Philosophical and Historical Foundations of American Secularism 7 – Presidents and Religious Affiliation

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Dr. Herb Silverman is the Founder of the Secular Coalition for America, the Founder of the Secular Humanists of the Lowcountry, and the Founder of the Atheist/Humanist Alliance student group at the College of Charleston. He authored Complex variables (1975), Candidate Without a Prayer: An Autobiography of a Jewish Atheist in the Bible Belt (2012) and An Atheist Stranger in a Strange Religious Land: Selected Writings from the Bible Belt (2017). He co-authored The Fundamentals of Extremism: The Christian Right in America (2003) with Kimberley Blaker and Edward S. Buckner, Complex Variables with Applications (2007) with Saminathan Ponnusamy, and Short Reflections on Secularism (2019).

Here we talk about American freethinker, or not, presidents.

Scott Douglas Jacobsen: Over time, I have heard or more often read repeated mumblings and murmurings from some American freethinkers of the possibility of major leaders, including presidents, of the United States being closet atheists or agnostics. However, most of the former presidents lived in even more religious times than America now. In that social climate, they remained quiet because citizens – a hunk of them – vote via political affiliation in association with religion. 

If a Christian candidate, and open about it, a large sector of Americans seem to vote for them, as a Christian, as a Christian seen as a good person, and so on. How has the secular and philosophical landscape of Americans been influenced, impacted, by the voting records on religion? How many presidents, statistically, in American history were or are, probably, atheists or agnostics? What would be the fate of an open atheist or agnostic president for their political life? I recall the retort if you won the governorship, “Demand a recount!”

Dr. Herb Silverman: Religious beliefs of American presidents are difficult to determine, perhaps indeterminable. We can learn what they profess to believe and what church they attend, but I am often skeptical about what they truly believe. Let’s look at the last two presidents, Barack Obama and Donald Trump, both of whom are professed Christians.

Barack Obama had an atheist father and was raised by a secular humanist mother whose values he embraced. He used to say he was an agnostic, but he became a Christian when he ran for public office. At least Obama embraces some positive values of Christianity, like concern for immigrants and the poor, caring about your neighbor, honesty, and respect for the environment.

What Christian principles does Donald Trump embrace, unless you consider it Christian to nominate judges put forth by conservative white evangelicals? I know he disagrees with Luke 6:29: “If someone slaps you on the cheek, offer your other cheek.” I couldn’t find a biblical passage that says, “Slap him back ten times harder.” Nor does Trump follow Luke 14:1: “He who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.” Many of us wish Trump would heed Proverbs 12:15: “The way of a fool is right in his own eyes, but a wise man listens to advice.”

Trump refused to disclose his tax returns because he claims they are under audit. He added, “Maybe I get audited so much because I’m a strong Christian.” Really? How much faith does that statement require? I think Donald Trump is an atheist because I can’t picture him believing in a power higher than himself. On the other hand, Trump might think that he is a god.

Given that presidents are usually smart and thoughtful people, I would think that quite a few who called themselves Christians did not believe most of the doctrines of their faith. There are at least 18 non-Christian presidents: George Washington (Deist), John Adams (Unitarian), Thomas Jefferson (Deist), James Madison (Deist), James Monroe (Deist), John Quincy Adams (Unitarian), John Tyler (Deist), Millard Fillmore (Unitarian), Abraham Lincoln (probably Deist), William Howard Taft (Unitarian), Dwight D. Eisenhower (no church until he became president). Many Unitarians also considered themselves Deists. Unaffiliated presidents are Ulysses S. Grant, William Henry Harrison, Andrew Johnson, and Rutherford B. Hayes. Probable nonbelievers include Martin Van Buren, Zachary Taylor, and Chester A. Arthur. If you include Quakers as non-Christian (which many Christians do), we can add Herbert Hoover and Richard Nixon.

Should the religious beliefs of a politician matter? They should if the person’s religious faith interferes with the duties and oath of office. I like what John F. Kennedy, the only Catholic president, said during his campaign: “I believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute.” And Kennedy governed as if he were an atheist, which I suspect he might have been because it appeared that he did nothing more than follow certain rituals. While I would like to see President Trump impeached and convicted, I worry about his successor. It would be Christian fundamentalist VP Mike Pence. At the Republican national convention, Pence said, “I’m a Christian, a conservative, and a Republican in that order.” This sounds like he would govern by imposing some of his unconstitutional Christian values on the rest of us.

When now-Senator Jamie Raskin (D-MD) testified at a Maryland State Senate hearing in 2006 in support of gay marriage, Republican State Senator Nancy Jacobs said: “Mr. Raskin, my Bible says marriage is only between a man and a woman. What do you have to say about that?” Raskin replied: “Senator, when you took your oath of office, you placed your hand on the Bible and swore to uphold the Constitution. You did not place your hand on the Constitution and swear to uphold the Bible.”

I would much rather see a non-religious American president than a religious one, who might pledge his or her highest allegiance to religion instead of to the oath of office. Religious conviction must never interfere with the purely secular responsibilities associated with holding the highest office in America.

While politicians are reluctant to come out of the closet as atheists, there have been some non-religious gains. A Congressional Freethought Caucus was formed in 2018. This was a milestone for nonreligious Americans in our continual struggle for inclusion in the political process and recognition as a constituency. The Caucus promotes public policy formed on the basis of reason, science, and moral values. It protects the secular character of our government by adhering to the strict separation of church and state. It opposes discrimination against atheists, agnostics, humanists, seekers, religious and nonreligious persons, and champions the value of freedom of thought and conscience worldwide. The Caucus also provides a forum for members of Congress to discuss their moral frameworks, ethical values, and personal religious journeys. The Caucus started with four members, and now has twelve, with more likely to join.

For people who want to contribute financially to local and national candidates who support secular values, there is now a Freethought Equality Fund PAC, which helps increase the number of nonreligious Americans running for public office. See http://freethoughtequalityfund.net

Scientific advancement isn’t just making people question God. It’s also connecting those who question. There are many atheist, agnostic, and humanist groups, along with Internet discussion groups and Meetups. “Nones,” those with no religious affiliation, is the fastest growing “religious” group in America, especially among younger Americans. The latest survey shows that over  23 percent of Americans are “Nones,” a higher percentage than for either Catholics or evangelicals.

In August 2019, the Democratic National Committee passed a resolution acknowledging the “value, ethical soundness, and importance” of non-religious Americans. The resolution mentioned that we advocate for rational public policy based on sound science and universal humanistic values. In addition, Sarah Levin, Director of Governmental Affairs of the Secular Coalition for America, was recently elected as a Co-Chair of the DNC Interfaith Council (not representing the nonpartisan Secular Coalition). In 2020, Democrats will need all the votes they can get, and they understand that they have more to gain by embracing the growing number of secular Americans than worrying about who might complain if they do.

There have been at least seven democratically-elected world leaders who have been atheists: Julia Gillard, former Prime Minister of Australia; Alexis Tsipras, Prime Minister of Greece; Francois Hollande, President of France; Zoran Milanovic, Prime Minister of Croatia; John Key. Prime Minister of New Zealand; Elio di Rupo, former Prime Minister of Belgium; Milos Zeman, President of the Czech Republic. Perhaps in the not-too-distant future we will have an American president who is an open atheist. Skeptical? Did you really expect to see a black American president in your lifetime?

Jacobsen: Thank you for the opportunity and your time, Dr. Silverman.

Photo by Sammie Vasquez on Unsplash

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