Religion Trumps All

A guest post by Andrew Franks

President Trump made his first State of the Union address awash in a tidal wave of controversies that would be comical if they were not such an embarrassment to the nation.  An active investigation is examining his potential ties with a hostile foreign government. His approval numbers are at a record low for a first year president. Fact checking organizations confirm that he’s also made a record 2,000+ false claims to the American people during his first year. He is the subject of a sex scandal that would have almost certainly elicited racially-charged hostility and calls for impeachment if his predecessor had ever been in a similar situation. He has multiple ongoing personal and professional feuds with celebrities; leaders of foreign nations; nearly the entirety of the news media; legislators of both parties; and entire agencies, departments, and even branches of government.

It should be of little surprise then that members of the opposition party were reticent to provide enthusiastic applause during Mr. Trump’s speech. Trump’s son Eric, however, seemed to imply another reason for the Democrats’ withholding of adulation for his father: a godless contempt for America.  “When my father mentioned ‘In God We Trust,’” Eric Trump stated, “the guiding principle of this country, no one stood.” In effect, the younger Trump sought to turn the issue of applause during a State of the Union address into a religious pandering competition and another in a series of overtures that the Trump administration has made to its largely Evangelical Christian base.

Religious pandering, while distasteful to those of us who recognize the secular foundations of our democratic republic, is actually a shrewd political technique that is used by Republicans and Democrats alike. The Obama Administration, far from being irreligious, filed an amicus brief defending ceremonial prayer at governmental meetings in the case of Town of Greece v. Galloway (2013). Religious pandering works, and it is almost necessary to hold major elected office. Avowed Christians comprise 91% of the 115th Congress versus only 71% of the general population, while the religiously unaffiliated make up only 0.2% (one fifth of one percent) of Congress despite comprising an estimated 23% of the general population.

Atheists and non-religious Americans consistently support the Democratic Party, but it seems that their votes are taken for granted and their interests are underserved. In order to have a voice in government, the non-religious will almost certainly need to gain more seats in the state assemblies and congressional chambers of our nation. But how can we begin to make real strides in representation when the non-religious elicit such great amounts of distrust? My recent research may provide some preliminary answers. In a series of studies reported in my paper, “Improving the Electability of Atheists in the United States: A Preliminary Examination,” published in Politics and Religion last year, I showed that intentions to vote for an ostensibly real atheist political candidate can be improved in the following three circumstances: (1) the candidate communicates a generally popular secular morality, (2) the candidate has a high level of pre-existing popularity, and (3) the opposing candidate holds unpopular religious fundamentalist viewpoints.

The first finding is important due to the research supported fact that those who believe in a god often perceive those who do not as lacking morality. Proclaiming substantive moral values refutes that negative stereotype. The second finding is relevant to current office holders who may consider coming out as atheist or non-religious to be political suicide. Former Massachusetts representative Barney Frank was reelected twelve times after coming out as gay but held off on coming out as atheist until after his retirement. My findings suggest that coming out may not be a career ending event for established and popular public servants. The Democratic National Committee at one point considered using the apparent lack of religiosity of party outsider Bernie Sanders against him as he sought their presidential nomination in 2016. I do not think that attacking Senator Sanders’ religiosity will be an effective tactic against the most popular politician in the United States should he seek the presidency again in 2020. Perhaps I’m overly optimistic. The third finding may be valuable for a Democratic challenger to a possible incumbent run from a President Mike Pence (should Trump be impeached and removed from office before 2020).

In a related paper, co-authored with Kyle Scherr from Central Michigan University and published last year in the International Journal for the Psychology of Religion (“Analytic Thinking Reduces Anti-Atheist Bias in Voting Intentions”), we found evidence that priming or promoting reliance on careful, reasoned thinking, rather than intuition, will reduce anti-atheist prejudice in political decision making. These findings provide additional reasons to be optimistic about the political futures of the non-religious.

Not all of the recent findings are positive, however. Atheism remains a political liability. A third paper, with Scherr and Bryan Gibson (another colleague from CMU), is currently in its second revision and expected to be published later this year at Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied. That paper demonstrates that mere associations with atheism can damage the political aspirations of avowed Christians. It appears one can be (as our paper is titled) “Godless by Association.” Don’t expect the religious pandering to stop anytime soon.

Dr. Andrew Franks received his PhD from Central Michigan University in 2015 and is an Assistant Professor of Psychology at Lake Superior State University. His research focuses largely on sociopolitical issues, especially the intersection of politics and religion. Dr. Franks has also served as Chair of the Secular Coalition for Michigan since 2013.

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