Where Are All These Atheist Politicians?

Throughout the 2012 race Rick Santorum has tried his best to distance his campaign from his image as a vehicle for the religious right. He has scorned the media for asking questions on the culture wars, spends his days touring the Midwest to tout his plan for manufacturing, all while leaving social moralizing at the dog whistling level. But on Sunday, the old fire and brimstone Santorum was back in full force in an interview with ABC's George Stephanopoulos when the discussion turned to John F. Kennedy's 1960 speech on the separation between church and state. "What kind of country do we live that says only people of non-faith can come into the public square and make their case? That makes me throw up," Santorum said.

Paul already explained how Santorum misread Kennedy's message and Jamelle made the case for why, in a saner world, it would be enough to disqualify Santorum from being treated as a credible presidential candidate.

When I first read Santorum's comments though, I was mostly struck by how off base his statement is from the actual reality of our political class. People who lack a specific faith are the ones typically closed out from government service. Out of 538 members of Congress, California Rep. Pete Stark is the only self-avowed atheist. For as much as Republicans opine about the secularist goals of Obama's presidency, he has stocked his cabinet with Catholics and other gentiles. The highest court of the land has six Catholics and three Jews.

A Gallup poll last December had 15 percent of Americans list their religious preference as none, atheist, or agnostic, though another Gallup poll from earlier in the year found that 7 percent claim to have no belief in God. By either measure, Americans lacking allegiance to an organized religion are vastly underrepresented among public officials. Far from being ostracized as Santorum might imagine, politicians exploit religion to boost their fortunes at the polls. It's been a common sight to find Santorum or Newt Gingrich gladhanding voters at a church on Sundays during campaign season, and the party's opposition to same-sex marriage rights is couched entirely in the language of Christianity. Posturing on ones' faith is hardly the sole terrain of Republicans. Barack Obama vehemently refuted claims that he was a Muslim in 2008 and clung to the mantle of Christianity during the campaign. Earlier this month the president turned to Jesus to sell his policies on higher taxes on the rich. "I actually think that is going to make economic sense, but for me as a Christian, it also coincides with Jesus’s teaching that ‘for unto whom much is given, much shall be required," Obama said at the National Prayer Breakfast. "We can all benefit from turning to our Creator, listening to him," he said.

Conservatives act as though the secular left has removed any discussion of religion from the public sphere. But nothing could be further from the truth. Few argue that Mike Huckabee's former life as a Baptist minister disqualified him in 2008, or that Mitt Romney's past as a Mormon Bishop will sink his chances this time around. It's nigh impossible to imagine any openly atheist or agnostic candidate being granted that same level of acceptance.

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