January 2, 2019

The Christian President

White House

Most atheists living in the United States are aware that one of the bright spots in our Constitution is the part about there not being a religious test for anyone seeking federal office (Article VI, Clause 3). Of course, this also provides us with a reminder that some parts of the law can easily be overridden in practice by a bigoted majority. The Constitution indicates that our government cannot pass laws requiring Christian beliefs for those seeking federal office; however, this in no way prevents voters from electing only Christians.

In 2007, Republican presidential candidate Sen. John McCain was quoted saying that America needs a Christian president and that he opposed allowing a Muslim to serve as president. This sounded an awful lot like he was proposing a religious test for the nation's highest office. Then again, McCain also claimed that the “Constitution established the United States of America as a Christian nation.” So maybe he never bothered to read it.

Of course, it was more likely that Sen. McCain was desperately trying to revive a failing presidential campaign by appealing to Christian voters' bigotry. This is probably what he had in mind when he said:

But I just have to say in all candor that since this nation was founded primarily on Christian principles, personally, I prefer someone who I know who has a solid grounding in my faith.
Almost as if he realized how that sounded, McCain went on to clarify that he was not actually advocating a religious test for office and was simply expressing his personal feelings on the matter. Great, but it seems like this should have immediately ended his candidacy for the office.

Although it would not be fair to say that these comments were ignored by our mainstream news media, they did not generate much coverage. And why should they? Whether we like it or not, the views expressed by Sen. McCain were not unusual. At the time, I found myself wondering why his comments did not receive at least as much attention as the racist comments by Don Imus, Bill O'Reilly, and others. It seemed that some forms of bigotry were more socially acceptable than others.

Few seemed to take issue with Sen. McCain saying that non-Christians are not qualified to be president. I wonder what the reaction would have been if he had said that a candidate's race or gender is "an important part of our qualifications to lead." My guess is that they would have been fairly different. I suspect that this state of affairs stems directly from the equation of Christianity with morality in our culture. If Christianity = morality than everything other than Christianity is evil and cannot be trusted.

Although the end of 2018 brought some encouraging news that public attitudes about the suitability of atheists holding political office may be changing, it seems clear that we have a long way to go before we find ourselves with a president who does not profess Christian beliefs. Perhaps we will get there someday. And if we do, I hope our first atheist president is a good one.