View From Australia: In God We Trust
In their 2010 book American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us, Robert Putnam and David E. Campbell argue that the United States of America is an inherently religiously tolerant society. They invoke the "My Friend Al" and "Aunt Susan" principle, whereby Americans who have a positive experience meeting someone from outside their own religion, or have a family member of another religion, are more tolerant of broad religious diversity.
With Mitt Romney and Jon Huntsman both entering the race to be the Republican nominee for the 2012 presidential election, many political commentators are asking whether the GOP base, particularly mainstream and evangelical protestants, are religiously tolerant enough to nominate a Mormon presidential candidate. A Pew Research Centre report from June found that 25 per cent of voters would be less likely to support a Mormon candidate. This figure has dropped from 30 per cent in February 2007, suggesting that the issue may be less resonant in this primary season compared to four years ago.
The same report found that 61 per cent of voters would be less likely to support a candidate that did not believe in god. This trait was the most likely to lose a candidate support, even more than being homosexual, having had an extramarital affair in the past, or having used marijuana. Openly admitting to atheism would seem to be one of the fastest ways to derail an election campaign.
Cartoon by Bill Mutranowski
So does Putnam and Campbell’s theory of religious tolerance apply to the unreligious? Atheists are similar to other minority religious groups in that that are not highly visible in the community and are often concentrated in certain regions of the country. But beyond this, there are two other key factors that are likely to reduce the tolerance of atheism in American politics. One is the deeply embedded belief in god that Putnam and Campbell identify as serving to bind the nation together. For the more secular Australia, the common invocations of God in American political life are often jarring. To not believe in God at all is to opt out of this civil religion. Secondly, the broad prevalence of religion in the political and social spheres of America makes it difficult for atheists to openly discuss their views on religion. Admitting to no religious belief is much more difficult than admitting to a different religious belief. If the broader community is unlikely to come into contact with atheists and atheists themselves are reluctant to talk about their lack of religion, it’s hard to imagine how the My Friend Al and Aunt Susan principle would apply.
When asked on his recent speaking tour whether an atheist could be elected to the White House, Robert Putnam answered that, while someone who was quiet about their religion, or lack thereof, may be a viable Presidential candidate, he didn’t believe that an open atheist could be elected. This is plausible considering there are currently no openly atheist or “unaffiliated” members of Congress, leaving 16 per cent of the population unrepresented. (Democratic Congressman Pete Stark of California is an atheist who is a member of the Unitarian Church.)
Given the apparent antagonism towards non-believers in the political realm, it is unlikely that we will see an openly atheist Presidential nominee in the same vein as Julia Gillard, or even one with the frank agnosticism of a Bob Hawke, any time soon. Yet many within the blogosphere claim that there is already an atheist in the White House, though Obama is a churchgoer who has long identified as a Christian. If this claim of atheism is true, it could well be critical to President Obama’s political survival to stay in the closet.