Opinion: Don’t believe in God? Don’t bother to run for president

Americans would be less likely to vote for an atheist than they would for an adulterer or a pot-smoker, a Pew Reserach Center study finds.
(Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)

As an atheist, it’s a pretty sure bet I won’t get into heaven (which doesn’t matter since, well, I don’t believe it exists). But it also looks like I couldn’t get elected president either.

According to a recent Pew Research Center survey, more than half of Americans reported they would be less likely to vote for an atheist running for political office than for a believer. In fact, they preferred pot smokers and adulterers over atheists, which makes the study a little hard to dissect. Does that mean not believing in sin is worse than sinning?

At the same time, nearly the same percentage said they would be less likely to back a candidate who had never held office before. As someone who couldn’t win an election in his own house, that’s a second strike against my electoral chances. Oh, and military service was the top factor in winning someone’s likely vote (43%). We’ll just count that as a third strike — no military background — and I’ll declare right now my noncandidacy for the presidency. Which isn’t all that disappointing. The gig comes with a nice house, but the hours stink, everybody blames you for everything, and you have to wear a suit. Deal breaker.


More seriously, though, the poll found interesting shifts over some of the 16 factors it measured. In the “wouldn’t matter” category, two-thirds of those surveyed wouldn’t care if a candidate was gay (though it’s one thing to say that in a survey, and something else to pull the lever). While 27% said that they would be less likely to vote for a gay or lesbian candidate, during a similar survey seven years ago, 46% said a gay or lesbian candidate would be less likely to get their support. That’s a significant, and welcome, shift in attitudes.

Among other fine details, some 70% said it wouldn’t matter if a candidate had smoked pot, and 71% said a candidate’s gender was irrelevant to them. While 60% said they wouldn’t care if a candidate was an adulterer, 35% said that would make them less likely to vote for someone. Yet 2% said they would be more likely to vote for a philanderer, which means the cheap-motel-at-lunchtime crowd isn’t a significant voting bloc. By comparison, a high number of respondents, 5%, said they would be more likely to vote for an atheist, so we’ve got that going for us — we’re more popular than trysters.

I encourage you to go poke around the survey, but first one more point about religion. Atheists are out, but there’s a striking difference in support for Catholics versus evangelical Protestants (interestingly, Pew didn’t poll on Jews, Muslims or other faiths). Among those surveyed, 21% said they would be more likely to vote for an evangelical Protestant, 17% less likely, and for 58% it wouldn’t matter. But 9% said they would be more likely to vote for a Catholic, 8% said it would make it less likely they’d support the candidate — but 81% said it wouldn’t matter.

So more than half a century after John F. Kennedy’s religion was a big question mark in whether he could win the White House, these days being an evangelical Protestant is more politically divisive than being a Catholic.