By Robyn Blumner
Now that news editors have assembled and disseminated their end-of-year lists – Top 10 of This, Worst 5 of That – I’d like to mention one of the Most Missed Stories of 2015: how religious privilege plays out in American politics. You can’t escape it, and yet it is almost always escaped.
What I mean by religious privilege is the presumption that being a member of a Judeo-Christian faith is better than having no religion or being a nonbeliever. This is something the news media routinely and uncritically accept.
The results are predictable: Nonbelievers can’t run for office as openly secular, which skews public policy on issues such as women’s reproductive freedom and whether evolution is taught in school, and politicians compete with each other to broadcast their sanctimony.
Here is a partial list of ways GOP presidential candidates have made explicit or implicit claims that their Christian faith makes them better people and more qualified to be president.
Carly Fiorina told an audience in Iowa: ” I think people of genuine faith, whatever their faith is – I’m a Christian – but people of genuine faith, I believe, make better leaders.”
Ted Cruz: “Any president who doesn’t begin every day on his knees isn’t fit to be commander-in-chief.”
A variation on that theme came from The Donald himself, who showed up at this year’s annual Values Voter Summit waving a Bible (his favorite book, by the way).
Mike Huckabee told the same gathering a year prior that nonbelievers should be rooted out of government saying, those who “refuse to hear God’s heart” should be fired and replaced by those who hear it.
Marco Rubio says when the Bible and civil law come into conflict “God’s rules always win.”
And Seventh Day Adventist and retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson subscribes to a literal six-day creation of Earth and suggests Darwin’s theory of evolution was inspired by Satan “to make people believe there was no God.” He talks about his religious beliefs regularly on the campaign trail.
In a poll by the Des Moines Register in October, 89 percent of likely Iowa caucus goes said Carson was an attractive candidate because he vowed his actions would be guided by his faith in God. (Because it worked out so well after God allegedly told George W. Bush to launch the Iraq War.)
There are plenty of religious Americans who don’t like all this God talk and are more comfortable with religion being a private matter.
Then there are people like me, atheists, and others who either don’t believe in the supernatural or who simply don’t subscribe to any religious dogma. For us, the presumption that being religious translates into good, moral character or makes one a better leader or more presidential has an insidious subtext: We are less American.
This is borne out in opinion polls. Forty percent of Americans would not vote for an otherwise qualified candidate for president if he or she is an atheist. Only socialists poll worse. (And I suspect the two are unfairly conflated as a holdover from the “godless, Communist” days of the former Soviet Union.)
Think about what this means. People who say the Earth is 6,000 years old can get elected president while those who say they reject the supernatural and subscribe to an evidence-based view of the natural world cannot.
Openly secular people are precluded from the public policy table for no valid reason and to the detriment of rational debate on issues such as sex education, access to birth control, abortion, gay rights, faith-based initiatives, private school vouchers, whether creationism should be taught in science classrooms, climate change and appropriate science funding.
Not a single member of Congress will call himself or herself an atheist. Not one. Here again is religious privilege at play – when politicians shorthand their way to being perceived as good, trustworthy and moral by wrapping themselves in religion. If the media simply pushed back, just a little, this undeserved privilege could be dispelled.
Fiorina has repeatedly claimed that people of faith make better leaders, explaining that faith gives people humility, empathy and optimism. As a nonbeliever I’d want to know if she thinks atheists don’t have those qualities or as much of them? In fact, humility, empathy and even optimism are humanist values, in evidence among all peoples of the world regardless of their beliefs.
Moreover there are countless examples of deeply religious people doing horrendous things in the name of their faith. Their religion didn’t give them humility or empathy – maybe just the opposite.
The nonreligious is the fastest growing cohort in America. We represent 22 percent of American adults and fully a third of millennials. A significant subset of that group will tell pollsters they are either atheist or agnostic. And yet politicians – particularly Republicans – have no problem relegating us to “the other” status.
When piety is praised not to applaud the keeping of the Sabbath or other religious obligations but as an encompassing term to suggest positive humanist values and characteristics, it’s a false equivalency and a damaging one for the millions and millions of Americans who are good without God.