For what is apparently the first time ever, an openly atheist candidate is running for United States Congress this fall. James Woods, an atheist Democrat, is seeking election in the Arizona 5th Congressional District, a region well known as strictly Republican. According to a CNN op-ed piece by columnist Carlos S. Moreno, Woods will be the only congressional candidate to ever run after outing himself as a non-believer.
As it turns out, under the constitutions of eight American states, atheists are banned from holding public office: Arkansas, Maryland, Mississippi, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Texas (Source: The Washington Post). More accurately, the restriction applies to those who deny the existence of, “a Supreme Being,” or “Almighty God,” the wording varies.
Regardless of whether people agree with it, such bans would seem to violate Article VI of the U.S. Constitution, which states, “no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States.” It’s probable that any related civil suit would eventually land at the feet of the United States Supreme Court which would undoubtedly have to rule these laws unconstitutional.
Even so, most atheists stay, “in the closet,” so to speak, to avoid social repercussions and public scrutiny and rarely do they attempt to run for political positions. It might be assumed that the anti-atheist rules were originally established to ensure that public servants would have a predictable moral fiber.
But, the very idea that the religious are inherently “moral,” is, in a word, ridiculous. History is full of religiously-sanctioned violations of God’s moral commandments, from centuries of open warfare to decades of child abuse. As usual, many of the devout try to pretend none of it ever happened. So, in a completely predictable act of contradiction, violations of God’s laws are fine so long as they serve a “higher purpose.”
Likewise, the moral character of a politician is supposed to be part of the reason why people choose to elect him or her to office. Sadly, a disturbing lack of morality is evident in many high-ranking politicians, who spend much of their time lying, cheating and stealing. These are the same men and women who, at some point, stood up in front of their God and everyone else and swore to their personal integrity and commitment.
Easy examples come to mind like John F. Kennedy and Bill Clinton, who were known to be serial adulterers, and it could be argued that the very definition of politician should include, “liar.” In any case, one needn’t be a Christian, nor a member of any other religion, to have a well-aligned moral compass.
Put simply, being frightened into morality by the threat of fire and brimstone only goes so far in keeping people on the straight and narrow, particularly those who crave power and believe themselves at some point to be above retribution. It seems like it would be better to have a public servant who has found his or her own moral direction rather than having it lorded over them by fear of suffering in the hereafter.
Regardless of how the devout are behaving when no one is looking, however, what Americans need to understand from all of this is that freedom from religion must be protected in order to preserve its uninhibited practice. The fine balance between freedom “from” and “of” religion is necessary to ensure every citizen can practice his or her faith openly, all while any other may enjoy none at all. It goes both ways.
Put another way, no one likes to have religious groups going door to door pedaling their ideology. So why is it alright for anyone else to do the same thing simply using more socially acceptable methods, such as being coerced into declaring a religion before qualifying for political office?
Up until now a great many public servants who have affirmed a religious affiliation and filled speeches with thanks to God for their success have managed to shame both their religion and their office with shaky morality. In the end, the most devout Christian can take the same oath as their atheist counterpart and guarantee no greater a moral platform. If history is any indicator, it might even be less.
Gery L. Deer is the editor and publisher of The Jamestown Comet.com and a syndicated independent columnist.