Q&A Friday #80: Could An Atheist Be Elected As POTUS?

Question: “I’ve been meaning to do this for a while. You know how it is, long time reader, first time poster. Anyway: I have a hypothetical question for you in many parts.

Suppose that a charismatic small-government conservative with a proven track record as such forms an exploratory committee for a run at the Presidency. Now, when I say a proven track record, we’re talking the whole shot: perfect voting/legislative record on pro-life issues, staunch support for the Second Amendment, maybe a balanced budget amendment under his belt if we’re talking about a governor rather than a senator. In other words we’re talking about the dream candidate; Reagan reborn, if you will.

There is, however, an exception: this candidate is an atheist. In point of fact, this candidate is a devout, Dawkins-esque, “why-on-earth-do-you-still-believe-in-this-nonsense” atheist. When he was sworn in as senator/governor/whatever he declined to take the oath on the customary Bible but instead on the Constitution. In short, he is a conservative but for entirely secular reasons. Maybe he never had any religious faith, maybe he was deconverted and his political stance survived the process. And, for the purposes of this thought experiment, in policy terms he represents the best of the field.

1) In your view, would the present Republican party nominate him over a religious candidate?
2) If not, why not? Why should a candidate’s religion (or lack thereof or severe antipathy thereto) serve to disqualify him from achieving the party’s nomination if he expresses the party base’s instincts on every substantive policy issue?
3) If not, can you imagine any circumstances under which they would?
4) If after all that he is the Republican nominee, would he have a realistic chance of winning the general election?” — LimeyPhil

Answer: 1) In your view, would the present Republican party nominate him over a religious candidate?

No. Neither would the Democratic Party for that matter. They may be the party of militant secularists, but I think an atheist would have a great deal of difficulty closing the deal with Hispanic Democrats, black Democrats, and moderate, white Democrats. Liberals? Not so much.

2) If not, why not? Why should a candidate’s religion (or lack thereof or severe antipathy thereto) serve to disqualify him from achieving the party’s nomination if he expresses the party base’s instincts on every substantive policy issue?

Elections aren’t just about issues. People have to like and trust a candidate and they want someone who they believe shares their values and is like them. In a nation where more than 80% of the population is Christian, it doesn’t seem likely that an atheist could be elected President of the United States. At the moment, I don’t even think an atheist could be elected to the Senate. But, the House? In a very white, very liberal district? It’s possible, as Pete Stark has proven, but doesn’t happen very often.

3) If not, can you imagine any circumstances under which they would?

Only if we become significantly more secular over time, like Western Europe.

4) If after all that he is the Republican nominee, would he have a realistic chance of winning the general election?”

No, he couldn’t win a general election.

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