The Atheist President

It is possible that the U.S. has already had an atheist president. What we have not had is a president who openly identified himself as an atheist while running for and then serving in office. Will we ever have such a president? Maybe, but I do not expect to see it happen in my lifetime. Then again, many notable events have happened that I did not expect to see during my lifetime (e.g., the U.S. electing a Black president, legal same-sex marriage in Mississippi). In the right circumstances, change can happen much faster than we expect.

Perhaps we will find ourselves with an atheist president sooner than I think. The 2016 presidential campaign has been notable for many reasons, not the least of which is that there are two candidates running who do not seem particularly pious in their religious beliefs: Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders. Neither man identifies himself as an atheist, and I am not suggesting that either of them is an atheist. Some have speculated that they may both fall into the growing religiously unaffiliated group about which we have heard so much. Even if you think this is too much of a stretch, I think you can agree that both have been very different in terms of how they talk about religion compared with what we are used to seeing on the campaign trail.

Contrary to what we'd expect on the basis of conventional wisdom and decades of polling data, neither man seems to be paying a price for his lack of piety. Trump is widely viewed as not being particularly religious, and yet, he's currently the leading Republican candidate. Add this to the list of things I never expected to see during my lifetime.

According to Pew,
And a new Pew Research Center survey finds that being an atheist remains one of the biggest liabilities that a presidential candidate can have; fully half of American adults say they would be less likely to vote for a hypothetical presidential candidate who does not believe in God, while just 6% say they would be more likely to vote for a nonbeliever.
I have no reason to doubt what Pew is saying here, but I think it highlights the difference between voters perceiving someone as not particularly religious and voters perceiving someone as an atheist. Most Trump voters probably do not see him as an atheist, and the apparent discrepancy here really may be as simple as that. It is also possible that there is an important difference between the answers those polled give when asked about hypothetical candidates and how they respond to real candidates.

Pew's data suggest that "being an atheist continues to be one of the biggest perceived shortcomings a hypothetical presidential candidate could have," and this may well prevent us from seeing a successful presidential candidate who openly identifies as an atheist. But if the current contest is any indication, voters may be willing to overlook quite a bit more about candidates' religious beliefs than we might have thought. It might take us a while to have an openly atheist president in the White House, but it is becoming easier to imagine ourselves ending up with one who is not particularly religious.