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February 18, 2007

So What if Mitt Wants A Person of Faith as President?

There's a bit of a furor that Mitt Romney declared:

We need to have a person of fiath lead the country.

So what? I disagree with the statement, but it's no different in kind from someone saying they support Obama because they think we need a person of color as President, or saying they support Clinton because it's high time a woman was President. There's no violation of the Constitution for VOTERS to vote their religious beliefs, just as ethnic and racial solidarity has been common in elections without violating the 14th Amendment.

And at some level, why shouldn't a person's religious beliefs be relevant?

Atrios raises the adsurdum fear that we'll be asking whether a person is a "a member of the Reformed Baptist Church of God, Reformation of 1915", but that's actually more relevant than the vague question of whether they are a "Christian." Folks who share a denomination, especially if it's a tightly knit community, do share a host of values that are often relevant to how they will act in a range of policy areas.

I'll freely admit that if someone is a United Church of Christ member, I generally will trust their likely public policy instincts more than if they are a Mormon or a traditional Southern Baptist, as opposed to the more liberal Baptist denominations which I trust more. And I have a certain degree of comfort with Catholic politicians who are generally more pro-labor than non-Catholic politicians.

Now, polls show a tremendous bias against atheists. Some of this is just religious bias but another part is this-- if a politician is atheist, what does does that really tell you about what they believe? Not actually a lot. Ayn Rand was an atheist, as was Karl Marx, and I think part of the bias against athetists is that people just then lack a short-hand sense of what the politician's belief system is grounded in.

The challenge for any atheistic politician is to clearly annunicate what their belief system is and the likely policies that will flow from that belief system. It's a tough challenge in a 90% Christian country that understands and is comfortable with the variations of Christian belief-- and will even throw in the Jews occasionally into that comfort zone -- but just doesn't have a short-hand heuristic when you leave that comfort zone. Which is why most politicians retreat to the "person of faith" mantra since it evokes that comfort level for voters.

It sure doesn't end the debate over beliefs, as Obama's Church of Christ anti-poverty rhetoric wars with radical Christian Right rhetoric, but it's a field of debate that many voters are just more comfortable with.

I think it's a profound mistake for atheists to demand that such religious debates be taken out of the public sphere, since they will never be taken out of voters' minds. Instead, us progressive atheists should be engaging in that faith-based discussion more vigorously, laying out our belief systems and helping make voters comfortable with our viewpoint as part of the menu of "religious" options, not in order to convert them but just to integrate it into the terrain of debate that people are more familiar with.

Otherwise, atheism will just remain the unspoken Other, which voters will inherently (and rightly) distrust because they just won't know what it means personally to the politician involved. So I'm all for a religion in public life debate -- and I'm prepared to argue for why progressive atheism leads to the kinds of public policy voters should want. But if we don't make the case, we can't expect Christian voters to want anything other than what they are familiar with.

Posted by Nathan at February 18, 2007 01:46 PM