Can An Atheist Get Elected President?

Megan McArdle was amused at a BBC interviewer asking, “Can you be elected to higher office in America without being a Christian?” Megan quips, “I sure hope Senator Lieberman wasn’t watching.”

Indeed. But there is an interesting discussion ensuing in her comments section as to whether someone who doesn’t appear to be religious in the Judeo-Christian sense could get elected to higher office, let alone president. For a variety of reasons, I’d say the answer is clearly No absent a drastic change in the political climate.

This isn’t surprising, really, or even quite the same as asking if a black or a woman could be elected. The American people are, by far, the most religious in the West these days and it’s not unreasonable that they would decline to elect someone to represent them who disagreed on such a fundamental matter. It also doesn’t help that most atheists look upon the religious as superstitious morons.

FILED UNDER: Religion, US Politics, ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. Megan McArdle was amused at a BBC interviewer asking, “Can you be elected to higher office in America without being a Christian?” Megan quips, “I sure hope Senator Lieberman wasn’t watching.” Source: Can An Atheist Get Elected President? » Outside The Beltway | OTB

  2. Maggie says:

    I think we have to consider that electing someone of the Jewish faith at this point in time might give many voters great apprehension.

    There is already the worldwide view that America is tied at the hip to Israel and not a “fair and unbiased” broker.

    In attempting to reach a peaceful solution in the Middle East and in our on-going war with Islamofacists a Jewish president might be considered an additional hinderance we just couldn’t afford.

  3. Its all that anti-wiccian sentiment going around.

    I think anyone who is either a) different from their predecessors or b) holds views well outside of the majority of the voters is going to have a harder time winning.

    Clinton broke the barrier of being the first with out military service to win the presidency. I doubt he will be the last. He won both times without a majority of the voters (though a clear majority of the electoral votes that count).

    Kennedy broke the Catholic barrier. Can you imagine that as being a substantial barrier today?

    Romney will face a Mormon barrier (can you imagine what the intellectually superior left is going to have with that. Here’s a hint, try it with one less m.).

    You also have to consider the difference between the “handicap” and the individual. My objection to Hillary doesn’t stem from her chromosomes, but from her politics.

  4. Triumph says:

    Clinton broke the barrier of being the first with out military service to win the presidency

    Sorry, dude, John Adams has this distinction.

  5. The American people are, by far, the most religious in the West these days…

    I would change that to say:

    The American people are, by far, the most publicly religious in the West these days

  6. legion says:

    The Kennedy comparison is particularly entertaining… At the time, his opponents spread the rumor that if elected, we’d never be able to trust that he wasn’t taking orders from the Pope. These days, Bush and his cohorts get elected by _bragging_ that they talk to God, rather than polls or their constituents…

  7. Triumph,

    I sit corrected (I would stand, but it would be awkward to type). When I did a bit of research on it, several presidents showed as not being veterans (FDR, Hoover, Coolidge, Harding, Wilson, Taft, Cleveland, Pierce, Polk, Tyler, Van Buren, John Q Adams, Madison, Jefferson and the John Adams you brought up).

    The reason I thought Clinton was the first was my remembrance of the issue of Clinton’s lack of military service which was brought up and the campaigns response that Lincoln was president with out prior military experience (which of course was untrue). I made the assumption (lets all sing the nursery rhyme together about assume) that their response was the best they could come up with. I would have thought that saying 1/3 of the US president’s didn’t have military service would have been a much stronger response than wrongly pointing to Lincoln.

    I apologize for my error.

  8. Legion,

    The Catholic meme was used against Alfred Smith in 1928. The point was that there was a history of the catholic church interfering in civil affairs and further that a pope could force Smith to take positions on pain of excommunication. Remember that this was at a time when communities would proudly proclaim they were Catholic free, it was many years before that “Irish need not apply” was a common sign and ‘papist’ was a well known smear.

    Kennedy tackled it head on and diffused the issue by averring he believed in an America where the separation of church and state was absolute and he vowed he would make decision in accordance with his conscience’s view of national interest without regard to any religious pressure or threat.

    Of course, Kennedy was also calling for a religious tolerance that seems to escape you based on your comment.

  9. just me says:

    I actually think racial minorities or a woman has a better chance of being elected than somebody who is an atheist.

    I think the electorate would accept a non Christian, provided they believed in something, but given the fact that the vast majority of people in the US are religious to some degree, I suspect that they would be uncomfortable with an atheistic candidate. I wonder how many atheists are even in National elected office?

  10. just me,

    Imagine a devout, observant wiccian running for president. I think that is as likely to be a barrier as atheism, if for no other reason than the “strangeness” factor. At least a wiccian would believe there is some ultimate judge on their behavior.

  11. Bithead says:

    But there is an interesting discussion ensuing in her comments section as to whether someone who doesn’t appear to be religious in the Judeo-Christian sense could get elected to higher office, let alone president. For a variety of reasons, I’d say the answer is clearly No absent a drastic change in the political climate.

    The question would seem to be lacking, to me. Consider the specter of Bill Clinton running around Washington on the occasional Sunday morning with an oversize Bible and one hand and Monica Lewinsky waiting for him under the oval office desk.

    The question arises from that vision, are we talking about religious in reality, or merely in perception?

  12. LaurenceB says:

    It also doesn’t help that most atheists look upon the religious as superstitious morons.

    Not to put too fine a point on it, but I don’t think Atheists are unique in this behavior. Don’t many Muslims consider Christians to be “superstitious morons”? And, of course, vice-versa. Don’t evangelicals consider Mormons, Adventists, Jews and Catholics to be “superstitious morons”? How about Scientologists? Morons, right?

    It seems a bit unfair to label only atheists with this one. Just saying.

  13. Fersboo says:

    Don’t evangelicals consider Mormons, Adventists, Jews and Catholics to be “superstitious morons”?

    No, evangelicals believe that Mormons are going to Hell.

  14. James Joyner says:

    Evangelicals believe that Mormons are going to Hell.

    And that they’re a cult.