Religion should not be a prerequisite for public office

By Andrew Boschert / Columnist

Earlier this month, President Obama engaged in the expected yearly ritual known as the National Prayer Breakfast, calling for Americans to come together and solve crises through the grace of God.

Despite some fine words and seemingly innocent motivation behind the breakfast,  I wondered, “Why even bother?”

According to a recent YouGov poll, more than 50 percent of Americans consider the religious persuasion of the President to be very or somewhat important. This isn’t terribly surprising, considering every president to date has been a Christian, and only in the last 50 years has that list included (gasp!) Catholics. 

Why do we expect such vigorous religiosity from the leaders of our secular government? Although the government cannot make any law “respecting an establishment of religion,” our president must, at least on paper, follow the word of Christ. 

If personal religious opinion legally cannot dictate legislation, why should we care whether our president is  Christian, Jewish, Muslim, atheist or something else? 

The National Prayer Breakfast, though well meaning, only enforces the mistaken belief that only the religious can be moral or upstanding. After all, isn’t a Christian moral code necessary to keep peace and order? Unless you fear divine punishment, why not act however you like?

As an atheist, I’ve encountered this line of thinking more frequently than I care to mention, though one particular example from my high school days sticks out.

Upon learning my religious persuasion one day, a classmate proceeded to ask me, “Well if you don’t believe in the Bible, then why don’t you just rape and murder people as much as you want?”

To steal an answer from avowed atheist Penn Jillette, “I do rape and murder as much as I want. That number is zero.”

While this is only an unfortunate misunderstanding of morality, it spills into the real world. For example, there are seven U.S. states that legally bar atheists from holding elected office, including Texas, Maryland, Mississippi and both Carolinas. Atheists can hold elected office in Pennsylvania but no atheist has ever served as Pennsylvania’s Governor.  As Democratic strategist Dan Newman notes, professing atheism at any level of government is considered “political suicide.” 

President Obama’s speech at the National Prayer Breakfast gives us more of the same religion-is-necessary-to-do-good motif. 

Obama wrapped up his speech at the breakfast with a particularly telling passage: “As children of God, let’s work to end injustice — injustice of poverty and hunger.  No one should ever suffer from such want amidst such plenty. As children of God, let’s work to eliminate the scourge of homelessness, because, as Sister Mary says, ‘None of us are home until all of us are home.’”

Would this message be any less resonant if we removed any mention of God? Are attempts to fix inequities in our society not worthwhile for their own sake?

Of course they are. While peaceful religion is not a problem, neither is atheism. Our electorate should not think of it as one.

Andrew Boschert writes about a variety of topics, including pop culture and college, for The Pitt News.

Write Andy Boschert at [email protected]