by Michael Shermer
Before the rise of the religious right in the 1980s, most politicians kept their faith to themselves. In 1945, for example, President Harry Truman wrote: “I’m not very much impressed with men who publicly parade their religious beliefs.” After his election in 1953 President Dwight D. Eisenhower joined a Presbyterian church, but when he heard the minister was publicly boasting about his new member the general commanded, “You go and tell that goddam minister that if he gives out one more story about my religious faith I will not join his goddam church!” John F. Kennedy discussed his Catholicism only when forced to do so by critics during the 1960 presidential campaign. In a 1964 interview with the Baptist Standard, President Lyndon Johnson explained, “I believe in the American tradition of separation of church and state which is expressed in the First Amendment to the Constitution.” Richard Nixon was famously a Quaker, but what he practiced can best be described as religious expediency—whatever worked politically. Gerald Ford called his religiosity “very personal” and wrote, “I am most reluctant to speak or write about it publicly.” Even the openly evangelical Christian Jimmy Carter prioritized his piety below that of most political issues.
This all changed in the 1980s, when evangelical pastor Jerry Falwell and his Moral Majority (famously characterized as “neither”) convinced Christian politicians that evangelizing for the Lord included knocking on doors within the beltway. Throughout the 1990s and 2000s Christian sects and faith-based organizations such as Ralph Reed’s Christian Coalition of America and James Dobson’s Focus on the Family used rallies and donor support to convince politicians and candidates that if they didn’t pander to religious voters they stood little chance of being elected. The result has been a nauseating display of political cheerleading for Christ, from proclaiming Jesus as your favorite “philosopher” to petitioning the almighty at the end of public political speeches to “bless the United States of America.”
Those days might be over. To those of us who are atheists, agnostics or “spiritual but not religious,” and who prefer to keep the Constitution and the Bible in separate drawers, the Pew Research Center has recently published data from a massive representative survey of 35,000 adult Americans, revealing that the fastest growing religious cohort in America are the “nones”—those who check the box for “no religious affiliation.” Such unaffiliated numbers have been climbing steadily out of the single-digit cellar in the 1990s into a now respectable two-digit 23 percent of adults of all ages, up from 16 percent just since 2007. More telling for politicians who cater their campaigns toward younger voters, 34 percent of millennials—those born after 1981, and the nation’s largest living generation—profess to having no religion. A third! That’s a viable voting bloc.
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