The Last Political Taboo?

The U.S. Constitution Forbids 'Religious Tests' For Public Office, But When It Comes To Non-Believers, Many Voters Have Decided To Impose One Anyway

Abraham Lincoln faced his share of sharp criticism from political opponents during his career, but among the most stinging accusations against him may have been an implication that the future president was “an open scoffer at Christianity” – in other words, an atheist.

“That I am not a member of any Christian church, is true; but I have never denied the truth of the Scriptures; and I have never spoken with intentional disrespect of religion in general, or any denomination of Christians in particular,” Lincoln wrote in July 1846, shortly before winning election to Congress.

Lincoln went on to outline his beliefs in some detail. “It is true,” he continued, “that in early life I was inclined to believe in what I understand is called the ‘Doctrine of Necessity’ – that is, that the human mind is impelled to action, or held in rest by some power, over which the mind itself has no control; and I have sometimes (with one, two or three, but never publicly) tried to maintain this opinion in argument. The habit of arguing thus however, I have, entirely left off for more than five years. And I add here, I have always understood this same opinion to be held by several of the Christian denominations. The foregoing is the whole truth, briefly stated, in relation to myself, upon this subject.”

That Lincoln felt the need to respond to this sort of criticism lobbed at him by his opponent, Peter Cart­wright, shows that it could be political poison in the 19th century to be perceived as hostile to Christian doctrine.

While American society may have evolved considerably since then, as evidenced by the fact that an African American occupies the White House and the 114th Congress is the most diverse in U.S. history, one non-political group remains heavily maligned by voters: atheists. In fact, a June 2015 Gallup poll found that 40 percent of respondents said they would flatly refuse to vote for an atheist candidate, the highest of any group included in the survey except socialists. Exactly why atheism remains the last political taboo cannot be said for certain, but research indicates that many people apparently believe that atheists can’t be trusted because they lack basic morals.

The U.S. Constitution makes it clear that religion cannot be used to disqualify anyone from running for elected office. Article VI, paragraph 3 states: “The Senators and Representatives before mentioned, and the Members of the several State Legislatures, and all executive and judicial Officers, both of the United States and of the several States, shall be bound by Oath or Affirmation, to support this Constitution; but no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States.”

But that doesn’t mean voters can’t impose their own “religious test” – and many do. Since the founding of the United States, candidates with unconventional ideas about religion have struggled to win elections, a trend that continues to this day.

Thomas Jefferson is celebrated today as both a primary influence upon the First Amendment as well as the originator of the term “wall of separation between church and state.” Although many now value Jefferson’s contributions to America’s concept of freedom of conscience, his ideas about religion were considered radical by many of his contemporaries.

In the run up to the presidential election of 1800, for example, Jefferson’s political opponents mercilessly attacked him on matters of belief. This assault began as early as 1798, when on July 4, the Rev. Timothy Dwight, who was then president of Yale University, told his congregation that a Jefferson victory would destroy the moral fiber of the new nation because the Founding Father allegedly did not believe in God.

“[T]he Bible would be cast into a bonfire, our holy worship changed in a dance of Jacobin phrensy [frenzy], our wives and daughters dishonored, and our sons converted into the disciples of Voltaire and the dragoons of Marat,” Dwight ranted. “Murder, robbery, rape, adultery, and incest will be openly taught and practiced, the air will be rent with the cries of distress, the soil will be soaked with blood, the nation black with crimes.”

Another minister, the Rev. William Linn, a Dutch Reformed pastor in New York, also used allegations of atheism as an opportunity to go after Jefferson. After studying Jefferson’s 1785 work Notes on the State of Virginia, Linn declared that the Sage of Monticello did not view the Bible as the book “most ancient, the most authentic, the most interesting, and the most useful in the world.” Purely on that basis, Linn opined, “he ought to be rejected from the Presidency.”

Federalist publications, which supported then-President John Adams, also ran with the idea that Jefferson was not to be trusted because of his alleged atheism.

“At the present solemn and momentous epoch, the only question to be asked by every American, laying his hand on his heart, is ‘Shall I continue in allegiance to GOD – AND A RELIGIOUS PRESIDENT; or impiously declare for JEFFERSON – AND NO GOD!!!’” cried one newspaper.

A handful of pro-Jefferson newspapers came to his defense. A Maryland newspaper observed, “The spirit of party has converted the elegant reasoning of Mr. Jefferson against religious establishments into a blasphemous argument against religion itself.”

The Philadelphia Aurora denied the atheist accusations more directly.

“[T]hat the only charge which was brought by his enemies against Mr. Jefferson, is... that he has no religion – a charge as false as it is weak and malicious, and which being brought at the eve of the last election prevented those enquires and answers… which have proved, that Mr. Jefferson was the most valuable and best friend that the true religion, and particularly the doctrines of the Christian Religion, ever had in the United States,” the newspaper editorialized.

More than 200 years later, anti-atheist sentiment by voters is still common, although on the decline. Gallup began asking Americans if they would vote for an atheist president in 1958; at that time, just 18 percent said they would. Flash forward to 2012, when 54 percent of respondents said they would vote for an atheist for the top job.

By 2015, that percentage had risen to 58. Additionally, between 2012 and 2015 the percentage of people who said they would not vote for an atheist chief executive fell from 43 percent to 40 percent.

