Wednesday, November 9, 2011

How Important Is A President's Religion?

I heard yesterday on the radio that 40% (not 45% as I originally noted) of Americans would be uncomfortable with a Mormon as president.  I finally found the original source for this information, at the website of the Public Religion Research Institute, a non-partisan, non-profit organization in DC. 
South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley with Sarah Palin

 Here are some of their very interesting results from their recent survey.

First of all, 67% of voters say that it is important for a presidential candidate to have "strong religious beliefs".  Not only Republicans (78%) thought so, but also Democrats (66%) and Independents (58%).

Second, it is no surprise therefore that 67% of voters would be "uncomfortable" with an atheist serving as President.

Third, when looking at specific forms of religious belief, the survey found that non-Christian religions were at a significant disadvantage, particularly Muslims.  64% of American voters would be uncomfortable with a Muslim as President.

Fourth, about 42% of American voters would be uncomfortable with having a Mormon as a President.  Even 28% of voters would be uncomfortable having an evangelical Christian as President.

So, what does all of this mean?

It means that, despite the fact that we, constitutionally, have no official state church and that therefore there is no 'religious test' for national public office, informally there is indeed a religious test of sorts that the American voting public applies to the Presidency.  Namely, the President of the United States must be a religious person of some sort

It appears that we have, probably since sometime in the mid-20th century, insisted that our Presidents be a Christian of some sort, whether Catholic or Protestant.  (Before that, it would have been Protestant only.)  And even more recently, we opened up the doors to a Jewish President (Joe Lieberman being the first Jewish person to run on a President ticket and almost win, in 2000).

It shouldn't be surprising, given the beating that Islam has taken in the American culture since the watershed event of 9/11, that Americans would be skeptical of a Muslim President.  But perhaps the prejudice shown there shouldn't be generalized to other non-Christian religions. 

I say that because we have the most unusual situation of the Governor of South Carolina, one of the most conservative and Christian states in the United States.  Nikki Haley is the current governor, and she is a first generation Indian-American, who was raised by her immigrant parents as a Sikh (which is a form of Indian religion, probably best thought of as a reform movement within Hinduism).  And she still attends Sikh services, though since her marriage Michael Haley (a Methodist), she has attended a United Methodist Church as well.

If Governor Haley, raised a Sikh and still continuing to some extent her practice of that faith, can be elected as the political leader in South Carolina, of all places, it seems to me that tolerance of non-Christian religions in American politics has ballooned. 

So what has replaced religion and gender as key qualifications in even a culturally conservative state like South Carolina?  Political ideology.  Nikki Haley is a strong political conservative, with other attractive personal qualities, and this seems to have been enough to win, despite her gender and her foreign faith.  (It also helps that she was endorsed by Sarah Palin.)

Now to Mormonism.  The survey shows that 42% of Americans would be uncomfortable with a Mormon President, which is a fairly high number.  However, when you look at a breakdown of the numbers, what you find is that more Democrats (50%) are uncomfortable with the thought of a Mormon President than Republicans (36%) or Independents (38%).  Now this is counter-intuitive, because Democrats are generally thought to be a little more tolerant in racial, gender, and religious matters than Republicans.  So what this tells me, is that the issue here is that Mormons are seen as unacceptable by Democrats primarily because they are overwhelmingly conservative in their politics, more so than any other American religious group.  For Republicans on the other hand, the unacceptability of a Mormon candidate is probably tied to the strength of the evangelical Christian vote in the Republican party, who truly are uncomfortable with Mormonism for religious reasons (e.g. Pastor Jeffress at the Values Voter Summit).

To summarize all of this, with the notable exception of atheists or Muslims (and probably gays too, at least for awhile), political ideology trumps religion (and race and gender) in America when it comes to Presidential (or even, increasingly, local) politics. 

 Or to put it another, whatever may be bedeviling Mitt Romney right now in his race for the Republican Presidential nomination, it probably has more to do with his personality or his political principles than it does his Mormon religion.

The really good news in all of this is the distance we've come as a society in terms of toleration of cultural/racial/gender/religious differences.  America is like a utopia in this regard, compared to most other societies around the world and throughout history.

1 comment:

  1. So, basically, America is a de facto christian theocracy disguised as a psuedo democracy with a leaning towards an oligarchical plutocracy backed up by a mercenary military industrial complex. (Hope this doesn't offend anyone. This my cynical brand of humor with just a touch of irony.)