It is important to make a distinction between two terms, "atheist" and "secularist." The first is a personal view based on one's deepest emotions and identity that I agree has no place in political life. Yet, "atheist" certainly is as an epithet that will generally end the political career of anyone so candid as to admit to this belief. "Secularist" on the other hand defines a government, as it can be usefully defined as an affirmation that any law, any policy, any social principle either advocated or opposed will not be based on a a truth that is seen to be revealed by a higher non human being whose word is not to be challenged.
By this definition, John F. Kennedy was a secularist in spite of his being a devout Catholic, based first on his inaugural statement, "Here on earth, God's work must surely be our own." In practice, during the Cuban Missile crisis when the fate of the world was on his shoulders, there is no report of his turning to God for advice or for assurance of his decisions.
Conversely, George W. Bush was neither an atheist or a secularist-and illustrates the extreme danger of such faith based personal beliefs becoming a part of government action, as described in detail in this article on Bob Woodwards book, "Plan of Attack," on the decision to go to war in Iraq:
Having given the order, the president walked alone around the circle behind the White House. Months later, he told Woodward: "As I walked around the circle, I prayed that our troops be safe, be protected by the Almighty. Going into this period, I was praying for strength to do the Lord's will. I'm surely not going to justify war based upon God. Understand that. Nevertheless, in my case, I pray that I be as good a messenger of his will as possible. And then, of course, I pray for forgiveness."
Did Mr. Bush ask his father for any advice? "I asked the president about this. And President Bush said, 'Well, no,' and then he got defensive about it," says Woodward. "Then he said something that really struck me. He said of his father, 'He is the wrong father to appeal to for advice. The wrong father to go to, to appeal to in terms of strength.' And then he said, 'There's a higher Father that I appeal to.'"This example of the two Presidents deciding on war or peace is telling, as it explores how the mode of thinking, atheist versus Godly, one's most personal existential religious belief-does interact with Government. This is where terminology matters, words such as faith, atheism, religious, or spiritual-all have various connotations that while often used loosely, are quite relevant in political life. By the way, "agnostic" to me simply means it's not an issue that I want to discuss)
Atheists are the most reviled group in America according to Pew research and the note below, so in the last decade only a single member of Congress has self identified as such. Since surveys show at least ten percent do claim to be atheists, in effect to be elected to public office, one must dissemble, lie about this most basic element of their identity. At the very least this imposes a unexamined entrance barrier for elected officials, that based on statistical probability a meaningful proportion must be prepared to dissemble, to lie to the voters who elect them to office. Thus cynical opportunism among the most broadly enlightened becomes a perverse condition of public service.
Skillfulness in making the case of being the most extreme believer, the strongest anti-atheist becomes a requirement for electoral success. This is more so in general for Republicans as shown in this example of the campaign speech turning the symbolic Pledge of allegiance into a personal prayer by nominee Mitt Romney reviewed here.
Last week President Obama gave a speech at the National Prayer breakfast that by his exclusion, has made clear what it means to be secular, an atheist in America. Writing about it here is a pale response, so I have been thinking about acting on my convictions, to make use of our birthright of constitutional protections and specifically California's non partisan nomination procedures. I state it here as a reminder to myself, to goad me into political action.
In this country both of our two political parties convey either passive or active hostility to our Constitutionally defined secular government. In many ways Republicans are more honest, espousing reverence for God and/or Jesus Christ explicitly in campaigns and even state party platforms. It is the Democratic party that attempts to win the votes of both those who revere and those who reject religious dogma. Obama's Prayer Breakfast speech provides a clear expostulation of his deep theological views that have so far gone un-rebutted by leaders of the Democratic party.
While supporters may dismiss the words as mere pandering politics, as someone who will never face another election this argument fails; his words must be seen as more than this. The entire speech is available here in text, and in video, for individual analysis. I will focus only on his treatment of inclusion of those with "no faith," to consider whether it was supportive of an embattled group who must conceal their ethical principles to gain elected office.
Here's the section towards the closing of his speech:
As President, sometimes I have to search for the words to console the inconsolable. Sometimes I search Scripture to determine how best to balance life as a President and as a husband and as a father. I often search for Scripture to figure out how I can be a better man as well as a better President. And I believe that we are united in these struggles. But I also believe that we are united in the knowledge of a redeeming Savior, whose grace is sufficient for the multitude of our sins, and whose love is never failing.He attempts to make a shift, to include in this speech that has stated clearly not only his relation to God but that of "we" the American people. Most striking to me was when he alluded to the event only weeks ago, "When I took the sacred oath of office." It may be sacred to him, but it is not a sacred oath of office; it is specifically and clearly a secular oath of office, with his personal coda, "so help me God," given as a man not as a president reciting the constitutional oath of office that excludes this.
He then tried to address those whom he so clearly excluded in this audience, those who were atheists, non believers, (and non-Christians) who do not get the comfort and assurance that he finds from from the Almighty.
And most of all, I know that all Americans -- men and women of different faiths and, yes, those of no faith that they can name -- are, nevertheless, joined together in common purpose, believing in something that is bigger than ourselves, and the ideals that lie at the heart of our nation’s founding -- that as a people we are bound together.Actually, we of no faith in a higher being have many names for what we do believe. Some call it humanism, meaning that the work of what other's call God must surely be made our own, and others call it a force of nature that we have no need to give a purpose to, as it just is the way things are. We do have names for this, and atheist is one of them, as it free thinker, agnostic....a whole host of them from many times and places, most specifically among those who founded our nation under the term of Deism.
We do not get comfort from a higher father who justifies a war against a middle eastern country that never did pass the test of rationality; nor would we have gotten heavenly encouragement for bombing launching pads in a small Caribbean country that probably would have led to a world wide cataclysm.
Atheists are despised for many reasons, perhaps one being because we are timid, fearful of expressing our views in a world that doesn't understand who we are. We are not out to destroy other's beliefs in higher beings or eternal life, as this Atheist concludes such thinking may even be an integral part of our humanity. We must demand our rights to to be part of the American public, to promulgate the values that only come from eschewing the illusion that such an almighty being actually does oversee human events. America must become secular, and be a beacon of such mentality to the world, while at the same time vouchsafing individual right to believe in what they desire.
This, not religiosity, is the foundation of this country.
Full article 2006, University of Minnesota on hostility towards atheists compared to other groups, Atheists As “Other”: Moral Boundaries and Cultural Membership in American Society