The last month has seen two important stories centered around the roles of government and religion. These stories, although small, beg us to ask the question, in 2010 can those without religion succeed in politics?
The first story comes out of Asheville, North Carolina, where Cecil Bothwell, a local journalist and recently elected city council member, has received national attention for his religious beliefs. A provision dating back to 1868 in the North Carolina Constitution disqualifies officeholders “who shall deny the being of Almighty God.” Arkansas, Maryland, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Tennessee and Texas have similar provisions. The Supreme Court has ruled these provisions unconstitutional, yet they remain on the state books and are open to lengthy litigation. Bothwell now faces an expensive legal challenge over his city council post.
Our second story comes from across the Atlantic in Ireland where blasphemy has now become a punishable crime. Starting this year, anyone who “publishes or utters matter that is grossly abusive or insulting in relation to matters held sacred by any religion” can face a fine up to $35,000. Although this law occurs abroad, it is an important reminder of the challenges facing those who chose to not practice religion.
In 2010 the separation between church and state has barely become clearer or more defined than it was 200 years ago. It still guides our political landscape and raises the most complex questions from abortion to education. But do atheists face an added burden in politics? Today there is only one proclaimed athesit in the U.S. Congress, Pete Stark (D-CA), and he has perhaps made more headlines for his announcement on that account than for any of his accomplishments in his 37 years in Congress. Belonging to an organized religion is essential to political success. And while both Stark and Bothwell do belong to organized Unitarian Universalist congregations, these are not godly enough for the American public. Despite the fact that 16.1% of the country, according to a 2009 Pew Research poll, does not subscribe to organized religion, it will be a long time before Americans see this represented in their political leaders.
Americans want to see that their politicians have values, ethics, and morality. It is not enough to see them giving back to the community or fighting for the less fortunate. On the weekends they must attend a church.
By Emma Sandoe