Would You Vote for an Atheist for President?

 In Conference, Culture, Faith, Fred's Blog, Politics, Theology

At a dinner this week I was asked the question, “Would you vote for an atheist for President?” In the past that would have been rhetorical as I have yet to meet an atheist running for political office so have never thought about the notion of how that might affect their decisions.

Of course, we’ve had brushes in the not-too-distant past with well-intentioned evangelicals deeply worried about electing John Kennedy as a Catholic President. More recently, Dr. Ben Carson, a Seventh Day Adventist, has been criticized for doubting a Muslim could serve as President because their theology and worldview would be incompatible with the principles of a democracy.

Catholic, Mormon and Muslim beliefs and practices have presented a threat to many who see America as having been formed by Protestant Christian founders, and those founders could not have foreseen the varieties of religion from their limited experience. In other words, the label “Protestant” was pretty much all that was needed to pass the litmus test of eligibility, and the main issue would have been what kind of Protestant would be holding the office.

While I doubt many of us could distinguish between the diverse theologies and worldviews of Protestant believers, we have always assumed there is very little in Protestant theology that could undermine or threaten the security of the nation.

Many good people believe there is something magical about electing a Christian—even including Catholics now—to public office. Not only would they be more likely to hold to our general beliefs about the role of government, social issues and economics, there is also the likelihood of an added benefit of supernatural wisdom, discernment and enhanced influence. This is part of the reason many people are saying Donald Trump is “Christian enough” because he has affirmed the aspirations and general frustrations of those who feel dispossessed. He may not be truly “born again” or even repentant, but many of the ideas that represent a strong “Christian nation” recur time and again in his language.

In her New York Times article this week, Molly Worthen reports, “‘We don’t see ourselves as a cultural majority,’ Russell Moore, the president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, told me. ‘Change doesn’t come from a position of power, but a position of witness.’ Dr. Moore assured me that when he brings this message to churches around the country, ‘most are responding well because they see what’s happening in the culture.’ But he is disappointed that so many evangelicals favor Mr. Trump. How do you convince evangelicals to temper their political ambitions? You teach them to rethink their own identity. ‘Our end goal is not a Christian America, either of the made-up past or the hoped-for future,’ Dr. Moore writes in Onward, his manifesto for the moral minority. ‘Our end goal is the kingdom of Christ.’ He and his allies are trying to persuade evangelicals that the Gospel thrives when being a Christian is a difficult, countercultural position.”

That said, back to the question of whether I would vote for an atheist. I think my answer is likely to be this: Yes, if I was convinced that the candidate possessed what our country’s founders called virtue.

What is virtue and why is it different from theology or religious belief?

Essentially, virtue is moral courage. For our founders, virtue was the whole point of religion. Religion that did not produce virtue was useless. Whether you follow the Roman, Greek or Confucian definitions of virtue you come to the same conclusion. Virtue is the core value of character. It is judgment, discernment, honesty, integrity, right motives and concern for the welfare of others. Time and again the founders stressed the importance of virtue over theology or particular religious beliefs.

George Washington said, “Virtue or morality is a necessary spring of popular government.”

Benjamin Franklin said, “Only a virtuous people are capable of freedom.”

John Adams stated it this way, “Public virtue cannot exist in a Nation without private Virtue, and public Virtue is the only Foundation of Republics.

James Madison said, “To suppose that any form of government will secure liberty or happiness without any virtue in the people, is a chimerical idea.”

Thomas Jefferson wrote, “No government can continue good but under the control of the people; and … their minds are to be informed by education what is right and what wrong; to be encouraged in habits of virtue and to be deterred from those of vice … These are the inculcations necessary to render the people a sure basis for the structure and order of government.”

We need not be a so-called Christian nation or vote only for Christian candidates or even hope to return America to some “made up past or hoped for future.” Instead, I would say we would be better to vote for men and women that would pass the test of virtue and character— regardless of their religious beliefs.

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Showing 24 comments
  • Avatar
    Nancy Crawford
    Reply

    Thanks Fred for words of reason in the midst of all the craziness of the upcoming presidential election. I hope hundreds of thousands of people read it.

    • Fred Smith
      Fred Smith
      Reply

      Well, I have mixed feelings about “hundreds of thousands” of people reading it, for sure. Sometimes instead the more the merrier it is the more the scarier! Still, I do hope it makes sense and is not seen as endorsing atheism per se.

  • Avatar
    Marion Wells
    Reply

    Bravo Fred! I only wish more people thought this way. It is what is in our heart and soul and our integrity and moral fiber that qualify us. Not the label we wear or the religious beliefs we espouse. God knows the difference! It is time we did!

    • Fred Smith
      Fred Smith
      Reply

      Thank you, Marion. Frankly, I was expecting a bit of blowback on this one but so far so good. I did have one person write and say I was hopelessly naive about the political process and the way things work in real life. Of course, he was right!

  • Avatar
    Steve Tiemann
    Reply

    Strongly, strongly disagree…will try to sit down and write a proper response.

    • Fred Smith
      Fred Smith
      Reply

      Steve, this is an open forum so we welcome all comments. I’ll look forward to hearing from you.

    • Avatar
      Dorothy Echodu
      Reply

      Steve, I’d love to hear your response, and I hope you do write it.

      I loved this post, and forwarded it to non-Christian friends as an explanation of why, on the democratic side, I prefer Bernie Sanders (a secular Jew) to HRC (by all accounts a devout Christian and member of The Fellowship). That said, I’m not sure I could vote for either, because of their stands on certain issues– so I’m not sure what practical relevance my “preference” has. I prefer to listen to someone who seems authentic, and authenticity in the political arena is a product of moral courage. But oh, how I wish that moral courage were directed consistently towards the things of God…

  • Avatar
    Michele
    Reply

    How very sane of you as we live in these interesting times.

