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.
ADDENDUM: 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.