My presidential ambitions took a hit this weekend. The New York Times ran a story about religion and morality in politics, with Mitt Romney as the hook. But the chart that ran with it — reproduced above — is worth a long, close look (click on it to get a larger version).
Not believing in God — which, defined that way, applies to agnostics like me — renders a candidate suspicious in the eyes of two-thirds of voters. It’s worse than being old, uneducated, gay, Muslim, female, divorced, a drug user or a philanderer.
It’s a positive for just 3 percent. Which makes a certain amount of sense: lack of belief is a negative trait, after all — not negative in the sense of “bad”, but negative in the sense that it’s defined by the lack of something. It’s hard to get excited about something a candidate isn’t.
So I’m actually pleasantly surprised that it makes no difference for a third of voters.
It turns out that while the specific nature of one’s belief has an effect — more people are willing to vote for a Mormon than a Muslim, all things being equal — the most important thing is simply to have a belief.
It’s not that simple, of course. For one thing, a candidate usually has more than one trait listed on the chart, and any real candidate is an actual person, far more than the sum of his or her labels. So the chart is more useful as a description of general attitudes than as an attempt to apply it to specific races.
Further, the story goes on to note that the real concern with regard to candidates with minority beliefs is tolerance: John Kennedy got past anti-Catholic bias by promising he would resign rather than let his religion interfere with the national interest. It suggests Romney could pursue the same tact.
I don’t know about the resigning bit, but “tolerance” (or more carefully chosen words like “admiration” or “respect”) is how I’d frame it if I were running. Lack of belief on my part does not imply hostility to religion; far from it. It simply reflects my own inability to claim belief in something for which I see no compelling proof. In some ways I envy believers, for clearly they’ve found something that I have not. And who am I to say who’s right?
On a political level, religion has a valid and vital role in society, and that role should be tapped wherever and whenever it makes sense to do so. Religion should suffer neither fear nor favor from government.
One concern about a “godless” candidate is that they have no personal ethics, no solid moral foundation. It’s tempting to label such concerns ignorant, but there’s little political gain in insulting voters. Luckily, such questions are easily addressed by discussing my personal ethics and the principles they spring from. Alternatively I could simply point to various politically useful biographical items, like my military service, faithfulness in marriage or the fact that I was an Eagle Scout. That might not assuage concerns about unbelievers in general, but it would help make one agnostic candidate more palatable.
Meanwhile, the chart reveals some interesting relationships:
1. Being a smoker is worse than being a woman, which is worse than being divorced;
2. Being a former minister is even worse than that.
3. Having an extramarital affair is (slightly) better than admitting past drug use. But both are better than never having gone to college.
4. Being a Muslim is almost exactly as bad as being gay.
5. “Drain the swamp” rhetoric notwithstanding, 35 percent of voters view being a “longtime Washington politician” as a positive.
6. Apparently the recipe for a successful politician is a Christian veteran who ran a business after attending a prestigious university.
Lots more in the chart. What would you do? Which of the characteristics listed are positives or negatives for you, and why?