Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Wanted: An Atheist Candidate For President

I was raised Jewish but my personal beliefs are agnostic. I’m not so arrogant to reject the concept of a higher power. I don’t claim to know what the divine truth is and reserve the right to have a deathbed conversion when I reach old age.

For the time being I’m inclined to believe a higher power is really a more evolved life form that doesn’t respond to prayer or monitor my personal morality meter. In my opinion John Lennon put it best:

“God is a concept by which we measure our pain.”
However, I respect religious people. Furthermore I believe it makes sense for Democrats to persuade those motivated by the social responsibility component of religion to be part of a progressive coalition. It’s always better to add members to a coalition and not subtract. We progressives need all the numbers we can get.

Individuals motivated to promote social justice because of their religion are natural allies for the progressive movement. Those of us on the left who snicker at religious individuals should take a hard look in the mirror: many religious people travel to dangerous hot spots to save lives because of their faith based moral compass. How many of us are feeding impoverished people in Sudan?

While phone banking prior to the mid term elections I met a fellow volunteer studying to be a minister and angered by the Christian Right’s homophobia. He explained that part of his motivation to get out the vote was reclaiming a piece of the national conversation for the religious left. I respect that.

That said I believe too many religious people don’t respect secular individuals such as myself. Sadly, if you believe the polls, many religious people in America will not cast their vote for a secular minded person regardless of their other virtues. This is a taboo that must be addressed head on.

Consequently I would like to see an atheist emerge as a national candidate in 2008. Who that could be I have no idea. Nor do I expect such a candidate to prevail. It is my hope that an eminently respectable citizen with stature would illustrate that non-religious people have values and can be entrusted with power. A vital contribution would be made to our society if such a candidate emerged.

How about an old fashioned conservative who believes in personal responsibility, fiscal discipline and civil liberties running in the Republican Party? Wouldn’t it be wonderful if an attractive atheist candidate with a photogenic family took on the GOP's radical Christians? I suspect many secular minded civil libertarians would be both relieved and appreciative.

How about a Democratic candidate that aggressively courts civil libertarians who have traditionally supported the Republican Party? Perhaps many of these libertarians might give the Democratic Party another look if an avowed atheist championed the banner that Americans don’t require a morality police regulating personal choices.

Among the more painful memories I have from 2004 was Howard Dean attempting to appeal to religious voters and misquoting the New Testament. Dean who otherwise was refreshingly authentic appeared to be a fish out of water. How terrible that preserving the viability of his candidacy required not appearing overly secular.

Again, I respect religious people and have no problem with candidates articulating how their faith motivates them to achieve social justice. Nevertheless, secular people are also moral, have families and should not be embarrassed by what they are. Put another way: I’ll compare my morals with Pat Robertson’s anytime.

If neither party welcomes an atheist candidacy than a sensible self-financing independent might be what is needed. Typically, I am an advocate of a strong publicly financed campaign system. However, any independent candidacy that hopes to make a statement about atheists having a place in the national conversation will require funding outside of public financing.

Barriers of race, gender, minority religions and sexual orientations are finally being tackled in our politics. Hillary Clinton is considered the presumptive frontrunner for the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination in 2008. Barack Obama is also considering a run for higher office and could have a realistic shot at the nomination. Several years ago President Clinton appointed the first female Secretary of State in Madeline Albright. In 2000 Al Gore had a Jewish running mate.

President Bush’s first Secretary of State was a black man and currently a black woman fills the position. Minnesota just elected the first Muslim congressman in Keith Ellison. Congressman Barney Frank, a homosexual is about to assume the chairmanship of the House Financial Services Committee.

Regardless of how you feel about any of the names referenced above their symbolism is important. For example I’ve heard Keith Ellison say he hopes to be viewed as a congressman who happens to be Muslim instead of a Muslim congressman. By breaking a barrier he makes it possible for other Muslim citizens to be accepted as candidates. Hopefully future Muslim candidates will be voted up or down because of their credentials, character and experience instead of their religion.

