Would You Vote for an Atheist for President?
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.