Openly admitting atheism is one of the worst things an American politician can do.
While a 2014 Pew Research Center poll showed 64 percent of respondents would not care about a candidate’s atheism, 24 percent said they would be less likely to vote for a candidate who does not believe in God. In numerous other surveys, at least half of the respondents said they would not vote for an atheist.
As the Washington Post highlights, these figures suggest that in today’s America, it would be more difficult for an openly atheist candidate to be elected than it was for Barack Obama. Even females and homosexuals might fare better.
And yet, as with so many other aspects of today’s America, we are in a changing political moment in which traditional expectations are being upended. With this mind, I propose that at some point between now and 2028, an atheist will sit as president in the White House. This individual might not be openly atheistic, but their lack of belief will likely be common knowledge among the wider public.
We can see the preamble to this eventual reality in the 2016 presidential race by looking at Americans’ perception of the two front-runners in the race, Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump.
A January Pew Research poll reveals that up to 60 percent of Americans do not see Trump as being religious, while 43 percent said the same about Clinton. Yet these candidates are leading among the most religious groups in their respective parties, despite the fact that the perception of Mrs. Clinton being “very religious” has dropped sharply since her first presidential bid eight years ago.
It is important to give particular attention to the long-lasting trends in public attitudes toward religion when making bold predictions about the near future. Despite the fact that 51 percent of Americans polled in January 2016 still said they would be less likely to vote for an atheist, this figure has been steadily decreasing over time while the share of Americans who say a candidate’s religion is not a factor in how they vote is growing.
It is clear that if any atheist candidate is elected president of the United States between now and 2028, this candidate would not make their beliefs a central part of their campaign, if any part at all. Such a candidate would have to focus heavily on policy or some other persuasive strategy to attract voters.
Trump, in many ways, provides a good harbinger of this type of candidate. While he attempts to speak the language of Christianity at some of his rallies, a very sizable group of his supporters do not see Trump as a religious person and, by extension, are not supporting him. They are supporting him because they either agree with his policy proposals or his general confrontational attitude toward establishment politicians and media institutions.
So a successful atheist candidate would not get elected by touting him or herself as an atheist, but by tapping into the kind of popular support which candidates like Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders have activated in the political scene.
Ultimately, it would be foolish to predict now how Americans will treat religious affiliations as a whole 10 to 12 years from now. Attitudes change, and religious revivals can happen, as they have in the past.
But the long-term trend for Americans who care deeply about electing a religious candidate has been steadily decreasing, while the number of people who explicitly say they do not care about a candidate’s religion has been slowly rising.
This makes it more likely that not only will voters continue to soften their attitudes toward atheism, but also that new office-holders entering politics within the next decade are more likely to hold these attitudes themselves. Given these trends, it is not difficult to imagine that in 30 years or so, we may look back in confusion at popular attitudes the way we currently do with JFK’s Catholicism.