Why can't an atheist be President?

Full disclosure: I'm for Obama. 100%. I voted for him in my state's primary. I almost--almost--cried when I watched the "Yes We Can" video, and I cry approximately once every five years. So keep that in mind if you care to read the rest of this post. If you're looking for fair and balanced political analysis, look elsewhere. (And if you ever find it, be sure to let the rest of the world know about it.)

At the beginning of this week, I was extremely agitated about the fact that Barack Obama's candidacy was in danger of ruin because of remarks made by the pastor of his church. As the week progressed, I got a lot less agitated thanks to the man delivering a truly monumental speech, but I'm still worried, and still a little agitated.

It has been said (though I'm not sure where, when, or by whom) that an atheist could never be elected President of the United States. Why is that? I have no idea. But as long as this country has elected presidents, there have always been three steadfast requirements to fill the position: one must be white, male, and Christian. In this election, the country has a one-in-three chance of gaining a president who is not white, and similar odds for one who is not male, but no matter who wins, the probability that the country's 220-year streak of electing a Christian Commander-In-Chief stands at 100%.

I don't have a problem with anyone labeling themselves Christian. There certainly are worse or more ridiculous belief systems with which one could align themselves. My problem is with the importance that is placed on a candidate's belief system in relation to their fitness to serve as president, and more specifically, how the beliefs expressed by one person in Barack Obama's church have been turned around on Obama himself as evidence that he is unfit to be President.

It's not necessary to rehash the comments made by Obama's pastor, Jeremiah Wright. The ever-diligent media, perhaps fearing in the wake of the writer's strike the significant loss of ratings and thus ad dollars they would face were the democratic primary season to fold prematurely, have been very helpful in parsing down the thousands of hours of sermonizing and public speaking that Wright has engaged in over his decades-long career to the most incendiary 3-second soundbites they could find. And my are they incendiary.

But what does that have to do with the fitness of Barack Obama to serve as the President of the United States? If you believe even the most even-keeled pundits who have predicted the demise of Obama in '08 due to Wright's statements, it has everything to do with it.

As I mentioned before, until this election cycle began, the presumptive qualities one must have possessed to become President have been whiteness, maleness, and Christianity--but not every type of Christian need apply. Until John F. Kennedy was elected President, it was believed that a Catholic could never win the job. Obama's church is protestant, but it seems that his pastor was an expert practitioner of Black Liberation Theology, something a solid majority of non-black people had never heard of until a few weeks ago, but now they've heard it, and if those 3-second bites of Wright are to be seen as typical, they have discovered that Black Liberation Theology is very angry, and, well, very black.

Again, what does this have to do with Obama? Well, I have to theorize here because truthfully I know next to nothing about it, but apparently what you hear in church on Sunday has a lot to do with how you function the rest of the week: what kind of person you are, how you relate to others, what you believe. The traditional definition of pastor is "shepherd", as in a leader of sheep, one who tends a flock. They say "the lord is my shepherd," and the pastor is the mouthpiece of the lord's word, the commandments of which are taken as gospel by the flock. So when Obama's pastor declares "God Damn America," the reasoning is that Obama then takes those words as his gospel.

Forgive me if all of this seems tedious to you, but I'm treading as lightly as I can here, because I don't want to appear intolerant to Christians, as many people who are very close to me are Christian. But for the life of me, I cannot understand how anyone can hear what has been said by Jeremiah Wright and believe that Barack Obama believes anything close to the same thing. Seriously: the controversy over these statements could hardly be as vicious if there were video of Obama himself uttering them. But this is the problem: because those things were said by his pastor, it opens up the window for people to turn those statements on Obama and force him to answer for them.

So finally I return to my opening question: why can't an atheist run for president? Why is it so important for the leader of our country to believe the same things, and believe those things in the same way, as has nearly every man who has served as President before him or her? The reason I began to wonder this week is obvious: if there were no Jeremiah Wright in Obama's life, none of this would have been a problem. Of course, if there were no Jeremiah Wright, there would likely be no Obama, or at least he wouldn't be the same man we know today--I realize that, and I realize that many people's lives have been affected the same way by Christianity...I don't take issue with that. To each their own. But I ask these things in all sincerity. Why does it matter?

If anyone were to ask me, I would say that the President only needed to believe in the Constitution, in the history and latent "goodness" of our country, in all of the third-grade civics class lessons that have turned into tarnished cliches in the waning days of the second Bush administration. Do I think he needs to believe in Jesus, or Moses, or Noah's ark, or Genesis, or Job, or Satan, or Heaven, or Adam, Eve, Cain & Abel, or anything else like that? If you're asking me--no. But if you ask five other people anywhere near me the same thing, you can bet four out of five of them are going to say yes. Would they say they'd vote for a Jew? I don't know, but I think most would say no. A Muslim? I think a pretty wide margin would say no. A Hindu? Half of the people in this country probably couldn't even say what a Hindu was, even though the same percentage of people probably live or work next to one every day. And how about an Atheist? Again I generalize, but I would hazard a guess that unless you asked an atheist whether one would be fit to serve as president, the answer you'd get would be a resounding "No."

