LAST WEEK the vice-presidential candidates for the 2012 USA federal election appeared in a televised debate. The ABC news journalist and debate moderator, Martha Raddatz, posed the following question:
RADDATZ: I want to move on, and I want to return home for these last few questions. This debate is, indeed, historic. We have two Catholic candidates, first time, on a stage such as this. And I would like to ask you both to tell me what role your religion has played in your own personal views on abortion. Please talk about how you came to that decision. Talk about how your religion played a part in that. And, please, this is such an emotional issue for so many people in this country ….
The bit about returning home refers to the fact that much of this debate — a surprising amount for an American election — concerned the world beyond the American borders. (Mostly Iran and Afghanistan.) The presence on that stage of not one but two Roman Catholic candidates recalls the 1960 campaign, when the Democratic nominee John Kennedy felt it necessary to confront fears that as President he’d be acting on the orders of Rome. A major theme in the Kennedy campaign of that summer was the constitutional separation of church and state, which he pledged to uphold if elected.
The GOP of Paul Ryan and Rick Santorum, and of a good many other Republicans, today holds the separation of church and state in contempt. The reason, I think, can be reduced to something like the following. Until recent years Roman Catholics were, as they had been for centuries in the Anglo-American countries, a persecuted minority. The separation of church and state was instituted to protect rival faiths from a possible ascendance of a particular sect. The founding fathers knew from experience that a Baptist was endangered in a state where, for example, Congregationalists rose to political office. America was settled after all by persons fleeing religious persecution.
A few days ago I saw this headline in the news: “Rise of the atheists: U.S. Protestants lose majority status as church attendance falls.” For decades now, agnostics, atheists and “none of the above” have constituted the fastest growing ideological demographic. A generation ago, Mitt Romney’s Mormonism would probably have precluded his political career. Likewise, Protestant evangelical Christians would not have voted in substantial numbers for a Catholic candidate until recently. As the faithless category grows, however, the religious are putting aside their historical differences to confront the secularization of American society. The religious are dismayed with the decay of their long-held political and cultural power and prestige, and this dismay is now a central feature of US politics. I think this is why the separation of church and state is now under attack.
For years polls have studied American attitudes towards atheism and atheists, and you will not be surprised at being told atheists and their godless worldview have polled very poorly in the USA. In poll after poll the American people have said they would vote for a Catholic, Jewish, black, or lesbian candidate before they would vote for an atheist. Atheists have been regarded so poorly that they have finished last when ranked against all the available options. In the past few years though something appears to have taken root, and this year for the first time ever a majority of prospective voters say they would consider an atheist candidate. Knowing how attentive politicians are to polls, I find myself wondering when I will hear these delicious words from out of the mouth of an American presidential candidate:
IMAGINARY JOURNALIST: Tell me how your faith in God has shaped your values.
IMAGINARY, OPENLY ATHEIST PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I don’t believe in the Christian God, or in a god of any sort. It is possible however to have values and to be a moral person without faith in the supernatural. Humanist literature, art, science and political philosophy all have expressed, without reference to a god, our innate human sense of right and wrong, and our species’ keen sense of injustice and solidarity. While religious ideas and language are often bound up in human ethics, morality can be separated from religious belief. Not only this, but the atheist can be outraged and have her sentiments offended just as can the religious. No faith has a monopoly on goodness or conscience, and indeed the dividing up of human beings into antagonistic camps, along religious affiliations, has not inevitably led to more peace and morality and justice in our history. Quite often, the opposite has been the case. If you elect me President of the United States, I will uphold the constitution and act in an ethical matter, as human reason and compassion and human law guide me. I won’t impose atheism on anyone, and as an equal and reciprocal gesture of respect I would anticipate the American people likewise acknowledging that persons of no religious faith can be honest, hard-working, and decent. Believers and non-believers have a shared human right to live our lives in a manner of our choosing, free from persecution and libel, citizens together equal under the law. Good night, and may science and human reason bless America.
The day approaches. In the meantime, American politics is a dangerous place for ye of little faith.