Can a Candidate Be Too Religious?

Though it's rarely said, Americans are uneasy with religious politicians.

Posted Jan 26, 2012

When Rick Santorum did surprisingly well in the Iowa caucuses on January 3, many Americans started taking a serious look at his views. One revelation that quickly came to light was that the former Pennsylvania senator, a devout Catholic, takes his religion very seriously. In fact, via news accounts appearing immediately after the Iowa caucuses, many Americans learned that Santorum, like his church, is highly critical of birth control and believes that nonprocreative sex is wrong.

This makes Santorum more Catholic than the typical American Catholic. Although the Vatican considers contraception not just a sin, but a mortal sin, most American Catholics, preferring to cherry-pick from the moral standards of their church, simply don't accept such religious dictates. They may identify as Catholic, but they'll use condoms and/or the pill, and they'll even get a vasectomy or tubal ligation once they've decided they've had enough kids.

Interestingly, since Santorum's views have come to light, he has lagged in the polls. This raises a point that is rarely acknowledged in American politics: despite what we hear in the media about America being a deeply religious country, Americans don't really want their candidates to be too religious. The common exaltation of religion in the public dialogue is a gross overstatement, as the average American is more likely to prefer a candidate who accepts modern standards, not biblical standards, of morality and sexuality.

Nevertheless, despite holding views that are essentially secular and modernistic, many Americans are still reluctant to vote for a candidate who is openly secular, who publicly identifies as atheist, agnostic, or secular humanist. They prefer a candidate who accepts traditional religion publicly, but they don't want that person to take that religion too seriously.

The failed candidacies of Rick Perry and Michele Bachmann are further evidence of this. While poor debate performances and other missteps no doubt contributed to the doom of their campaigns, the fact that they each dwell on the fundamentalist fringe of religion certainly scared some voters away. Future constituents get a bit uneasy when a would-be leader of the free world rejects evolution and hangs out with young-earth creationists, many of whom optimistically await Armageddon.

This unease about religiosity is not new. John F. Kennedy's famous religion speech in 1960 can be paraphrased as follows:  "My fellow Americans: Don't worry, I'm not that religious!" In the speech, Kennedy assured America that, despite his Catholicism, he would not take orders from Rome and that he believed in "absolute" separation of church and state. This speech has been criticized recently by some on the Religious Right, and in fact some religious conservatives today like to deny that the concept of church-state separation is valid, but mainstream Americans appreciate the basic point JFK was making. They may want their leaders to go to church, but they really don't want them to be too religious.

This should be seen as reason for optimism. Since Americans really do want leaders who embrace forward-looking, secular values that enable ordinary citizens to live in health and prosperity based on our modern understanding of the world, those who are personally secular should be able to succeed in the public realm. The only real obstacle is the incorrect perception that a candidate who is personally secular is unfit for office. As secular identity becomes more common, especially among younger people, this obstacle should be overcome.

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