America: Ready to vote for an atheist?

As a scientist, I’m skeptical of public opinion polls, which depend so heavily on the wording of questions, the context of the survey, and representativeness or appropriateness of the sample, among many other factors.  Then, too, I’m always suspicious as to the extent to which one’s willingness to render an opinion on a survey translates to a particular action (for example, in the voting booth).

Those caveats made, Gallup recently asked Americans the following question:

Between now and the 2012 political conventions, there will be discussion about the qualifications of presidential candidates — their education, age, religion, race, and so on. If your party nominated a generally well-qualified person for president who happened to be ______, would you vote for that person?

The blank was then filled in by a demographic characteristic, such as a race (e.g., black) an ethnicity (Hispanic), a sex (female), a religion (Mormon), or a sexual orientation (homosexual).  This is a question that has been asked regularly by Gallup as far back as 1937, although the demographic categories tested have generally been expanded in that period of time.

Of all the categories tested, Americans were least-likely to vote for an “atheist”, all other things being equal.  That doesn’t surprise me.  What’s harder to analyze is what to make of the actual number – 54% would be willing to vote for an atheist.  That’s a number that can be (and looking around the internet, has been) spun in any number of ways.  That atheists are “worse off” than homosexuals or Muslims may surprise many people.  On the other hand, 54% constitutes a majority of those surveyed – so I have also seen this number portrayed as that an atheist could now be elected President.

That analysis is false.  Assuming that people primarily vote along party lines, being rejected by 46% of your own party’s voters would not be a recipe for election.  However, 54% is still a reasonably high figure.  Moreover, the numbers have been improving over time:

Percentage Who Would Vote for Presidential Candidate, Gallup Polls, 1937-2012

A reasonable headline indeed would be that atheists have cracked the 50% barrier for the first time in the 54-year history of the question.  Or that atheist acceptability ratings have increased by 36% since 1958.  By comparison, Barack Obama became, in 2008, the first American President elected who was black – which was 30 years after blacks cracked the 50% barrier in Gallup’s survey.  (A more cynical analysis would complain that blacks were already well above 50% in the 1978 Gallup survey.  On the other hand, a more optimistic analysis would point out that Americans voted for the very first black American who was his party’s nominee for the office.)

In fact, I suspect the pendulum is swinging in the other direction, at least partly.  Americans may not be comfortable with an atheist, but I don’t think they are comfortable with someone who is highly religious either.  At least, I imagine they are less-so than in previous decades.  Would Americans be willing to vote for a “born-again Christian” as Jimmy Carter professed to be during his presidential runs?  What do we make of the vitriol directed at President George W. Bush for his religiosity?  Would Americans be as comfortable with the Mormon Mitt Romney as they seem to be if he were more demonstrative of his faith?  (Could his reputation as a detached, aloof businessman actually be helping him here?)

There’s more of interest in Gallup’s poll.  Notice the high willingness of Americans to vote for black (96%) and Hispanic (92%) Americans, regardless of sex (female: 95%).  The willingness of Americans to vote for a homosexual is disappointingly low (68%), but the trend line of acceptability is more steeply improving than the trend line for atheists (up 42 percentage points in 34 years vs. up 36 percentage points in 54 years).  The trend for homosexual acceptance is not quite as dramatic as the trend for black acceptance, but it seems reasonable to conclude that, given that we had our first black President in 2008, a first homosexual President is not too many elections away.

Gallup also broke down these numbers by political affiliation, numbers that are also instructive:

Willingness to Vote for President of Various Backgrounds, by Political Party, June 2012

Notice that, contrary to the image Democrats try hard to portray, the willingness of Republicans to elect a black President is virtually the same as the willingness shown by Democrats (and both are virtually 100%).  Likewise, Democrats and Republicans are equally willing to elect a Hispanic, all things being equal.  In fairness, I should also point out that contrary to the image Republicans try hard to portray (that there is a growing anti-Semitism in the Democratic Party), the poll reveals that the Americans are equally willing to elect a Jewish President regardless of party affiliation.

Interestingly, Republicans are 18 percentage points more willing to elect a Mormon President than are Democrats.  One possibility is that this is merely a reaction to the fact that a Mormon is the Republican nominee this cycle.  On the other hand, a black American is the Democratic nominee this cycle, but that did not seem to affect Republican willingness to vote for a black American in line with the Gallup question.

