The Political Scarlet Letter
I will never be elected to Congress.
Now, I know what you’re thinking. At a time when the United States House of Representatives is graced by White supremacists, adulterers, crooks, and thieves, what could I possibly have done to make me ineligible for such a position? What kind of vicious secret must I be carrying that somehow makes me worse than some of the people we have now? What in my past would create such a stir on the campaign trail that no matter how successful my campaign was, would make me unelectable to one of the 435 seats in the House of Representatives? And what would be so off-putting that I wouldn’t be able to win, not even in the bluest of blue House districts?
The answer? Atheism.
Yes, dear friends. I am an atheist. A heathen as some would like to say. I do not believe in a higher power. Never have. I was never baptized, never attended church as a child. Never attended weekly Sunday services in college or as an adult. I’ve been to churches, don’t get me wrong. For weddings. For funerals. I’ve attended services to make announcements and to hear others speak. But I’ve never been a regular attendee. I’m not in the pews around Easter or Christmas. I’m not on any church roster or mailing list. If I die tomorrow, my will specifically asks that I be cremated mainly because I know no clergy will dare bless my non-believing soul.
Sure, I could have chosen to “save” myself throughout my life. But I never saw the need to be saved. Saved from what, exactly? I grew up solidly middle-class in an affluent, overwhelmingly White suburban community. I went to a top-tier private university for undergrad and received a Master’s Degree at age 24, both paid for by my parents. I worked for 7 years in public education and now have accrued 5 years in organizing work. I got into the stock market in 2009 and have been steadily building up a retirement account in the wake of the financial collapse. Despite an ailing mother, the rest of my friends and extended family have been in good health. I may be unmarried but I view that more of a reflection of taking time to become comfortable with myself rather than some sort of unlucky curse. I stand here, at age 34, in pretty good shape when all is said and done and because of this, I’ve never felt that life has gotten so burdensome, so overwhelming, that I needed the sort of spiritual reaffirmation that organized religion attempts to offer.
But I’ve also seen organized religion used as a weapon by those in power. Spending 6 years in North Carolina, there was a large Evangelical population that would weaponize their faith against those they saw as the enemy, particular against the LGBTQ community. As someone who spent his formative college years in a Southern Baptist region, I began to see just how abusive these people were toward my gay friends and it shook me to the core. So much hate for people they didn’t even know, that they chose not to know simply because they weren’t like them. Seeing other faiths as inferior because people just happened to view a deity in a slightly different way. If this was what organized religion consisted of, I wanted no part of it.
Being a student and then teacher of history only reaffirmed my views. I studied ways in which religion was weaponized over the course of 10,000 years from the earliest civilization to the modern-day. Religion was always used to maintain power and was always used in the absence of science. Ancient rulers would claim to control the weather and, in turn, would use this claim to control their people. The concept of heaven and hell were developed to justify people’s behavior in the Middle Ages and it was the sale of remittances that ultimately led to the Protestant Reformation. The Crusades was perhaps the most known Holy War, a conflict centered on the Christian-Muslim quest for power in the region, with differences in religion being a key propaganda tool as it’s always easier to justify killing "the other” rather than simply admitting your war is one giant land grab to extend your empire. As we saw in the 20th century, the idea of religious superiority became intertwined with the idea of racial superiority and this led to a world war where those whose religions were not in the majority were targeted for extermination.
But that’s not to say that religion is always bad. Throughout the centuries there have been people of faith who have and continue to do a world of good. It was Gandhi’s faith that led him to adopt the idea of nonviolent resistance against the British Empire. It was Martin Luther King Jr.’s faith that compelled him to a leadership role during the civil rights movement. It was Barack Obama’s faith in the American people, a faith he learned working in churches in the south side of Chicago, that led to his positive outlook on we the people and what we could accomplish. Faith communities today are always the first to help those impacted by natural disasters abroad and to help feed their neighbors at home. Since November of 2016 faith communities in this country have banded together to speak out against injustice and to unite to protect the most vulnerable among us. For the first time in my lifetime, there have been true interfaith coalitions that have emerged to fight for social justice and faith leaders like Dr. Rev. William Barber have ascended to become an essential voice in our current political landscape.
