I was reading about the prospects of Mitt Romney as our first Mormon president when I came upon a pair of rather striking studies which indicated that Americans are more likely to support a muslim than atheist president. Given the fact that many Americans are unfortunately still suspicious towards the Islamic religion, I was astounded that the studies indicate that a Muslim president would be considered more favorable. This article will be examining one major question: What exactly makes Americans so apprehensive of an irreligious president?
As my colleague noted in an earlier article, there is relatively little widespread concern over Mitt Romney’s bid to be America’s first mormon – and second non-Protestant – president. This has led me to think a great deal about the importance of religion in the oval office. It seemed as though all people could talk about in regards to the Obama and Clinton candidacies in 2008 was whether America was ready for a “black” or “woman” president. Now, with Mitt Romney being the presumptive Republican nominee, it seems as though the “Is America ready for X” question has been asked and swept aside. So, the question to be asked is why is his different religion – a trait that, in my opinion, is more determinate of potential policy decisions than just race or gender – is not as much of a factor in Romney’s electability. It seems to me that this is because the vast majority of Americans prefer a president with religious values of any kind over one without them.
There are a number of possible explanations for this, not the least of which being that the “lack of religion/faith” was tied for the second most cited reason people felt America’s current moral situation is unacceptable. In the opinions of many theists, there is no morality without religion. Atheism suggests to some a cold, unfeeling adherence to reason and, by extension, no great interest in any sort of moral code. Whether some of us would like to admit it or not, America is a religious – some would say specifically Christian – nation. Clearly, while nearly 50% of Americans don’t even consider Mormonism a Christian faith the fact that it professes a belief in God is enough for most voters. While Islam preaches a belief in a wholly different God from Christianity, it seems as though the fact that it is, indeed, a faith that makes it preferable to atheism.
For many people of faith Atheism is a scary prospect. As opposed to the often debated argument of religion and science, which ultimately can largely coexist, Atheism is the outright rejection of any religion’s central tenant: there is some sort of higher power out there beyond just humans. As a result, many religious individuals may feel threatened by Atheist’s beliefs that God does not exist. In fact, even some Atheists are concerned that a lack of religious perspective in the oval office would lead the President to believe that he/she was “bigger than the state.” There is a sense that somehow Atheism is an arrogant or callous philosophical creed and that a person so inclined could not conduct themselves in a way that befits the office of the Presidency.
In addition, Atheism’s minority standing can lead to perceived anger or bitterness, both traits that concern and/or “legitimize” believers’ mistrust of them. The issue I have found in my search for justifications of Christian concern with Atheism in the Oval Office – which have been obviously subjective in nature – is that they believe atheists will not leave theists to their own devices. There is a perception, sometimes rightfully placed, that Atheists see Theists as closed minded, irrational individuals who need to be shown the light of reason. There is a conception that an Atheist president, who is apparently unclouded of such “silliness,” will try to lead the nation in a deliberately anti-religious direction.
In my opinion all of these concerns are unfounded. Though many would describe America as a Christian nation – the 80% Christian majority suggests this is accurate – the federal government is, has been, and hopefully will be secular. The protections afforded by the 1st Amendment and as extended to the states by the 14th Amendment ensure that we never will govern our nation as a religious entity. No president, including John Kennedy whose Catholicism raised major concerns that the US would bow to the Pope’s law, has allowed his religion to show itself in any but a superficial way. Though “God bless America” has become a speech staple and there is a great deal of religious posturing during the campaign, Presidents’ religions certainly haven’t affected policy in any direct sense. I see no reason why an Atheist president would be any more likely to force his or her religious (or, in this case, areligious) beliefs on the United States than a Catholic, Protestant, or Muslim president. I certainly know that my Atheist friends are just as moral and upstanding as any religious person I’ve met. While I can understand the apprehension religious people feel towards a President whose beliefs are in direct, irreconcilable conflict with theirs, I think Atheists deserve to be trusted to respect others’ views just as much as anyone else. America seems to trust religious presidents to conduct business with respect for our country’s differing faiths, I see no reason why we can’t trust an irreligious president to do the same.