Another possibility is that Democrats are less comfortable with someone who is deeply religious.  Mormons have a reputation for being particularly religious.  I suspect this reputation is based on fact, but I think it is also based on the fact that Mormons are a relatively small demographic, so Americans are likely to have less experience with Mormons.  We all know Catholics and Protestants who are casual about their religious beliefs; we may have less opportunity to experience this diversity of religiosity in Mormons (unless we live in Utah, Colorado, or Arizona).  Consistent with this interpretation is that the flip-side of Democrats being less willing to elect a Mormon than Republicans (by 18 percentage points) is that Republicans are less willing to elect an atheist than Democrats (by 10 percentage points).

On the other hand (how many hands am I comparing now?), there’s this: Democrats are still more likely to say they are willing to have a qualified Mormon as President (72%) than a qualified atheist (58%).  I am not surprised by this, though I wonder how many of my leftist Professor friends would be – convinced as they are that Democratic voters are universally tolerant.

What do I take home from these data?  That America is a beautiful country where its citizens judge their fellow Americans primarily as individuals and not based upon group characteristics (imagined or real).  Acceptance of others is not immediate, it is generational – but this is a reflection of human nature, not of any inherent evilness or bias embedded in our system of government.  Think of all the categories that could be added to this list.  We’ve never had an Italian American President, and Italians certainly faced deep prejudices along with other southern Europeans during the immigration wave of the late 1800s and early 1900s.  Slow acceptance of the new is a human trait.  Arguably, black Americans had the most significant and institutionalized impediments put in their way, but the Gallup poll (and Barack Obama’s successful election) suggest that our system permits the removal even of institutionalized impediments.  Our Constitution originally insisted that there be no religious test for office and made clear that the only restrictions were based on citizenship and age.  The Constitution, as amended in the mid 19th Century, granted citizenship rights to black Americans.

The obstacles faced by atheists are perhaps unique.  They are not systemic – they are purely cultural.  Acceptance of “others” requires familiarity.  Americans became more accepting of women as potential Presidential material when they gained more experience with women in leadership positions – in business, in universities, in politics.  Americans became more accepting of blacks for the same reasons, and because they saw ample evidence of black Americans defying the stupid old stereotypes – as we became aware of so many examples of hard-working black Americans, and intelligent black Americans.  Americans are becoming more accepting of homosexuals as we experience examples who again, defy stereotypes – as non-promiscuous, loving, family-oriented, and spiritual.

The path for atheists is the same – but two things hold “my people” back.  One is that unlike being black, Hispanic, female, Jewish, or even Mormon or Catholic – you usually can’t tell who is an atheist.  And so the theists don’t always get a chance to see atheists defying the stereotypes – involved in their communities, giving to charity, supporting families.  (This was the problem that motivated many gay activists to “out” or encourage voluntary outing of public figures who were homosexual – so that Americans could see examples of the diversity and humanity of homosexuals.)

But second, and to my great annoyance, many atheists who do “come out” are those that reinforce the stereotypes.  These idiots who sue school districts for having prayers before a football game, or who threaten city councils to remove crosses or nativity scenes.  Who demand that Christmas Break be renamed Winter Holiday on school calendars.  Who complain about In God We Trust on coins, or “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance.  Who rankle at graduation ceremony benedictions.  Who write books with names like “The God Delusion” and “God Is Not Great”.  When atheists portray themselves as “holier than thou” (irony intended), when they act offended at the slightest profession of faith in others, when they are disruptive forces in their communities – this doesn’t do the cause of atheist acceptance any good.  (I have the same complaint about militant homosexuals, black leaders like Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson, radical feminists, radical Muslims, and La Raza – I support and treat as equals the human beings that these organizations and movements profess to protect, which causes me to dislike the “leaders” who do their own cause so much harm.)

I think the dream of Dr. Martin Luther King has been realized – Americans do judge each other by the content of their characters.  I think they did even then, and I think Dr. King knew that.  His mission was not so much to re-educate prejudiced people as it was to remind them of their own values and provide them with examples of the content of character of so many black Americans.  (This is not to imply that vicious and evil racists didn’t exist in significant numbers, or that civil rights leaders like King didn’t need enormous amounts of courage to begin to assert those values and provide those examples.)  When atheists demonstrate the content of their characters, they will be accepted as well.  We can’t force this.  We have to be patient.  Being patient is a sign of good character.



  1. […] loved reading this blog post: America: Ready to vote for an atheist?  It wasn’t the writing, though it was welcomely ’unscientist’ but the […]

  2. Reblogged your article but I’m afraid I graded your paper 😉

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