Why should open atheism preclude elected office?

Probably because my writing and activities frequently involve taking stands on issues of public policy, from time to time I am asked whether I would consider running for political office. Such inquiries provide me with an opportunity to get a good laugh, because I usually respond with something like this:

"I'm not so sure I have the ideal resume for elected office. I currently serve as president of a group that advocates for atheists (the Secular Coalition for America). Before that, I served two terms as president of another atheist-humanist advocacy group (the American Humanist Association). Moreover, I've also written a book called Nonbeliever Nation. And to top it all off, I'm lead counsel in a lawsuit that challenges the ‘under God' wording of the Pledge of Allegiance!"

My questioner usually gets my point quickly, and is already laughing before I cap off this statement with a question of my own: “Does that look like the resume of a viable candidate for election?”

After we both enjoy this little chuckle, we’ll move the conversation toward more realistic topics.

As I relayed this story to one young person recently, however, I received a different response. She smiled slightly, but then her face immediately became serious again and she asked another question: “Why should any of those things disqualify you from running for office?”

I could see that her question was sincere, that she wanted an answer. Forced to consider it, I realized that I had never taken the analysis beyond the joking stage. Indeed, why should a person be seen as unfit for elected office merely because he or she has advocated visibly on behalf of the secular demographic?

Objectively speaking, it’s not as if atheists are an embarrassing segment of society, some strange cult with bizarre beliefs and rituals. Over ninety percent of the National Academy of Sciences holds atheist or agnostic views – is this a source of shame? Social problems do not correlate to secular individuals or societies, and in fact they often correlate negatively (with lower rates among secular populations) – so why should advocacy on behalf of seculars disqualify anyone from office?

It's noteworthy that most atheist activism has little to do with trying to dispel other religious beliefs, but instead merely seeks to push back against anti-atheist prejudice and to oppose the intrusion of religion into government. It's hard to see why this would be political poison. Advocacy on behalf of racial minorities, women, or gays and lesbians would never disqualify a candidacy, but for some reason we seem to see it as toxic in the context of secular advocacy.

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