Knowing this, the bad and the good that religion can bring, has affirmed my commitment to atheism. I am troubled by those who weaponize their religion to harm others just as I am in awe of those who use their religion to aid the most vulnerable among us. I work among faith communities on a daily basis and see certain people discriminate against others just as I see other people compassionately reaching out in an interfaith setting to aid those who are struggling. Religion, like everything else, has its good and its bad. For me, personally, I don’t feel compelled by a higher power to help those in need. As Abraham Lincoln once said, “When I do good, I feel good. When I do bad, I feel bad. That’s my religion.”
And yet this simple life choice that I have made and all that has led me to this decision has made me unelectable. That is because there is not a single open atheist in Congress today despite 1 in 4 Americans identifying their religion as being unaffiliated. According to a December 2018 poll from Bringham Young University, that number is even higher among millennials, with 43% of them identifying as being nonreligious. While younger generations are moving away from established religion, the United States’ main governing body, Congress, does not only not represent this demographic proportionally, it doesn’t represent this demographic at all. Why is it that other groups such as LGBTQ are finally getting having their voices represented while atheists are not?
The answer lies in the history of this country and specifically how intertwined its politics and religion have always been. Despite the First Amendment to the United States constitution, religion has always played a crucial part in how we elect our leaders in this country. America was founded as a Christian nation and because of that, even the earliest politicians knew how important it was to let their White, Christian voters know that they were one of them. Over our country’s first 70+ years, there was a gradual acceptance that those in government would be people of faith, so much so that after the Civil War all new members of Congress were required to take an oath of office that concluded with the phrase, “so help me God.” During the Progressive Era, a main driving force for policies like the 18th Amendment was the idea that Christ would not come back unless our country ended its social ills of drinking and gambling. When JFK first ran for president in 1960, he had to win over Protestant leaders who were threatened by his Roman Catholicism. As recently as 2008, Barack Obama had to fend off attacks that he was a secret Muslim. Throughout all of this, the assumption has always been made that our elected officials, from the president on down, are people of strong, organized faith.
Even today, religion is weaponized against those who are non-practicing. Republicans love to blame all the country’s ills on its increasing secularism from abortion to gun violence to gang violence and everything in between. But even with inevitable Republican opposition in a general election, atheists still have to navigate a near-impossible path, even in a Democratic primary. Despite decreasing attendance numbers, faith institutions today still hold powerful sway in the country’s political landscape and for any candidate to win, whether its a rural or urban district, he or she will have to engage local clergy and ask for their support. Asking a person of faith to support a nonbeliever is a Herculean task, and is one that is an uphill battle from the getgo. Even with a written First Amendment, the truth is that faith communities can and do get involved in politics. They might not preach it from the pulpit every Sunday but behind the scenes, many faith leaders have ways to influence local and congressional elections and they will go to bat for their candidate of choice.
At the end of the day, atheists in America may be an emerging demographic but they continue to lack political power. This is by design in a system created to play toward maintaining power via the political process. Despite atheists’ good intentions to become involved in social justice and potentially run for office, the truth is that there are barriers in place to make a run for higher office nearly impossible. Not having the built-in organization that traditional faith institutions have, atheists don’t have a way to overcome these barriers to counter the support that candidates of faith would inevitably have. Combined with a historical narrative that challenges their motives as well as a Republican party hellbent on demonizing them and atheists face a public relations challenge to beat back stereotypes and myths about who they are as people simply based on their religious affiliation. Atheists may never have to live with open discrimination that other religious minority groups have faced in this country but they still have a long way to go before they are able to enter into the halls of power in the United States Congress.
And until that day arrives, they will continue to be marked in a way that all but precludes them from fully participating in our American democracy.
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