Election 2016

Will Bernie Sanders’ ‘Soft Atheism’ Hurt His Chances?

by Kevin Nugent/Love and Rage

Bernie Sanders has been quickly gaining on Hillary Clinton in the 2016 Democratic primary race since he announced his candidacy in May. While Sanders identifies culturally as Jewish, he recently said “I’m proud to be Jewish,” but “I’m not particularly religious.” Sanders does not gravitate toward religious justifications for public policy and does not seem concerned with winning over religious voters. He recently received a 0% rating from the Faith and Freedom Coalition, and has long advocated for policies that religious voters oppose; he has supported gay rights since the 1970’s, for example. Will his brand of “soft atheism” hurt his chances at winning the nomination and becoming president?

Most American minorities face one form of marginalization or another, whether the group in question is women, racial minorities, the LGBTQ community, or Muslims. Atheists are frequently maligned in the United States, often being accused of lacking morality, self-control or concern for others. According to a Gallup poll from 2015, a full 42% of respondents said they would not vote for a qualified atheist for president, compared to 20% for a Mormon candidate, 26% for a homosexual candidate, 27% for an evangelical Christian candidate, 40% for a Muslim candidate, and less than 10% for an African American, Hispanic, Catholic, or female candidate. In short, atheists are very, very unpopular in the United States.

Atheists experience a great deal of marginalization, most of which being soft or subtle, but yet fairly widespread. American anti-atheist sentiment most clearly manifests itself the prohibition against atheists from holding public office in at least seven states, and in some cases being barred from testifying as a witness in court, serving as a juror, or holding any civil service position. These prohibitions are written into several state constitutions; the language can be seen below:

Arkansas: Article 19, Section 1: Atheists disqualified from holding office or testifying as witness.
No person who denies the being of a God shall hold any office in the civil departments of this State, nor be competent to testify as a witness in any Court.

Maryland: Article 37:
That no religious test ought ever to be required as a qualification for any office of profit or trust in this State, other than a declaration of belief in the existence of God; nor shall the Legislature prescribe any other oath of office than the oath prescribed by this Constitution.

Mississippi: Article 14, Section 265: Denial of Supreme Being disqualification to hold office.
No person who denies the existence of a Supreme Being shall hold any office in this state.

North Carolina: Article 6, Section 8: Disqualifications for office.
The following persons shall be disqualified for office:
First, any person who shall deny the being of Almighty God.

Pennsylvania: Article 1, Section 4: Religion
No person who acknowledges the being of a God and a future state of rewards and punishments shall, on account of his religious sentiments, be disqualified to hold any office or place of trust or profit under this Commonwealth.

(Note: While this may not technically be a ban on atheists from holding office, it does grant protections to the religious that may be denied to atheists. This may be better described as religious privilege rather than discrimination against atheists)

South Carolina: Article 6, Section 2: Person Denying Existence of Supreme Being Not to Hold Office
No person who denies the existence of the Supreme Being shall hold any office under this Constitution.

South Carolina (cont.): Article 14, Section 4: Supreme Being
No person who denies the existence of a Supreme Being shall hold any office under this Constitution.

Tennessee: Article 9, Section 2:
No person who denies the being of God, or a future state of rewards and punishments, shall hold any office in the civil department of this state.

Texas: Article 1, Section 4: Religious Tests
No religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office, or public trust, in this State; nor shall any one be excluded from holding office on account of his religious sentiments, provided he acknowledge the existence of a Supreme Being.

It is difficult to imagine a state institution referring to any other minority or legally protected class in such a way in modern America, regardless of whether or not the language is actually enforced. These prohibitions have even been tested in a court of law and failed, yet remain on the books. In 1961, a bookkeeper named Roy Torcaso was denied a position as a notary public in Maryland because he was an atheist. He sued the state, and the Supreme Court ultimately decided that his religious beliefs, or lack thereof, did not disqualify him from serving as a notary. Despite the ruling, the bans are still written into the constitutions of several states, including Maryland.

In 2009, self-described “post-theist” and member of the Unitarian Universalist Church Cecil Bothwell ran for a City Council seat in Ashville, North Carolina. Opponents of Bothwell used the state’s constitution to argue that Bothwell was not eligible to serve because of his religious beliefs. Former Ashville NAACP President H.K. Edgerton said of Bothwell, “I’m not saying that Cecil Bothwell is not a good man, but if he’s an atheist, he’s not eligible to serve in public office, according to the state constitution.” Despite the attacks, Bothwell won the election and serves to this day. So, that leaves the question as to the legality and enforcement of such bans somewhat up in the air.

Some have argued that these portions of the state constitutions fall under legal desuetude, meaning that while they are still on the books, they are outdated, unenforceable, and have fallen into disuse. Even if that were the case, anti-atheist sentiment is extremely high, making it highly unlikely that open atheists can win elections, leading to a near defacto ban on atheists from serving in public office. Because of this anti-atheist sentiment, there is only one open atheist currently serving in Congress, Arizona Democrat Kyrsten Sinema. Rep. Barney Frank of Massachusetts finally felt comfortable announcing his atheism after leaving office, decades after having served as the first ever openly gay member of Congress. This suggests it may be more acceptable for politicians to be openly gay than openly non-religious, a suggestion backed-up by the Gallup poll mentioned earlier.

Polls and studies have consistently found atheists to be one of, if not the, the least trusted minorities in United States. One 2011 study performed jointly by the University of British Columbia and the University of Oregon painted a less than rosy picture of public attitudes toward atheists. In the study, called “Do You Believe in Atheists? Distrust Is Central to Anti-Atheist Prejudice,” the researchers asked participated to rate their feelings toward atheists relative to other groups. Atheists consistently scored higher in feelings of distrust and disgust than other groups, which included Christians, Muslims, Jews, homosexuals, feminists, and rapists.

The researchers hypothesized that people believe that religion is a fundamental component of morality, and without it, atheists cannot be trusted. Assistant professor of psychology at the University of Oregon Azim Shariff said of his study’s results, “”People find atheists very suspect. They don’t fear God so we should distrust them; they do not have the same moral obligations of others. This is a common refrain against atheists. People fear them as a group.”

Strong American distrust of atheists manifests itself in many ways throughout society. As previously mentioned, open atheists are much less likely to run for, or be elected to, public office. The Boy Scouts of America recently lifted their ban on homosexual troop leaders, but their ban on atheist members remains in place. Until fairly recently, it was legal for courts to require atheists to attend substance abuse counseling at Alcoholics Anonymous, despite the fact that the program requires participants to acknowledge and submit to a “higher power.”

One benefit that atheists have over other maligned groups is that one’s atheism is easily concealed and not readily apparent. It seems, however, that Sanders is content in letting the public have a peek at his general apathy toward religion. How will this affect the election in 2016, and how will voters react to hearing Sanders is not “particularly religious?” Only time will tell.

Kevin Nugent is an Oriskany, NY native who is currently teaching English with his wife in South Korea. Before that, Kevin sat on the Board of Directors for Central New York Citizens in Action, Inc. and was an adjunct professor of Government and Politics at Utica College.


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