Writing at The American Prospect a few weeks back, Patrick Caldwell expressed puzzlement at the view, seemingly widespread on the right, that the hegemonic forces of secularism are somehow forcing believers out of the public square:
When I first read Santorum’s comments though, I was mostly struck by how off base his statement is from the actual reality of our political class. People who lack a specific faith are the ones typically closed out from government service. Out of 538 members of Congress, California Rep. Pete Stark is the only self-avowed atheist. For as much as Republicans opine about the secularist goals of Obama’s presidency, he has stocked his cabinet with Catholics and other gentiles. The highest court of the land has six Catholics and three Jews.
A Gallup poll last December had 15 percent of Americans list their religious preference as none, atheist, or agnostic, though another Gallup poll from earlier in the year found that 7 percent claim to have no belief in God. By either measure, Americans lacking allegiance to an organized religion are vastly underrepresented among public officials.
It’s worth saying, first, that Santorum’s complaint is not so much about religious people being somehow hounded from public office, but about the secularism of mainstream political discourse. Which is just to say that we generally expect political actors in a pluralistic country to offer justifications for their preferred policies that do not hinge on one’s sharing a particular interpretation of a particular sacred text. Santorum thinks it should be perfectly sufficient to say: “It should be illegal because the Bible condemns it,” and he’s irritated that even believers mostly feel obligated to focus on religiously neutral “public reasons” that could be accepted by people who don’t acknowledge the authority of (that reading of) the Christian Bible. He’s not empirically wrong about this (and a good thing!), he just has a repugnant, medieval vision of how things ought to be.
That aside, though, I suspect “self-avowed” is a key qualifier in the passage quoted above. Whatever they check off on their census forms, the political class in D.C. have always struck me as pretty secular. Maybe they’re just quiet about their faith—praying quietly in private, regularly attending worship services on the weekend without making much fuss about it. And I certainly wouldn’t claim that people I happen to know socially are anything like a representative sample of “the D.C. political class.” Still, if you asked me to guess what percentage of the under-40 political professionals in this town—hill staffers, pundits, journalists, wonks, and activists—are agnostic or atheist in their private beliefs, I’d hazard a number much higher than 15 percent. If you expand that definition to encompass what I’d call “operational atheists”—people who might tell a pollster they’re whatever faith they grew up in, and might “believe” in some vague abstract sense, but whose nominal religion plays no discernible role in their thinking or everyday life—you’re probably well over 50 percent.
Of course, there are obvious reasons for Congress to be unrepresentative. Given the widespread popular prejudice against atheists, they’re probably disproportionately likely to self-select into think tanks and magazines and various other supporting roles. And I wouldn’t be surprised if some smart, ambitious young people with political aspirations either consciously or subconsciously made a pragmatic decision, maybe at some point in college, that there was no real benefit in subjecting this particular corner of their belief systems to special scrutiny. Most of us, after all, hold thousands of beliefs with little better warrant than “I’m pretty sure I read that somewhere”—so it would be easy enough for a would-be politico to conclude there’s no sense rocking this particular epistemic boat.
But it’s still very, very hard for me to believe that there’s really only one atheist in the United States Congress. Not everyone who concludes, in an hour of quiet reflection, that religious doctrines are probably false feels compelled to shout it from the rooftops as loudly as Christopher Hitchens or Richard Dawkins. Lots of them are even perfectly happy to go through the motions at appropriate occasions, for the sake of family (presumably not everyone who converts at marriage has a genuine theological epiphany) or because they enjoy the sense of community, or even just because the ceremonial trappings have grown familiar and comfortable. People fake it—so routinely that a Google search for “coming out atheist” brings up an incredible deluge of stories and discussions about people making the decision to leave the closet after years of going along to get along… or not. YouTube is packed with similar testimonials. Historically even intellectuals felt obliged to play along: David Hume (to pick one famous example from a rich pool) halfheartedly professed to be persuaded by the “Argument from Design”—then gives all the most devastating arguments in his “Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion” to the skeptic who demolishes that argument. It strains credulity to think there aren’t at least a few—and maybe more than a few—comparable closet cases in a profession where success depends on convincing this cycle’s electorate that you’re deeply committed to whatever it is they believe… even if it’s the opposite of what the last electorate believed.
It’s something of a cliché at this point to talk about the “paranoid style” of conservative politics—and the seeming migration of that paranoia from the fringe to the mainstream. But maybe in part it has roots in a perfectly common real-life experience that must, to believers, seem a bit like something out of Invasion of the Body Snatchers: The bright young child everyone was so proud to ship off to a prestigious university comes back over break subtly different somehow… dutifully says grace at supper, but seems (for reasons you can’t quite nail down—maybe just that hint of a smirk?) to be humoring the ritual. For Americans who (mistakenly) take faith to be a sort of minimum prerequisite for moral conduct, this has to seem like the ultimate form of deception: Lying about even the general possibility of being honest. What had been understood as a kind of polite dissimulation—yes, of course your newborn is the most beautiful baby in the history of babies—starts to look downright insidious.
Previously faith could more or less be taken for granted—maybe the candidate makes a passing reference to the church they regularly attend—and that’s all there is to it, really, because of course everyone’s a believer of one stripe or another. Increasingly, isn’t so—that there are actually quite a lot of unbelievers, many of them effectively operating in stealth mode. This was probably always the case, but outside the academy and a few urban enclaves, nobody was terribly vocal about it—you certainly didn’t have anything like a visible public “movement.” Suddenly, if you’re someone who thinks of faith as a minimal prerequisite for decency, what was previously tacitly understood has to be signaled with extra vigor.
A comparison with gay rights may be apt here: Go back a few decades and the idea is so marginal that nobody really thinks of it as a political issue. (Note that in some of the most virulently homophobic societies, you also see a lot more normal physical affection between men that would be normal in the U.S., possibly because it’s so beyond the pale that nobody worries about sending the wrong signals.) Roll forward another decade or two and it’ll so normalized that nobody can quite understand why there was ever a fuss about it: Every city has plenty of nice gay families, and everyone can see they’re not fundamentally different from the nice straight family next door. You get “culture wars” in the middle: When a phenomenon is prevalent enough to seem threatening, but not yet (visibly) prevalent enough that it becomes obvious it’s not actually a threat at all.
I’ve always found the more aggressive, proselytizing sort of atheism a bit distasteful: Do we really need a People-who-don’t-play-chess club or a non-basketball-team? As a writer or pundit or whatever I am, it’s no surprise that I’ll occasionally bring up this aspect of my worldview, but since most of us don’t think our fellow citizens have souls that need saving, shouldn’t the modal atheist just go on quietly not-believing, and hope polite circumspection on these issues catches on? Maybe, though, there’s a case for being a little more vocal—for coming out secular—at this particular historical moment, in the interest of hastening the journey across the valley between invisibility and normalcy.