If somebody claimed that a Catholic, Protestant, Jew, Mormon, or member of any other mainstream religion, was not qualified to hold political office merely by virtue of that religious affiliation, regardless of the broader moral and political beliefs and statements of the candidate, the critic’s claims would be laughed off as silly prejudice. While it’s true that Mitt Romney’s Mormon religion hurt his candidacy, it’s also true that Mike Huckabee’s slights against Mormonism hurt Huckabee’s candidacy.
But, in the world of Christian political apologetics, Michael Medved can grotesquely misrepresent the nature of atheism and claim with a straight face that no atheist should be elected president. Medved writes:
Actually, there’s little chance that atheists will succeed in placing one of their own in the White House at any time in the foreseeable future, and it continues to make powerful sense for voters to shun potential presidents who deny the existence of God. An atheist may be a good person, a good politician, a good family man (or woman), and even a good patriot, but a publicly proclaimed non-believer as president would, for three reasons, be bad for the country.
I agree that there’s little chance of an atheist being elected as president any time in the near future. But Medved’s reasons for why that’s a good thing are absurd.
Medved’s first error, contained in the quoted paragraph above, is to presume that atheism is a unifying doctrine; atheists, by his lights, recognize and support “their own.” But atheism is not an ideology. It does not indicate what a person believes. It indicates only one thing that a person does not believe. I have more in common with many Christians than I do with some atheists. I could develop a long list of Christians that I would support politically over a list of particular atheists.
So what are Medved’s three reasons?
First, he claims that an atheist president would suffer “hollowness and hypocrisy at state occassions.” “For instance, try to imagine an atheist president issuing the annual Thanksgiving proclamation. To whom would he extend thanks in the name of his grateful nation –-the Indians in Massachusetts?” Yet I’ve heard atheists give very powerful, highly moving talks. On the topic of Thanksgiving, Craig Biddle writes, “Rational, productive people — whether philosophers, scientists, inventors, artists, businessmen, military strategists, friends, family, or yourself — are who deserve to be thanked for the goods on which your life, liberty, and happiness depend.” While Biddle’s strong criticisms of religion would not be appropriate for a president’s speech, his answer regarding whom should be thanked could be appropriately adapted to a presidential address. To take another example, Alex Epstein has written a moving tribute to America’s veterans.
Second, Medved claims, an atheist could not connect with the people. Medved writes:
[E]mbrace of Jewish or Mormon practices doesn’t show contempt for the Protestant or Catholic faith of the majority, but affirmation of atheism does. … A chief executive who publicly discards the core belief in God that drives the life and work of most of his countrymen can never achieve that sort of connection. A president with a mandate doesn’t have to be a regular church-goer, or even a convinced believer; but he can’t openly reject the religious sensibility of nearly all his predecessors and nearly all his fellow citizens. A leader who touts his non-belief will, even with the best of intentions, give the impression that he looks down on the people who elected him.
But holding that a person’s belief in God is unwarranted is not the same thing as “looking down” on the person. For example, Ayn Rand was an atheist, and yet she held and expressed enormous respect for the American “sense of life” and for the common sense often displayed by the American public. Indeed, often Rand was most critical of the atheistic (and socialistic) elite.
The difference between atheists and religionists is, in this context, hardly more significant than the difference among peoples of different religions or different political ideologies. For example, as an atheist, I think that Catholics are wrong to believe in God. But when I was a Protestant, I was taught as a child that Catholics will burn for all eternity in Hell. (Only some people in my church held that view.) Obviously, the tensions between people of different religions can be much more severe than the tensions between atheists and religionists. To take another example, the differences between Barack Obama and conservative Christians are enormous.
Finally, Medved argues, atheists cannot win the war against Islamist terrorism. “[T]he ongoing war on terror represents a furious battle of ideas and we face devastating handicaps if we attempt to beat something with nothing.” Here Medved makes two errors. First, he assumes that atheists believe in nothing, which is ridiculous. Again, atheism does not define one’s positive beliefs. Second, Medved supposes that religionists are better-equipped to take on the terrorists. But Bush has failed to stop terrorist advances precisely because of his faith-based war, which places altruistic nation-building ahead of American defense. Numerous publications by the Ayn Rand Institute point to the problems with Bush’s approach and the path to a rational alternative.
Americans should not elect an atheist because he or she is an atheist, any more than Americans should elect a Christian because he or she is a Christian. Instead, Americans should elect somebody who understands the nature of individual rights and is prepared to defend the rights of every American, regardless of religious belief.