Americans are deeply religious, so will we ever see an atheist president? Heres what we know.

Posted: March 24, 2015 at 2:46 pm


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By Gary Scott Smith March 23

As the 2016 presidential campaign heats up, many of the Republican potential hopefuls have strong Christian convictions.

Sen. Ted Cruz, who is announcing his candidacy Monday, and former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee are Southern Baptists. Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, a nondenominational evangelical, and neurosurgeon Ben Carson, a Seventh-Day Adventist, also are devout Christians. Several of the potential contenders are Catholic, including former Florida governor Jeb Bush, Sen. Marco Rubio, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal and former senator Rick Santorum.

As recently as 1960, American voters were very concerned about the Catholic faith of John F. Kennedy. Fears that Kennedy would take orders from the pope caused consternation for many voters in that years presidential election, and New York Gov. Al Smiths Catholic faith contributed to his defeat in 1928. What once seemed to potentially disqualify a candidate appears to be off the table, at least for those who are Catholic.

So could atheists have their JFK moment soon?

Clearly the landscape has changed. Two-third of Americans believe in God, although scholars who track trends in religion are watching how the rising number of Nones those who do not identify with any religion may impact the religious landscape. Today they constitute 20 percent of all American adults. About 13 million (nearly 6 percent of Americans) describe themselves as atheist or agnostic, while 33 million people (14 percent) report that they have no particular religious affiliation. However, nearly 95 percent of those with no religious affiliation also say they believe in God, and about half ofthem say they are spiritual but not religious.

Given this increase in nones, especially among younger adults (one-third of all adults younger than 30 are religiously unaffiliated), could an atheist perhaps be elected president? Probably not. In a 2014 Pew Research Center poll, twice as many religiously unaffiliated Americans said they would be less likely to vote for a candidate who does not believe in God (24 percent) as said they would be more likely to do so (12 percent). Most (64 percent) stated that a candidates atheism would not matter.

It appears that an overt atheist would have more difficulty being elected than Barack Obama did in becoming the nations first black chief executive or a woman or gay candidate would have in winning the White House. In numerous surveys, at least half of Americans state that they would not vote for an atheist. While the numbers of those who declare that they would not vote for an atheist have declined in the new millennium, a 2014 Pew Research Center poll found that Americans are less likely to vote for an atheist than any other type of candidate, including ones who have never held office, have had extramarital affairs, are in their 70s or are gay.

Being identified as an atheist in the United States today is still such a major political liability that a candidate holding this position probably could not gain a major partys nomination for president or even the Senate. Only eight members of the current Congress declined to indicate their religious affiliation, and only one of them, Rep. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) identifies herself as religiously unaffiliated.

Atheists in other countries have had more success. In 2010, Julia Gillard became Australias first female and first unmarried prime minister. Even more remarkably, she won Australias highest office after openly declaring that she is an atheist. Although Gillard is no longer in office, 10 other popularly elected heads of state are self-described atheists, agnostics, or nonbelievers, including President Francois Hollande of France, President Milos Zeman of the Czech Republic, Prime Minister Elio Di Rupo of Belgium and Prime Minister John Key of New Zealand. Granted, Europe and Oceania are more secular than the United States. More striking is the fact that South Korea (which has a sizable Christian population) and two historically Catholic countries Uruguay and Chile also have elected presidents who identify themselves as atheists or agnostics.

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Americans are deeply religious, so will we ever see an atheist president? Heres what we know.

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March 24th, 2015 at 2:46 pm