While that may not sound so bad, it looks a bit worse in context. When it comes to religious groups, in 2015 Gallup poll respondents were significantly more comfortable with candidates from a faith community than they were atheists. Huge majorities said they would vote for a Catholic (93 percent) or a Jew (91 percent). Most of those surveyed also had no issue with voting for a Mormon (81 percent) or an evangelical Christian (73 percent). Even 60 percent of respondents said they would vote for a Muslim.

That mean atheists fared worse than every faith group in the survey, as well as gay and lesbian candidates, who were deemed acceptable by 74 percent of respondents. Only socialists had a worse favorability rating than atheists, with just 47 percent saying they would vote for a candidate who supported that form of government.    

Analyzing these results, Gallup reached a straightforward conclusion. 

“Americans’ notions about whom they would give their support to are widening, but they are still less than fully supportive of candidates with certain characteristics,” the polling service said.

It’s no wonder, then, that the current Congress does not count a single “out” atheist among its ranks. Just one member, U.S. Rep. Ami Bera (D-Calif.), identities as a Unitarian Universalist, a denomination that harbors some non-theists, while U.S. Rep. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) is “unidentified.” Nine other members of Con­gress, all Democrats, have chosen not to list any religious affiliation.

Only one member of Congress to date, former  U.S. Rep. Pete Stark (D-Calif.) has ever publicly admitted to being atheist while serving – but he left office in 2013 after 30 years thanks to a primary defeat. And even Stark did not acknowledge his unbelief until 2007.

“[I am] a Unitarian who does not believe in a Supreme Being,” Stark said at the time. “[L]ike our nation’s founders, I strongly support the separation of church and state.” Stark also aligned himself with the American Humanist Association and the Secular Coalition for America, two non-theistic groups.

Despite Stark’s groundbreaking admission, little progress has been made on this front for members of Con­gress. Sinema, who was raised Mor­mon, was described by the Religion News Service (RNS) as an “atheist” in November 2012, shortly after she won her seat. But Sinema spokes­man Jus­tin Unga quickly pushed back against that label, telling RNS that “Kyrsten believes the terms non-theist, atheist or nonbeliever are not befitting of her life’s work or personal character. She does not identify as any of the above.”

Sinema has yet to publicly confirm what her beliefs are and reports of her non-belief remain just that – reports. It is notable, however, that she took her oath of office on a copy of the U.S. Constitution in 2013.

As challenging as it is to be an out atheist in Congress today, it may be even tougher at the local or state level. Just ask Cecil Bothwell, a former local government reporter turned city council member.

After covering the Asheville, N.C., government from 1993-2007, Bothwell in 2009 decided to run for city council himself. He won that race, but it was no small feat. During the campaign, Bothwell’s opponents went after him for a critical book he authored about Billy Graham. Bothwell opponents pointed out that in his book, The Prince of War: Billy Graham’s Crusade for a Wholly Christian Empire, the former reporter spoke frankly about his own lack of faith, writing, “I don’t believe in supernatural beings of any stripe….”

When Bothwell won the election, his opponents initially refused to accept it. They began arguing that Bothwell was ineligible to take his new position, pointing to a provision in the North Carolina Constitution that bars atheists from holding public office. Indeed, Article VI, Section 8 of the North Carolina Constitution bars state office to anyone who is ineligible to vote, anyone who has been convicted of treason or any other felony and “any person who shall deny the being of Almighty God.”

You might think that provision is unique to North Carolina. You would be wrong. In fact, a total of seven states (also Maryland, Arkansas, Mississippi, South Carolina, Tennessee and Texas) prohibit atheists from holding public office to this day. (An oddly worded provision in Pennsylvania’s Constitution also bars non-believers, some assert.)

These provisions are unenforceable thanks to a 1961 U.S. Supreme Court decision that struck down such “religious tests” for public office. The case, Torcaso v. Watkins, was brought by a Maryland man, Roy Torcaso, who refused to take a religious oath as a condition of becoming a notary public. As for Bothwell, he remains on the Asheville City Council to this day.

As a modern observer of American politics, it may seem difficult to understand why so many voters today maintain a 19th-century view when it comes to the faith of political candidates. Researchers, however, may have an explanation for the relative stagnation of attitudes toward non-believers.

A 2011 study conducted by psychologists at the University of British Columbia and the University of Oregon indicated that for many people, atheists just can’t be trusted. Researchers asked 350 American adults and 420 Canadian college students to consider the likely personal beliefs of a fictional car driver who hit a parked car and fled, then later found a wallet and took the money inside. Respondents were asked: Is this person most likely a teacher, an atheist teacher or a teacher who is also a rapist? Atheist teacher was the most common response.

“People find atheists very suspect,” Azim Shariff, a psychology professor at the University of Oregon and a co-author of the study, told USA Today in 2011. “They don’t fear God so we should distrust them; they do not have the same moral obligations of others. This is a common refrain against atheists. People fear them as a group.”

While those results were disheartening to many, Shariff saw some hope.

“If you manage to offer credible counteroffers of these stereotypes, this can do a lot to undermine people’s existing prejudice,” he said. “If you realize there are all these atheists you’ve been interacting with all your life and they haven’t raped your children that is going to do a lot do dispel these stereotypes.”

Overcoming the last taboo may take some time. But who knows? If current trends of tolerance continue, the day may come when Americans are at peace with the idea that qualified candidates can believe, or not, and still get the job done.