Editor’s Note: Paul Fidalgo is communications director of the Center for Inquiry, a nonprofit educational, advocacy and research organization. The views expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.
The conventional wisdom has long held that despite the constitutional guarantee of “no religious test” for public office, there could be no greater albatross for a would-be officeholder than to be identified as an atheist.
The data has borne this out for generations. As long as polling on this subject has been conducted, in almost every case, atheists have faced the greatest voter resistance.
While far too many Americans still tell pollsters they could never vote for someone who was gay, lesbian or Muslim, the bottom of this particular political barrel is almost always occupied by atheists.
But for all those nonbelievers who keep their hats on their heads rather than toss them into rings, a new Gallup Poll offers a glimmer of hope.
The percentage of Americans who would vote for a qualified atheist candidate for president has reached 58%, which is 4 points better than it was in 2012, and a whopping 40 point jump from when the question was first asked in 1958. In that year, a mere 18% of Americans could abide the idea of an atheist president.
The number of those who would refuse to vote for an atheist candidate has also dropped from where it was in 2012, from 43% to 40%.
And as for being the least-electable group in the survey, nonbelievers have finally moved up a rung. Now claiming the space at the bottom of this particular barrel are socialists, with half of all voters ruling them out entirely. Sen. Bernie Sanders will have his work cut out for him. (Despite his very secular politics, he doesn’t identify as an atheist.)
Still, it can’t be denied that a hypothetical candidate’s atheism remains a major obstacle to passing electoral muster. But it’s not even close to the impenetrable wall that it used to be. What explains this slow but unmistakable upward trend?
A major survey by the Pew Research Center recently revealed that America’s religiously unaffiliated, also known as “nones,” had for the first time grown to become the second-largest religious identification group in the country, beating out Catholics, and leaping from about 16% in 2007 to 23% just seven years later.
If that weren’t enough to shuffle the political deck, over a third of millennials are “nones,” and many of them left formal faith traditions to become so.
Of course, “nones” do not equal atheists, but the unaffiliated are far less likely to view public policy, or political candidates, through a religious lens.
They will be more inclined to support something on secular, evidence-based principles, and be far more open to the idea of a candidate that has eschewed religion altogether.
Even if atheists themselves remain a small minority, traditional religion is surely losing its political grip.
When asked why Americans were so reluctant to back an atheist presidential candidate, the late Christopher Hitchens would say that there was a time before Ronald Reagan when no one thought a divorced, B-movie actor could be elected president, but such a candidate had to run to test the question.
So, before we can allow these poll numbers to fill the nonreligious with either hope or dread for our political prospects, we have to run the experiment.
We’ve seen a tiny smattering of atheist candidates and elected officials in the past handful of years, but we need to see more, and at a much higher and more visible level. The more atheist candidates run for office, whether they win or not, the more their atheism stops seeming to voters like an oddity or a novelty.
Wouldn’t it be something if standing on one of the primary debate stages this summer, instead of a bunch of candidates rejecting the fact of evolution, we see at least one stand at the podium and say: “Yes, I’m an atheist, and I’m asking for your vote.”
I suspect the number of folks who would give him or her their vote would surprise everyone.