Confronting The Final Frontier: Is America Ready For An Atheist President?

For a long time, a majority of Americans told pollsters they would not support an atheist candidate for president – even if they liked his or her views.

Colonial-era Baptist minister John Leland was a devout Christian, but he was no bigot.

In an essay titled “The Virginia Chronicle” (1790), Leland attacked antiquated laws in the Old Dominion that limited public office to certain types of Christians.

“If a man merits the confidence of his neighbors in Virginia,” observed Leland, “let him worship one God, twenty Gods or no God. Be he Jew, Turk, Pagan, or Infidel, he is eligible to any office in the state.”

At the time the U.S. Constitution was written, delegate Charles Pinckney of South Carolina championed a provision barring all manner of “religious tests” for federal office. The language can be found at the very end of Article VI.

That’s all well and good, but statements from clerics and even provisions in the Constitution can’t stop people from imposing their own kind of unofficial religious test – and for a long time they did.

In the past, majorities of American voters have refused to support Catholics, Jews and members of other faiths. Thankfully, those prejudices have fallen away. But there’s one group that remains the subject of great skepticism among many voters: atheists.

For a long time, a majority of Americans told pollsters they would not support an atheist candidate for president – even if they liked his or her views. That’s how strong the prejudice was.

But that may be changing. A recent Gallup poll found that 58 percent of Americans now say they’re willing to consider an atheist candidate. That’s the highest number I’ve ever seen in a poll like this.

To be sure, non-believers are still scraping the bottom. (Only socialists fare worse.) Slightly more Americans are willing to vote for a Muslim than an atheist. And when you consider the numbers for some of the other sub-groups – 81 percent of Americans say they would vote for a Mormon, for example – it’s clear that those skeptical of organized religion still have some work to do.

In many parts of the country, atheist candidates (or those merely accused of atheism), can find themselves on the receiving ends of attacks

Former U.S. Sen. Kay Hagan (D-N.C.) was attacked in 2008 for simply attending a fund-raiser sponsored by a humanist business leader, and in 2009, Cecil Bothwell encountered similar assaults when he ran openly as an atheist for the Asheville, N.C., city council. After he won, opponents actually tried to stop Bothwell from being seated, citing an unenforceable provision of the state constitution that bans “any person who shall deny the being of Almighty God” from holding public office.

Atheists, agnostics, humanists, skeptics and others undoubtedly have a long way to go. Still, the numbers indicate a rather impressive jump in tolerance over a short period of time. (It took years for hypothetical atheist candidates to crack 50 percent.)

It may take a few more years, but John Leland’s grand vision may finally come to pass – more than 200 years after he articulated it.