It should be no surprise that in the US, politicians are wary of saying that they do not believe in any god. They definitely shy away from the label of ‘atheist’ since that is viewed negatively and saying that they are humanist or not being willing to answer about their religious beliefs is as far as they seem to think it is safe to go, even as public acceptance of nonbelief is on the rise.
Non-believers remain few and far between in American politics. In Congress, the only one to publicly “come out” as such is Jared Huffman, a Democrat representing California’s second district and a leading proponent of impeachment of Donald Trump.
Huffman announced in late 2017 that he is a humanist, not an atheist. In an interview at his Capitol Hill office, he characterized himself as “non-religious, humanist, spiritual albeit without any particular dogma. I’m a spiritual drifter. ‘Seeker’ would be a perfectly good word, too.”
“Atheism seems to bring with it the notion of being anti-religion as opposed to non-religious,” he said. “I prefer non-religious because I just want everyone to make their own religious choices. I’m not against them having religion.
“I have many fellow travellers, very few publicly. I think there’s still fear of this conventional wisdom that being an atheist or agnostic or a non-believer is somehow the worst possible thing in politics. My experience has been that that’s not the case, but how you do it matters.”
In Congress, too, Christians are still overrepresented when compared with the general public, according to the Pew Research Center. About 23% of the public say they are atheist, agnostic or “nothing in particular”.
The number of non-Christian members of Congress is now 63, Pew says, made up of 34 Jews, three Muslims, three Hindus, two Buddhists, two Unitarian Universalists, and 19, including the Arizona senator Kyrsten Sinema, who decline to specify a religious affiliation.
A Pew poll finds some encouraging signs, though.
A Gallup poll published in May tested Americans’ willingness to vote for presidential candidates from certain groups. About 96% said they were willing to vote for a candidate who was black, followed by Catholic and Hispanic (95% each), a woman (94%), Jewish (93%), an evangelical Christian (80%), gay or lesbian (76%), under 40 (71%), Muslim (66%) and over 70 (63%).
Bottom of the table came atheist (60%), followed by the one thing considered even worse: socialist (47%). Nevertheless, the percentage of Americans willing to vote for an atheist was more than three times the 18% Gallup recorded in its first measure, in 1958.
Although current polls suggest America will get its first female, gay or Muslim president before its first atheist, attitudes are gradually shifting.
Robert P Jones, chief executive and founder of the Public Religion Research Institute, said: “I think Americans are slowly coming around to ‘a-theist’: it means not belief in God but doesn’t necessarily mean not religious.
“I think that is slowly seeping into the American consciousness, this more complex way of thinking about religion, and that may open up some more interesting space.”
As for the presidency, I think that it is question of whether the right candidate comes along that will allow people to overcome their prejudices. I would have expected the US to have a woman president before a black one but that did not pan out. The fact that now 96% of people said that they would be willing to vote for a black president is likely due to the fact that we already had one and the country did not collapse.
Of the Democratic presidential candidates, Bernie Sanders sounds like he is the least religious while Elizabeth Warren, Joe Biden, and Pete Buttigieg speak about their faith.