Every time I read a poll that says candidates must be people of faith to be considered viable by religious voters I cringe. It shouldn’t be that way. First we need to break a barrier and have an atheist throw their hat in the ring. Hopefully a courageous trailblazer will enable the public to perceive future individuals as candidates who happen to be atheists instead of an “atheist candidate.” And that will be better for everyone.
Cross postings for this topic on several community blogs provoked lively commentary and discussion. Special thanks to Gottlieb for frontpaging this topic on My Left Wing. Click Here to review comments from that community. Interesting responses can also be reviewed at cross postings on The Forvm (Click Here), Talking Points Memo (Click Here), Booman Tribune (Click Here), MyDD (Click Here), Swords Cross (Click Here) and Daily Kos (Click Here). And for a European perspective I also crossposted on European Tribune (Click Here) and their point of view is worth reading.


Brent Rasmussen said...

Consequently I would like to see an atheist emerge as a national candidate in 2008. Who that could be I have no idea. Nor do I expect such a candidate to prevail. It is my hope that an eminently respectable citizen with stature would illustrate that non-religious people have values and can be entrusted with power. A vital contribution would be made to our society if such a candidate emerged.

I disagree. I believe that a candidate who made an issue of their atheism would become a laughingstock gimmick who would do even more damage and further the stereotypical public perception of atheists as dangerous demagogues focused on taking away their right to religious freedom because they "hate religion" or "hate God".

Larry Darby has already equated himself in the public mind as "that weirdo atheist guy" who ran for office and lost to a True Christian™ (Praise The Lord, Hallelujah).

Please allow me to reiterate; If any candidate's atheism becomes known, it will become an issue. If it becomes an issue, they will lose whatever election they happen to be in.

The only way I can see for this fact to change is if existing elected officials who happen to be atheists come out of the closet and prove once and for all that you can be a good and faithful public servant or elected official without being religious. Ideally, this person or persons would have been in elected office for a number of years and have done good things for their districts or constituents - and no one would have known that they were atheists, just that they were considered to be "good people".

Then, this would need to be repeated over and over again until the public just became bored with atheist politicians and elected officials coming out of the closet.

Do you see this happening any time soon? Heck, the gays have been working on this same plan for a lot longer than the atheists have, and look how far they have gotten. Sure, they have one openly gay Congressman, and now most Americans consider gay people - to be human. Wow. Great strides to be sure, but it took a very long time.

An openly atheist Presidential candidate in 2008?

You're dreaming. It'll never happen in our lifetime. In fact, if the country swings back towards the conservative end of the spectrum again in a few years, which it probably will - I wouldn't be surprised if atheists were rounded up and placed into detention camps - just for being atheists.

Brent Rasmussen
Unscrewing The Inscrutable

LonestarJR said...

The most important reason for an atheist Presidential campaign is that it would give us the actual dimensions of the "must be religious" vote. As with many hideous aspects of our political landscape, this one traces back to Tricky Dicky, who in 1960 repeatedly said Kennedy's Catholicism was not an issue in the campaign and that the only way a candidate's religious beliefs would be a legitimate reason to eschew voting for him/her would be if he/she "had no religion." It was a statement calibrated to promote an image of Nixon as a non-bigoted person of faith.

What he was, of course, was a Person of Piety, which is a different thing altogether.

"Person of Piety" seems to me a useful phrase in referencing politicians who constantly mention their religious beliefs as drivers for their public policy beliefs. Understand, however, that the phrase includes an increasing number of our friends on the Left, who have swallowed whole the conventional wisdom about the public opinion requirement of mixing religion in with politics. The first thing a new Senator from New York did upon arriving in the Capital about six years ago was to join a Senate prayer breakfast group. She's the frontrunner for the Democratic Presidential nomination in '08. Barack Obama's hot new book is replete with references to "Jesus' teachings." A liberal Democrat running for local office in Texas always began her comments in support of recognition for gay marriages by noting that the Bible does not specifically quote Jesus as saying anything against it. I claim an American who believes in our Constitution would support gay marriage even if Jesus were quoted in the Bible as being strongly against it.

As you recruit an atheist to seek the Presidency, don't forget to add "personal physical courage" to the list of attributes sought, because I think an atheist perceived to be among the front-runners would be an assasination target for a good number of people trying to do something to get on god's good side.

As a Texas Governor once said during a debate over making English our official language, "If English was good enough for Jesus Christ, it's good enough for me."

Mark Prime (tpm/Confession Zero) said...

The best ten commandments I've ever read. Thank you!

Seperation of Church and State is the one thing that needs to be implemented to the full extent of its intent. Originally put forth to keep the church from encroaching on citizens lives it has now morphed into an abomination.

Christian_Left said...

