And at some level, why shouldn’t a person’s religious beliefs be relevant?
They should be. However, when one holds a minority belief about religion, one that is widely reviled, then it is to one’s interest to insist that religion be off the table. That’s a purely pragmatic concern. In addition, I think there’s an element of resentment: we atheists have been told so often to sit down and shut up and keep our opinions out of the debate, even by people who don’t believe in religion themselves, that we tend to get a little cranky when we see people of faith indulging themselves in a class of criticisms denied to us, or that trigger howls of protest when we say them.
There is also a sound principle involved. In the next election, I’ll be voting for a religious person for president—there won’t be any atheist candidates, and if there were, they wouldn’t stand a chance. I cannot demand that the candidates believe in a certain way, but I can still insist that they govern as a secular leader. That’s the best I can hope for.
But Newman is right that that doesn’t mean we need to lay low.
I think it’s a profound mistake for atheists to demand that such religious debates be taken out of the public sphere, since they will never be taken out of voters’ minds. Instead, us progressive atheists should be engaging in that faith-based discussion more vigorously, laying out our belief systems and helping make voters comfortable with our viewpoint as part of the menu of “religious” options, not in order to convert them but just to integrate it into the terrain of debate that people are more familiar with.
Otherwise, atheism will just remain the unspoken Other, which voters will inherently (and rightly) distrust because they just won’t know what it means personally to the politician involved. So I’m all for a religion in public life debate — and I’m prepared to argue for why progressive atheism leads to the kinds of public policy voters should want. But if we don’t make the case, we can’t expect Christian voters to want anything other than what they are familiar with.
I think debating in order to convert people would be a good thing to do, actually — a large voting bloc of vocal atheists would do wonders for the body politic. I think the issue is one of framing the argument in a positive way: not, don’t vote for Candidate X because she is a [Catholic/Mormon/Pagan/whatever], but do vote for Candidate Y because she is a rationalist who holds sensible secular values. Romney was playing the blind, stupid politics of exclusion rather than promoting the virtues of his ideas.