In 2008, Americans were willing to support a presidential candidate with a uniquely diverse religious background. In 2012, many voters were ready to support a Mormon candidate. These religious affiliations, while only slight deviations from traditional Christianity, represent a shift in the way American voters regard religion and its importance for political candidates.
For a country founded on the principle of freedom of religion, the U.S. has curiously been run entirely by Christians throughout its history. Although candidates with slight deviations in Christian faith have assumed office, the possibility for a secular or atheist leader still seems distant. Acceptance of JFK’s Catholicism or Nixon’s Quaker upbringing is one thing, but the country won’t truly progress (in a sense backwards towards the freedoms guaranteed by the constitution) until religion is considered a non-factor during a presidential election.
If the last two elections are any indicator, the country is at least on the right path. In 2008, Barack Obama’s religious upbringing was repeatedly questioned by critics and certain members of the media. As the future president straightforwardly explained in his books, speeches and interviews, both his father and step-father were raised Muslim while his mother was raised Christian. His parents, however, were essentially secular and/or atheist, and they raised him accordingly. He found Christianity in his adult years, becoming a longtime member of the United Church of Christ. He abandoned that congregation soon after Rev. Jerimiah Wright’s politically controversial sermons were exposed by ABC News, but continues to practice Christianity in a non-denominational manner.
Despite Obama’s honest discussion of his journey to Christian faith, his belief has continued to be questioned. By August 2010, nearly two years after his election, a Pew Research Center poll found that 18% of Americans believed Obama to be Muslim. The same poll found that respondents correlated religion with their approval of the president, as 26% of those who believed Obama to be Muslim approved of his job, compared to 67% of those who believed him to be Christian.
Religion continues to be a priority for politicians and voters — especially for presidential candidates — despite its decline amongst the general populace. According to a Pew Research Center poll, 20% of U.S. adults have no religious affiliation. 6% of the U.S. population describe themselves as atheist. The same poll found that a third of all adults under 30 have no religious affiliation. The non-religious trend only appears to be picking up steam.
In another Pew Research Center poll conducted this year, respondents listed atheism as the most negative trait a presidential candidate could posses. 5% of respondents claimed they would be more likely to support an atheist candidate, while 53% said they’d be less likely and 41% said the issue doesn’t matter. 70% of Republicans said they wouldn’t support an atheist candidate, compared to 42% of Democrats.
While the 2016 elections are a couple of years away (and we will be sure to hear about Hillary Clinton and Rand Paul’s religious backgrounds soon), the upcoming midterm elections have an unprecedented religious significance. James Woods, a self-described atheist from Arizona, is running for Congress. He faces a tough Republican opposition in a GOP-dominated district, but Woods’ openly atheist campaign is an important step forward into the future of politics in which religion is a non-issue. If elected, Woods would join his state’s own Krysten Sinema, who ascribes to no particular religious affiliation (but avoids being labeled with the term “atheist.”).
In an interview with the Phoenix New Times, Woods laid out a path to make atheist candidates serious contenders in future elections. “Gallup reported in 2012 that 43% of voters in the United States would not vote for an atheist candidate. Regardless of qualifications, atheism is a dealbreaker. The only way to change this is to start introducing voters to atheists,” Woods said. He goes on to describe his own humanist moral code, encouraging voters to look beyond the labels of religion when selecting a candidate to represent them.
In all aspects of American politics, voters are slowly starting to do just that. Obama was elected despite his unique religious upbringing and multicultural background. Romney was considered a serious candidate despite his Mormon beliefs. More and more Americans simply aren’t identifying with any particular religion. It would be best if religion wasn’t even considered a factor at all in elections, but that’s a trend that’s been established in decades of American history. Atheism remains a dirty word, and it will likely be years before a non-believer has a chance at leading the country, but the nation’s recent history and increased acceptance of religious diversity has demonstrated that the potential for a non-religious president is there.