More than half of American voters say they wouldn't vote for an atheist presidential candidate, and the majority of Americans say faith is either "somewhat important" or "very important" to them when choosing who they'll support.
Those were among the findings of a Pew Research Center poll released Jan. 27, and they aren't surprising. Pew polls have been asking American voters the same questions about faith in politics every year since 2004, and while the voting public isn't always predictable, when it comes to religion American voters' views are fairly entrenched.
Although separation of church and state is a central principle in American history and government, when the tectonic plates of history shift, religion is almost always at the fault line. That was true for most of America's earliest colonists, Puritans who sought refuge from persecution at the hands of King Charles I and the Church of England. Soon, the New World became a place where religious minorities could escape persecution at the hands of overzealous monarchs and aristocrats, drawing people from all over Europe.
At the same time, religion was central to the early American way of life. America was a haven for the religiously persecuted, but individual people were expected to be Godly people.
Americans love keeping up appearances, which partly explains why voters say they favor candidates who are men and women of faith. But attitudes do change -- if they didn't, we'd never have elected a man named Barack Hussein Obama, and Mormon Mitt Romney would have never won the Republican presidential nomination in 2012. We've come a long way since the days when it was a shock to have a Catholic president in John F. Kennedy.
If American voters say faith matters in presidential elections, then faith matters. Our country may have laws that forbid government from endorsing particular religious beliefs or legislating based on scripture, but there's no law that says voters must exclude faith when choosing who they'll vote for. Any attempt to regulate faith as a part of the criteria would be unconstitutional.
It may be a moot point in 2016, as the traditionally religious Republican right rallies behind Donald Trump, a candidate who isn't viewed as personally religious, yet enjoys massive support from evangelicals anyway.
As the Pew survey notes, the number of Americans who say they'll never vote for an atheist has declined steadily, if slowly, over time. It might not be long before an atheist candidate wins a major party nomination -- and in a country that respects all beliefs, that's OK too.