Atheist politicians are still technically illegal in 7 states? Should we be worried?
While laws remain in effect in a number of US states to guard against such old terrors as “blasphemy” and atheist politicians, apologists today view their existence as inconsequential because the Supreme Court of United States has long declared them unconstitutional.
But the are consequences, important, wrote Kristina M. Lee, a doctoral candidate in rhetoric (the arts of persuasion) at Colorado State University, in a thought-provoking essay reprinted this month by Religious News Service – “Why is it important that 7 states still have bans on atheists to hold office.
American politicians have shown little interest in changing any of these outdated laws in state constitutions, let alone removing them. Lee quotes Todd Stiefel, an atheist activist, who wrote:
“If it were written in the books that Jews could not hold public office, or that African Americans or women could not vote, it would be obvious. You would have politicians breaking down trying to get it repealed. Even if it was still unenforceable, it would still be shameful and would be removed. So why [atheists] different?”
Lee also bemoans what she calls “theistic normativity,” a term she uses to represent the idea of ”the normalization of belief in God as related to good and moral citizenship.” It is an alley of Christian privilege in America – Christian because it is still the dominant religion in the nation. Lee argues that,
“For many Americans, belief in God and Americanism have become synonymous. A 2015 survey found that 69% of those polled believed it was important to believe in God to be “truly American.” And Americans are supposed to adopt national slogans such as “In God we trust” and “a nation, under God”. Politicians are regularly invited to participate in public prayers to God before official meetings. And while they may ask otherwise, the default assumption is that Americans will take an oath to God when they take public office or testify in court.
“Although there is no ban on being an atheist in the United States, atheists have long been presented as non-Americans. When Democratic Representative Louis Rabaut proposed adding “under God” to the pledge of allegiance in 1954, he argued that an “American atheist” is a “contradiction in terms”.
This is the backstory of anti-atheism in America and some disturbing consequences, such as the normalization of God’s promoting signs in schools across the country, with the encouragement of the Supreme Court.
Other consequences, perhaps more mundane but still important, according to Lee, include the difficulty for political candidates to throw their hats in the ring of local and national elections, and a multitude of other cultural obstacles. Writes Lee:
“This anti-atheism extends beyond politics. Atheists are discriminated against in the workplace and hiring practices. Parents who are religious often have an advantage in custody cases. Even though atheists are no more likely to commit crimes than theists, stereotypes surrounding atheist crime and unreliability persist. In court, atheist rape victims are less likely to be believed than Christian or religiously ambiguous victims.
Indeed, although public antipathy towards atheists has eased somewhat in recent years, polls indicate that, despite everything, only 60% of Americans today to consider vote for one. But it’s a little better than the most vilified subgroup, the “socialists,” for whom just under half of Americans would consider pulling a lever in the voting booth.
Lee reports that while “4% of Americans identify as atheists and about 23% identify themselves more broadly as non-religious,” research suggests that in fact “up to 1 in 4 Americans are atheists, but most are unwilling to reveal it, even anonymously. polls.”
Such is the social power of stigma, even in Congress, where publicly self-identified atheists are about as rare as hen’s teeth.
In 2014, the American Humanist Association claimed that “24 members of Congress said privately that they did not believe in God but would deny him if they were unmasked,” Lee wrote.
In a 2021 survey of the religious identity of members of Congress, Lee reports that in the US Senate, only Senator Kyrsten Sinema (R-Arizona) identified himself as “without religious affiliation,” while 18 other members have refused to answer the question or responded “don’t know. In the US House, only Representative Jared Huffman (D-California) is the only openly non-theistic member of Congress (but describes himself as non-religious, not atheist) and 13 other members (including a Republican) refused to answer the question.
You can see how the elected officials are still loath to touch this third rail of American politics: the word “atheist”.
This is why it is of great concern that state laws and constitutions prohibit blasphemy and atheist political candidates, although the Supreme Court ruled them unconstitutional long ago.
Their consequences, at least in theory (and if a strong theocratic movement emerges), remain viable. And the mere fact that they are there and that lawmakers routinely back down from anything that is not religious contributes to the so-called theistic normativity of atheistic demonization in society.
Americans must be disillusioned with these fraudulent notions that have been in vogue for years among conservatives and remain strong in the United States the times.
The point is that once these pernicious ideas are enshrined in law – as “under God” arbitrarily added to the oath of allegiance – they are hell to quash and become a familiar part of the political landscape.
This is exactly the intention of the promoters.