But why not? And what good has it done the country that all of its Presidents have uttered many of the same prayers and same hymns as long as there have been Presidents? Our outgoing President once confessed that he talked to God on a regular basis, and felt that he could hear God talking to him, and it was hearing God's word directly in his ear that led him to embark this country in a war now five years old with trillions upon trillions of dollars wasted, thousands of American lives lost, untold numbers of Iraqi lives lost, and no end in sight. In the meantime, the people who elected him into office are losing their houses, losing their jobs, losing their life's savings, while the President continues to thunder that the war was just, the economy is sound, and God is on his side.

Good God, what a load of bullshit.

Thankfully, thankfully, oh so thankfully, Barack Obama spoke out about the controversy that Wright's statements had incited. But he didn't just speak out about the soundbites. He did what he's been doing all this time: He led. He inspired. He was honest. He was nuanced. He made it more than about him. He confirmed all the qualities that made those who support him think the man was born to be a leader.

I've done a terribly poor job of addressing the central question that started this post. I have no clue why an atheist couldn't be president. In my mind, being an atheist would be a benefit for anyone seeking to become President. No one could question from where their beliefs were derived. They would never have to answer to a power higher than the people who elected him or her to office. If they made a mistake, they would only have their electorate to ask for forgiveness, and their penitence would come on November 4th.

That's how I live my life. I don't expect anyone else to gain any insight on their own condition based on the way I live. And I don't feel the need to evangelize my position. I am the way I am--I don't belong to any atheist "religion"; to me, that would be a little like being a member of a group that doesn't believe in groups. I just don't believe. Simple as that. I'm not a spiritual person. When I'm in a forest, or feel a breeze, or enjoy a ray of sunshine, or rejoice in the goodness of my fellow man, I don't chalk it up to a higher power, I appreciate it for what it is, and nothing else.

So tell me: would you want a person like me to be your President?

How about your Mayor?





jdw23 said...

Nice post, Bedheaded. You can be my librarian any day!!

rtelson said...

We will elect a Christian for the same reason that 90% of the black population votes for Obama, and most Democratic women are voting Hillary. Young people are voting for the youthful smile and pocket full of hope of Obama, and older folks are trending for the older Clinton and McCain.

Most atheists are voting for Obama, though, so you can take some solace in that.

As far as Wright's remarks, Obama said he never heard the anti-American, racist rants of Rev. Wright. That makes me wonder how many times Barack was actually in the congregation. The church was probably a place to get married and a place Michelle and the kids to go Sunday morning. Wright was a member of the Obama campaign team, however, and I find that more disturbing, especially in the wake of Michelle Obama's remarks.

Good post.

G o a s t H a r p e w n r said...

Hey Jake…

I must admit: I actually did cry at Obama’s DNC speech. I also cried upon hearing several of Mike Huckabee’s speeches, though perhaps for different reasons entirely. Though I’ve in the past expressed a profound distrust of both political parties, I’ve wholeheartedly endorsed Obama. I lend this gleeful endorsement in the spirit that I would lend any; in expectation of profound disappointment. I, like most, am tickled by Obama’s relatively-untarnished record, and wooed by his graceful command of the language and his reflexive ability to shed the spray of juvenile political fodder. Oddly, my attachment to “the candidate of hope” has nothing whatsoever to do with hope; my endorsement is extended without romance, as Obama simply strikes me as the most competently-equipped individual to manage the dynamics of a country as deeply crippled, from within and from without, as our own. If I retain any real hope, I hope that history is no sort of practical yardstick by which to measure the correspondence between early promises and later action. Statistically, things don’t look great. But it is a special sort of sickness to conduct one’s own aspirations in accord with statistics. Statistically, anyway.

But yeah: I know what you mean. His latest speech was ballsy in both gesture and in content. It was brilliant, really; to grab hold of the horns of the media, to in effect say: “O.K., you fuckers want to talk about race? Then let’s do so, but for real”. Had he approached the necessary counterpart to the question, i.e. the content of his religion, with as much candor and zeal as was lent to the problem of race, my admiration of the man would likely have been amplified exponentially. The foundations of religious belief are infinitely weirder and as such infinitely more interesting than political theory. Yet, inquiring minds fail to direct their collective attention to this infinite strangeness which rests hidden just beneath their noses but somehow nevertheless never rests in guiding and informing their most deeply-held policies. Anyway, it’s just a thought; I realize that such would amount to instantaneous political suicide.

A better question might be to ask Barack Obama why he would bother going to church in the first place. This would of course be an extraordinarily pointless and silly question to ask of an elected leader, as the response would be about as ordinary and expected as could be imagined: “I receive great strength and guidance through my faith”, essentially, the same tired-ass, unsatisfying response we hear mechanically issued forth from the mouths of most educated liberals seeking public office, most of whom privately don’t believe a friggin’ word of it. Now: actually going to church is considerably weirder than anything actually said at a church. Think about it, as a perfectly legitimate proposition: individuals gathering together to collectively prostate themselves before an invisible entity who judges us from outside of space-time and whose existence cannot possibly be demonstrated. It is relatively easy to poke fun at Bush’s steadfast adherence to religion, but does Obama’s adherence differ appreciably? Yes, it does: Obama probably doesn’t actually believe it, while Bush necessarily interprets inner-soliloquy as divine mandate.

Maybe taking the kids to church on Sundays is theater, and maybe it is authentic. Dude is after all a politician, and a remarkably smart one at that.

What a strange fucking world. I’m too drunk to complete this thought while sitting upright.