    • Fred Smith
      Fred Smith
      Reply

      Thank you, Michele. As I told Nancy Crawford, you never know how people will react. In some ways, it’s probably true that there can be no long lasting virtue without religion – and a transcendent theistic religion at that. Otherwise, our reference point is always ourselves and that is inconstant at best. It’s a dangerous thing to give up the knowledge of God and exchange the truth of God for a lie. However, I think the founders were not thinking about atheists (or many other religions) when they wrote what they did.

  • Avatar
    Howard Freeman
    Reply

    Before I was a Christian, I voted for a secular Jewish man for the U.S. Congress (Bill Green) and, as a Christian, would vote for him — or a number of other people who don’t call themselves “Christian” — for president.

    First, calling yourself a “Christian” doesn’t mean diddly squat. (“Many on that day will say to me ‘LORD, LORD.’…”) Acting like one counts for a whole lot. Green and others I’ve watched over the years show that voting for someone who embodies and can effectively govern with Judeo-Christian values at her/his core can be a wise choice. Common grace. The Bible has plenty of examples of leaders whose proclamation of faith was distant from following “the LORD” but who acted that way instead and, in fact, through their actions and interactions with people of faith even came to a saving faith themselves.

    As a side note, my two cents’ on why many white evangelicals are enamored of Trump springs from anger and envy at the attention that President Obama is showering on so many who are not white or evangelical. We feel entitled. And our “way of life” (the expanding reservoir holding our entitlements) feels threatened by “illegals.”

    All to say, I would vote for an atheist who clearly demonstrates Christian attitude and behavior before I voted for a self-proclaimed theist who evidences no “fruit of the Spirit.”

    • Fred Smith
      Fred Smith
      Reply

      Thank you, Howard. I wrote a little about this in a previous blog. Erik Erikson put it so well. “Ideological leaders, so it seems, are subject to excessive fears which they can master only by reshaping the thoughts of their contemporaries; while those contemporaries are always glad to have their thoughts shaped by those who so desperately care to do so. Born leaders seem to fear only more consciously what in some form everybody fears in the depths of his inner life; and they convincingly have an answer.”

    • Avatar
      Steven Rogers
      Reply

      Well said, Howard.

    • Avatar
      Joycelyne Fadojutimi
      Reply

      Thank You very Much. Well Said.

  • Avatar
    Sybil Walker
    Reply

    Years ago, Dr. Richard Lamb said something in the same vein, and it has informed my voting decisions ever since. “We should vote for people who have a biblical worldview.”

    • Fred Smith
      Fred Smith
      Reply

      Dear Sybil – The difficulty comes when we have differing biblical worldviews. Some believe Christians should be deeply engaged in politics and others believe it is irredeemable and we are to be separate and “come out from among them.” There are many other differences in something that sounds clear but gets so complicated!

  • Avatar
    Melissa
    Reply

    Excellent post. I couldn’t agree more. I find it distressing that so many people believe that in order for someone to have integrity and a passion for service they must be religious (specifically Christian).

    • Fred Smith
      Fred Smith
      Reply

      Thank you, Melissa. I grew up believing it was only Baptists who had integrity and the Methodists, Presbyterians, and Episcopalians were cults with strange practices and not much for ethics. It’s only taken me half a life-time to sort that out!

  • Avatar
    Tim
    Reply

    Well said my friend, well said.

  • Avatar
    George Hiller, Sr.
    Reply

    In George Washington’s 1796 farewell address, which was written by Alexander Hamilton, but revised by George Washington, he stated in part:

    “Of all the dispositions and habits, which lead to political prosperity, Religion and Morality are indispensable supports. … And let us simply be asked, Where is the security for property, for reputation, for life, if the sense of religious obligation desert the oaths, which are the instruments of investigation in Courts of Justice? And let us with caution indulge the supposition, that morality can be maintained without religion.”

    I have meetings in two weeks with Donald Trump and Dr. Ben Carson participating in an event in the Washington DC area. I have reviewed professions of Christian faith by both Donald Trump and Dr. Ben Carson. They are currently the two top GOP candidates in the polls with Carly Fiorina (who I have met with twice) also polling well and also professing Christian faith.

    • Fred Smith
      Fred Smith
      Reply

      George – I agree that “religion” is the single best source of virtue (except extremists of all sorts) and I really don’t think we are close to having to choose between an atheist and a theist for President. However, there are so many “practical atheists” out there who have religion but little virtue.

  • Avatar
    Doug Stepelton
    Reply

    Fred – One would hope we’d never have an adversarial atheist in the Oval office and this blog discussion has so many parts I hardly know where to start except to say that our last sermon in church was about an increasingly fallen and tolerant culture in this day and time where God has become neutralized. Of course if two atheist were running you’d pick the one that has more “virtue” -however how you’d figure that out might be difficult? If the candidate didn’t know God you’d hope he would grow in that area and stick to God’s principals of love ….but wisdom might be another problem. Proverbs 25:19 reads “Confidence in an unfaithful man in time of trouble is like a bad tooth and a foot out of joint.” My personal favorite is 1Corinthians 1:25 which we see played over and over in real life…. ” For the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength.” Let’s be careful about our off the cuff adulation of a virtuous atheist and pray for God’s BEST. This is what we all work for at The Gathering in our Christian Foundations!

    • Fred Smith
      Fred Smith
      Reply

      Doug – As I mentioned earlier, I taught on Romans 1 yesterday and I think we are not far from “exchanging the truth of God” for a lie and doing away with all knowledge of God. In time, we will probably have to choose between two kinds of atheists – Republican and Democrat!

  • Avatar
    Johnny
    Reply

    Thank you. Very well reasoned.

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