By Evan Williams
In nearly every cheesy political drama, there is a charismatic individual who, after much contemplation and, sometimes, a traumatic event, decides to run for office. When they do so, it seems like a team of public relations specialists appear from thin air, prodding said private-citizen-turned-public-figure with questions. The first is obvious: do you have any scandals, any skeletons in your closet? The second, however, is less obvious, and implies an expectation of a candidate. That question is “Are you religious?”
As far back as memory (and google) can serve, just about every major US politician has been religiously affiliated. According to a 2017 Huffington Post article, there are no open atheists in Congress, and only one member who claims to be religiously unaffiliated. But why? Is it just that a majority-religious electorate (approximately 75% according to Pew Research Forum) mandates that their leadership be affiliated too? As Americans, we live under the assumption that freedom of religion is a societal pillar, but does that include freedom to be religion-less?
This author posits that there is an implicit expectation that religion is correlative to morality, and therefore is required in order to effectively lead. However, the problem is that explicit barriers still exist in our institutions, hindering the non-religious in governmental pursuits. In Arkansas, Maryland, Mississippi, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Texas, there are still laws on the books which prohibit atheists from holding office. The argument may certainly be made that these laws are archaic, have rarely, if ever, been used, and if they were to be used, would quickly be stricken down. However, they remain on the books. It’s like if a law existed in eight states which stated: “Any citizen, regardless of race or creed, who utters forth the word ‘flibbertigibbet’ on a Tuesday is subject to legal action, up to and including house arrest each Tuesday following.” It’s ridiculous, difficult to enforce, and it flies in the face of the first amendment, but if it were on the books, no one would dare say flibbertigibbet on a Tuesday. That’s a shame, as flibbertigibbet is an abundantly applicable word, and has merit. Likewise, even though the law against atheists holding office in the aforementioned eight states is outdated and dusty with lack of use, who would dare to risk opposing it?
The foundation of our nation is predicated on choice—on the notion that no matter who you are, where you come from, or what you believe, you have every right to be in the room. Can we as a nation truly espouse such beliefs, truly claim to promote such equity if part of our union still holds institutional religious biases? The answer is no. Morality is not dictated by religious affiliation, nor is leadership capability. It’s long past time for our charismatic newly-announced candidate to feel comfortable looking at their Head of PR and answering “No, I’m not religious.” It’s time we be able to openly and proudly say flibbertigibbet as the Midterm elections draw ever nearer.
Evan Williams graduated John Burroughs High School in May 2018