the first time, an atheist candidate wasn’t at the bottom of the totem poll — a “socialist” candidate was at the bottom of the barrel with only 47% willing to consider voting for such a candidate.

But we’ve never seen a national debate or dialog over the de facto religious test that is clearly imposed on nonreligious candidates for any public office, not just president. That is why we hardly have any elected official coming out of the religion closet. It’s still considered political suicide.

Yet even in the Republic of Ireland, with its ties to the Roman Catholic Church, there are always several members of parliament who are openly nonreligious. That’s the norm in many parliaments in the European Union. Many famous and past leaders of other countries have been nonreligious, including Nehru and Clemenceau. In recent history, atheists and agnostics have been elected as president or prime minister in Uruguay, Australia and Chile, among other nations.

When will it start to become socially unacceptable to diss atheists and agnostics publicly in the United States of America?

With nearly one in four U.S. adults today identifying as nonreligious, the other question I continue to ask is: When will presidential and other candidates start wooing us, the seculars?

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