While I am a committed Christian, I would perfectly happy to vote for an atheist candidate. I don't think it should make any difference at all. In fact, judging by the superior values positions being taken by secular people lately, on average, I might even be slightly predisposed to trust an atheist (or at least agnostic) more. Although I would like to believe that progressive values and positions will be evident enough to make such red herring distinctions unnecessary. Judging by the ridiculous questions Keith Ellison (first Muslim congressman) has faced, it may be that Muslims are the only group who arguably might face more prejudice (than atheists) in America right now if they run for or hold public office. I celebrate the election of Ellison, not just because he is a Muslim breaking barriers, but because he seems to have all the makings of an outstanding, progressive congressperson. I would likewise celebrate an atheist who had the same promise and character.

I do have one piece of advice for those wishing to advance an openly and vocally atheist candidate for public office. I suggest that the candidate should make a big deal out of articulating her (or his) value system, to make it clear to religious voters that atheism is not synonymous with a lack of values. While I know enough secular people to be well aware that a non-religious value system is quite possible--and sometimes even more deeply thought out than a religious value system inherited from tradition--I think there is still a lot of prejudice out there that equates atheism with lack of ethics, values, and a moral compass. So I do think we need someone willing to talk in values language, even if they are expressed in terms that are completely non-religious and non-theistic. (Arguably, that's how the rest of us should be articulating our values in the public sphere too, since we are in a pluralistic society!)

Anonymous said...

It’s always better to add members to a coalition and not subtract. We progressives need all the numbers we can get.

This is a point that sometimes I wonder if some progressives truly understand. As a liberal Christian, whose values are only reinforced from the teachings of Jesus in the Gospels, I am saddened by the hositilty from some progressives towards a liberal religious movement.

As to an atheist running, I understand what you are trying to say and actually agree with what you are saying. But at the same time I must agree with brent rasmussen's comment If any candidate's atheism becomes known, it will become an issue. Although I just would not have taken the tone brent did.

Contrary to that I think a closest atheist can win anywhere and has.

Matt Ortega said...

I just wanted to say that that this discussion here is quite thoughtful and thank you guys for engaging in it.

I look forward to reading this blog more often.

Anonymous said...

I'm an atheist that has built 2 homes with Mexican friends here without permission, my trees, scrubs, and grass get a chance to live beautifully by my Mexican friend here without permission, my baby's mess all over the place gets put back with help from my friend from Brazil here without permission, I pay them without sending them a 1099 at the end of the year and stand with them chanting Si Se Puede with my baby playing with theirs. I oppose both parties mostly in an inpossible independent category valueing separation of church and state and freedom of speech as no compromise issues. I don't build a concept with a group, I do it by myself while seeking outside opinion and talent. I understand dogs and cats better than primates because dogs and cats don't use words. I have porn. I watch porn. I watch girls. I think private thoughts. I believe blogs instead of news media. I think Bill Clinton is so good I would vote for Hillary just to get him back. I'm taking drugs to stay happier, control ageing pains and sufferings, leech cholesterol and lower my blood pressue. I'd smoke pot if I had any. I'm a male mom full time. I'm 20 years older than my wife. She works all the time. I change diapers. I stopped drinking tequella and cold Corona with limes. I might start again when my 2 year old goes to college. I've been left by 1 wife, ignored by 1 wife, and currently loved by one wife. My first born son is incarcerated in a mental health facility because he hit someone with a bottle and saved the bottle for evidence. My second son and I love the baby boy. I think the Poodle is the best dog and the black cat is the best cat. I never killed anyone for this country. I never got taught how to kill anyone by this country. I'm a hired professional killer by trade but I only take contracts for dogs and cats. That's most of it. Oh, and I don't know how to come up with 50 million dollars to run the campaign. Unless you get back to me, I'll assume I'm not going to be running for the office of the president of the United States of America. I cope.

Anonymous said...

As a pagan (I'm native american), I would love to see an agnostic or atheist in the whitehouse - Christianists are as dangerous to me as any smallpox infected blanket.

But it won't happen. Christianists have brainwashed their children to believe that anyone not believing in their god(s) is inherently evil. And they would crucify (heh) any such candidate.

Anonymous said...

Don't count atheism out or an atheist candidate for president. We need to organize better for this to happen but the numbers are there. We have about the same number of devotees to atheism as the evangelicals have at around 45 million people. We are on the right track and most here will admit that atheism has been front and center in the medias attention and that is good.