It is said that rank has its privileges. Well, in this election cycle, it seems that religion has its privileges as well. And, as a religious person myself, I do not like it.
What I mean by religious privilege is the presumption that being a member of a Judeo-Christian faith is seen as better than having no religion or as being a non-believer. The results of this presumption are predictable: Non-believers cannot run for office as openly secular, which skews public policy on issues such as women’s reproductive rights or whether evolution is taught in school. It seems to me that politicians are competing with one another to broadcast their pious, hypocritical righteousness and their unwarranted attitude of moral or social superiority and when I hear some of the things that come out of the mouths of the current crop of presidential candidates – particularly Republican candidates – I simply want to gag.
Many of the GOP presidential candidates have made explicit or implicit claims that their Christian faith makes them better people and more qualified to be president. So, right from their own mouths, here are some of the things I have recently heard.
Speaking in Iowa at the Caucus Candidate Forum Series, former technology executive and CEO of Hewlett-Packard, Carly Fiorina, discussed the importance of her faith while insulting atheists, agnostics, and other freethinkers. Fiorina said: “I think people of genuine faith, whatever their faith is – I’m a Christian – but people of genuine faith, I believe, make better leaders. And I don’t say that with disrespect to anyone, but I’ll tell you specifically what I think faith gives a leader. I believe faith gives us empathy. A person of faith knows that no one of us is any better than any other one of us. Each of us are [sic] created by God. And that empathy permits us to see in someone’s circumstance possibilities. Faith gives us humility. Humility is really important in a leader, because it is humility that causes a leader to say, ‘Sometimes I must be restrained. Sometimes this is not something I should do. Sometimes this is something I don’t know. Sometimes I need to seek wisdom and counsel of others, perhaps, for example, the citizens of this great nation…’And finally, I of others,” perhaps, for example, the citizens of this great nation…And finally, I think faith gives us optimism. And you cannot lead effectively think faith gives us optimism. And you cannot lead effectively – which, in the end, leadership is about unlocking potential in others – you cannot lead unless you know that people will rise to the occasion. That there is a brighter future in front of us if we do the right things.”
When Fiorina says “I don’t say that with disrespect to anyone,” she is being dishonest. It is, of course, disrespectful to people without religious faith to claim that people with religious faith make better leaders.
Fiorina’s statement implies that people without religious faith are inferior to people with faith, and goes on to imply that people without faith lack empathy, humility and optimism. Such claims are obnoxious, and without substance. I wonder if she thinks atheists do not have those qualities or as much of them? Moreover, there are countless examples of deeply religious people doing horrendous things in the name of their faith. Their religion did not give them humility or empathy or optimism – maybe just the opposite. Indeed, one could easily make an argument claiming that religious faith makes one less empathetic, less humble, and less optimistic. In fact, religious faith can be a dangerous deception, and human history is replete with examples of people doing monstrous things, all in the name of some god that does not exist.
Senator Ted Cruz, appearing at the National Religious Liberties Conference in Iowa, predictably asserted that fear of God is absolutely vital, declaring that “any president who doesn’t begin every day on his knees isn’t fit to be commander-in-chief of this nation.” Really? On what does he base that statement? I can think of several of our presidents who would not agree.
A variation on that theme came from “The Donald” himself, who showed up at last year’s annual Values Voter Summit waving a Bible (his favorite book, so he claims) that he said his grandmother gave him as a boy, pointing to his name and childhood address written inside.
The real estate tycoon and reality TV star told the conservative Christian audience that he was concerned about the erosion of religious liberty in American life. “The word Christmas, I love Christmas,” Trump said. “You go to stores; you don’t see the word ‘Christmas.’ It says ‘happy holidays’ all over. I say, where’s Christmas? I tell my wife, don’t go to those stores,” he continued, as the crowd began cheering. “I want to see Christmas. You know, other people can have their holidays, but Christmas is Christmas. I want to see ‘Merry Christmas.’ Remember the expression, ‘Merry Christmas?’ You don’t see it anymore. You’re going to see it if I get elected, I can tell you that right now.” Trump did not explain how he would, as president, compel business owners to promote Christian expressions, but in his alternate universe such things will happen just because he says so.
Of course, when it comes to the holiday season, Donald Trump is duplicitous and wants to have all of his bases covered. For instance, the Christmas card the 2016 front-runner mailed to supporters used the exact “politically correct” language he has consistently railed against on the campaign trail. The bombastic billionaire’s garland-tinged card reads, “Merry Christmas & Happy Holidays. We are, together, going to make America Great Again! I Love You All, Donald J. Trump.”
Republican presidential hopeful, former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee urged Christian conservatives to vote so that those who “refuse to hear God’s heart” can be replaced by the faithful. Speaking at the 2014 Values Voter Summit, Huckabee said: “Some of you are frustrated and even upset and angry about America, and I get it. And I say to you, the answer is as simple as it is that the answer to the phones in our hearts that God is ringing. When we register people to vote, when we get them to the polls to vote, when we hire the people that will take our values to this city, and when we fire the ones who refuse to hear not only our hearts, but God’s heart.”
