Wednesday, 9 November 2011

"Atheist" still the dirtiest word in US politics

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As the race for the Republican nomination for the 2012 US presidential election gathers momentum, and Barack Obama continues to struggle in the face of the faltering US economy, it's tough to call who will take office in January 2013.

These are unpredictable times, but one aspect of US politics remains constant – the American public would still not accept a non-religious president. The Public Religion Research Institutes's 2011 American Values Survey, which was released yesterday, finds that 48 per cent of all voters would feel "very uncomfortable" with an atheist president, with 19 per cent feeling "somewhat uncomfortable". Only 14 per cent would be "very comfortable", with 17 per cent "somewhat comfortable". By way of contrast, 64 per cent would be either somewhat or very uncomfortable with a Muslim president.

The way in which the survey results are presented suggests that the institute wanted to gauge how the public would feel about a Mormon president (i.e. Republican front runner Mitt Romney), and in that respect the findings are also interesting. While 53 per cent of respondents said they would be somewhat or very comfortable with a Mormon president, only 42 per cent of respondents actually knew that Romney is a Mormon. Meanwhile, the finding that 49 per cent of evangelicals do not believe Mormonism to be a Christian denomination could have implications for Romney's hopes of appealing to the Republican base in his campaign for the presidency.

Overall, 67 per cent of respondents said that it is very or somewhat important for a presidential candidate to have religious beliefs, which suggests that we are unlikely to see an atheist in the Oval Office in the foreseeable future. As the Friendly Atheist notes, this is despite the fact that atheists are one of the fastest growing groups in America – in the long-term, demographics would suggest that opinions toward the idea of an atheist president will change, but in the short-term non-believers must confront the reality that "atheist" is still one of the dirtiest words in US politics.
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