Would the United States elect an atheist as president? In the last poll conducted on the question by Pew Research, 53% of the American voters polled said that they would be less likely to vote for an atheist. Compare that to the fact that a candidate having never held office would make only 52% of respondents less likely to support -- and that the candidate having an extramarital affair would make only 35% less likely to support.
Almost all American presidents have affiliated themselves with a Christian faith. More than half have been Episcopalian or Presbyterian, and with the exception of Kennedy, the rest of the Christian presidents have been various smaller Protestant faiths.The only two exceptions were Abraham Lincoln and Thomas Jefferson, both who held largely deistic beliefs but were not formally affiliated with a faith. Lincoln, although speaking often of God, was not formally religious. Religious scholar David Masci writes, “The second, Abraham Lincoln, was raised in a religious household and spoke frequently about God (particularly as president), but never joined a church. Scholars have long debated Lincoln’s beliefs, including the question of whether or not he was a Christian, and some aspects of his faith remain a mystery.” The University’s own Thomas Jefferson was equally complex. He made his own version of the bible that removed all of the miracles from the new testament, so while clearly fascinated by religion he was not a standard practitioner by any means.
The US has thus far overwhelmingly chosen Christian presidents, and all of our past presidents have paid at least lip service to Christian beliefs. As shown with the electoral attitudes towards atheists, this trend is likely far from over. A 2016 poll confirms this. When asked if religion was discussed enough in politics, 40% of the poll respondents said it should be discussed more.
While the U.S. has been and still persists as largely Christian, this trend is shifting slowly but steadily. Religious belief is slowly declining in the U.S. A poll conducted in 2007 that asked whether the respondent believed in God or in a Universal Spirit had 92% of American respondents say yes, whereas only 82% did so in 2014. This trend is much more pronounced in one party than in the other, as liberals seem to be abandoning organized religion at much higher rates. FiveThirtyEight’s Daniel Cox reported that, “Nearly half (49 percent) of liberals under 30 are religiously unaffiliated, according to the General Social Survey, which is more than the number who belong to all Christian denominations combined.”
For some, this decline in stricter faith is a heartening trend because it could mean progress on gridlocked issues like abortion, physician assisted suicide, and LGBTQ rights that have historically had religious opposition. Issues like this have always held an ideologically fraught nature that makes compromise nearly impossible. America’s views on religion have also brought failure to many dedicated officials at the ballot box due to their lack of faith or adherence to a non standard one. For others, this trend is disturbing. Not just to the 44% who believe that one must be religious to be moral, but also to all of those who view churches as a hub of community and a valuable resource for organizing -- particularly around social justice issues. While religion in the modern era has more often been associated with conservative causes it should not be forgotten that they were also involved in key issues like the civil rights movement, where Churches served as a vital organizing hub. Nowadays, many churches work on issues surrounding homelessness and refugees. Losing the church means losing one of the last venues for community discussion and action.
A less religious America could mean a less gridlocked Congress that is more open to productive compromise. It could also mean an America with an even more isolated populace that are less likely to meet with their community members to discuss their values and organize around them. Religion has long provided a common identity in the United States. Without it the country will still be in need of a uniting identity. Will this identity stem from our constitutional ideals, and could those even be sufficiently elevated to provide the collective identity and call to action that a nation needs to live and legislate around? As religious belief in America declines it begs the question of what forces can replace it -- let us hope this nation can choose a set of values that unite and motivate a more equitable, cooperative, and compassionate America.
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