The suggestion that federal employees who “refuse to hear God’s heart” should be replaced by those that do “hear God’s heart” is deeply disturbing to me, and contrary to the secular values upon which this nation was founded. Indeed, the United States Constitution stipulates that no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust. And Huckabee knows that! Angry about marriage equality for gays and lesbians, Huckabee said that the Supreme Court and judicial system do not have any more authority and power than the legislative and the executive branches of government: “This nonsense that has happened where individual judges around the country have decided that they can upend the duly passed laws and constitutional limits in states that affirm natural marriage – we need to say no: judges don’t get to legislate.” Huckabee concluded his speech by saying: “That’s how we change America, my friend. Let’s make this a nation once again that unapologetically bows its knee before a holy God.” Huckabee’s “good ol’ boy” manner masks a dangerous yearning for an America that never was, and hopefully never will be – a Christian theocracy built on ignorance and religious superstition.
Republican presidential candidate Senator Marco Rubio said in an interview that “God’s rules” always win when in conflict with decisions handed down by the Supreme Court. Speaking about Obergefell v. Hodges, the Supreme Court’s same-sex marriage ruling handed down last year, Rubio told Christian Broadcasting Network host David Brody that the decision is merely “current law” as opposed to “settled law.” “No law is settled,” Rubio said. “Roe v. Wade is current law, but it doesn’t mean that we don’t continue to aspire to fix it, because we think it’s wrong.” Those who are faithful to their religion should do “everything within the law” to “fix” the laws that do not align with their religious conscience. Rubio further said: “If you live in a society where the government creates an avenue and a way for you to peacefully change the law, then you’re called to participate in that process to try to change it. But when following God’s rules comes into conflict with following the laws of the nation, God’s rules always win. In essence, if we are ever ordered by a government authority to personally violate and sin – violate God’s law and sin – if we’re ordered to stop preaching the Gospel, if we’re ordered to perform a same-sex marriage as someone presiding over it, we are called to ignore that,” Rubio declared. “We cannot abide by that because government is compelling us to sin.”
Rubio, went on to tell Brody that he continues to dissent against the Obergefell decision. “I continue to believe that marriage law should be between one man and one woman.” Rubio concluded, “And that the proper place for that to be defined is at the state level, where marriage has always been regulated – not by the Supreme Court and not by the federal government.”
And Seventh Day Adventist and retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson subscribes to a literal six-day creation of Earth and suggests Darwin’s theory of evolution was inspired by Satan “to make people believe there was no God,” questioned the motivation behind Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution, and likened the big bang theory to “fairy tales.” Carson talks about his religious beliefs regularly on the campaign trail.
I could go on, but frankly, I am one of those religious people who does not like all this God talk and find it less than helpful in our political discourse of the issues.
I suspect that there are people such as atheists and others who either do not believe in the supernatural or who simply do not subscribe to any religious dogma who feel the same way. The presumption that being religious translates into good, moral character or makes one a better leader or more presidential has an insidious subtext: Those who think otherwise are less American.
This is borne out in opinion polls. Forty percent of Americans say they would not vote for an otherwise qualified candidate for president if he were an atheist. Only socialists poll worse. (Bernie Sanders must be the exception and I suspect that atheism and socialism are unfairly conflated as a holdover from those good old “godless, Communist” days of the former Soviet Union.)
Think about what this means. People who say the Earth is six thousand years old can be elected president, while those who say they reject the supernatural and subscribe to an evidence-based view of the natural world cannot.
Openly secular people are precluded from the public policy table for no valid reason and to the detriment of rational debate on issues such as sex education, access to birth control, abortion, gay rights, faith-based initiatives, private school vouchers, whether creationism should be taught in science classrooms, climate change, and appropriate science funding.
Not a single member of Congress will call himself an atheist. Not a single one. Here again is religious privilege at play – when politicians shorthand their way to being perceived as good, trustworthy and moral by wrapping themselves in religion and piety. If the media simply pushed back, just a little, this undeserved privilege could be dispelled.
According to a recent Pew Research Report, the percentage of the United States population that identifies itself as Christian has dropped from 78.4 percent in 2007 to 70.6 percent in 2014. Evangelical, Roman Catholic, and mainline Protestant affiliations have all declined.
Meanwhile, 30 percent of Americans, ranging in ages 18-29, list “none” as their religious affiliation (the figure for all ages is about 23 percent). Nearly 40 percent of Americans who have married since 2010 report that they are in “religiously mixed” marriages, which means that many individuals who profess Christianity are in families where not everyone does.
These changes are taking place for a multiplicity of reasons: greater secular education (college degrees), multiculturalism, shifting social mores, celebrity culture, the sexual revolution (including feminism and LGBT equality), legal and constitutional changes (such as the banning of prayer in public school, and the finding of a constitutional right to same-sex marriage), the breakdown of the nuclear family, the decline of certain forms of family and group identification, and the association of religion in general with nonsensical and outdated dogmas. The Pew Report also noted that Americans are also changing religions more than in the past, and when they do so, they are more likely to move away from Christianity than toward it.
So while changes in public morals regarding women and LGBT people (and how the law treats them) are part of the overall shift, they are only one part of an immensely complicated set of factors – and I am quite certain that I have left out some of the most important ones.
The nonreligious are the fastest growing group in America, representing 22 percent of American adults and fully a third of millennials. A significant subset of that group will tell pollsters that they are either atheist or agnostic. And yet politicians – particularly Republicans – have no problem relegating them to “the other” status.
When sanctimonious piety is praised as an encompassing term to suggest positive humanist values and characteristics, it is a false equivalency and a damaging one for the millions and millions of Americans who are good without God – Fiorina, Cruz, Huckabee, Rubio, Carson, and company notwithstanding.