Why America Needs an Atheist for President

I am a devout Christian and a pastor; I hope that our next president is an atheist.

According to a recent Gallup poll, 58% of Americans would vote for an atheist candidate, a huge jump over the past 20 years. A third of Millennials identify as “spiritual, but not religious,” and traditional religious communities like the one I lead are happy to get 70 people on a Sunday. Times are a’changing, and while some in the Church are terrified, I think it is a good thing for both our country and the faith tradition I follow. Religion as we know it is dying rapidly.

Although I consider myself to be a civically-minded person, my desire for an atheist president does not result from policy considerations or morality. I don’t believe that an atheist is inherently better than a Christian, or to expand the definition, that a person without a faith tradition is somehow superior to those who embrace a spiritual life. I simply believe that Christianity—and a specific kind of Christianity—has for too long had a stranglehold on American politics. We can really trace the roots back to Nixon’s famous dog whistle, “the silent majority of Americans” who pay their taxes and would never dream of protesting an illegal war or think about turning off, tuning in, and dropping out. The Moral Majority—which backed as their first candidate Democrat and Evangelical Christian, Jimmy Carter—soon mobilized an army of Christians who defined their faith less by the contents of the Bible and more by the platform of the conservatives within the Republican Party. By the time candidate George W. Bush ran for president, operatives like Karl Rove had figured out how to court the Evangelical vote through wedge issues like abortion and gay marriage. Christianity was about policy, not faith.

Despite the cries of conspiracy theorists who hold cognitively dissonant beliefs (such as President Obama is both a Muslim and an atheist), our current president is a Progressive Christian. He belongs to my home denomination of the United Church of Christ (UCC). To be sure, those who question Obama’s faith do so largely because of racial and cultural issues, but it is also because within Evangelical circles, liberal denominations like the UCC and the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) are seen as suspect, as not authentically Christian because we allow for the freedom of scriptural interpretation and the use of metaphorical hermeneutics. We do no hold to the idea that “God wrote it, I believe it, that settles it,” but rather embrace a more nuanced and, yes, messy version of Christianity that contains a lot of grey areas. Christians like me are not be acceptable to the Evangelical Right becausewe are completely comfortable with avowed atheists worshiping with the congregation each week. To wit, I do not see it as my duty to “win souls” for God. I believe it is my job to help facilitate, using Christian language, traditions, and confessions, a worship experience that can be meaningful and significant for everyone, regardless of their belief systems.

So I hope that this country can begin to break the stranglehold that a particular type of Christianity has on American politics. I believe it would be beneficial to both the Church and the State. I think a number of people stay away from the Church because they believe it is too political, and I think an even greater number of people resent the role that politics have come to play within religious communities. Anyone who knows me even in a cursory manner will have no problem determining my politics, but I try to keep them out of the pulpit, just like I try to keep the pulpit out of the voting booth. While there are certainly dogmatic atheists who believe that persons of faith are deluded and have surrendered their capacity for reason in exchange for hokum, most atheists are persons who acknowledge that we all take leaps of faith, to one degree or another, when we postulate about metaphysics and ontology, when we dare speak about the origins of existence and what lies after death. We don’t know, but we’ve formulated languages—whether they utilize alphabets or numerals—to investigate, ponder, and dream. I don’t see anti-religious atheism as having a stranglehold on American politics, so I regard it as our best hope to begin the stripping away of privilege given to Evangelical Christianity. Of course I would love to see a non-Christian religious person ascend to the highest office, but perhaps it will take a person of no religious affiliation serving as president before we can dissemble the litmus tests that plague our politics.