Unlike in U.S., for Irish President Secular Values Trump Religious Dogma

Ireland--one of the world's Catholic strongholds--may have just elected an agnostic president.  

While Ireland's new President Michael D Higgins hasn't outright admitted to being secular, the rumors are flying.  Higgins' inauguration contained an inter-faith service and a humanist reflection and he has vowed to remove language from the Irish laws that prohibit atheists and agnostics from becoming president.

From the outside, Higgins seems a little risqué for a country that in only 2009 passed blasphemy laws. But in reality, he doesn't seem to be raising too many eyebrows at home. During the Irish presidential campaign, four of the seven candidates committed to recognizing the rights of atheist and agnostic citizens if elected president.  So it turns out that even in Catholic Ireland, Higgins isn't alone.

He certainly isn't alone on the world stage. Last year, Australia elected its first female prime minister, Julia Gillard, who is also an atheist. The prime ministers of Sweden and Norway are atheists, as is the president of Finland. All four countries ranked well above America on the Forbes' Happiest Countries List, and others similar studies as well.

Ironically it is in the United States-with its express separation of church and state-that religion and politics have a most unholy alliance. While in Catholic Ireland candidates openly express a desire to recognize secularists as equal citizens, here in "secular" America polls consistently show atheists are the most distrusted minority when it comes to politics, and candidates fall over themselves to prove their devotion to a "higher power".  

Just last month, Republican presidential candidate Newt Gingrich said secularists--about 50 million Americans--absolutely should not hold public office and are not entitled to representatives who actually represent them. "How can you have judgment if you have no faith‌ How can I trust you with power if you don't pray‌" he said.

Just this week Republican presidential candidate Herman Cain said God told him to run for president. He joins the ranks of fellow candidates Michelle Bachman, Rick Perry and Rick Santorum all of which have also said God told them to run, along with Gingrich who said God influenced his decision to run and would influence his day-to-day decisions as president.

Forget the No Religious Test Clause-at the heart of the 2008 presidential election was President Obama's faith, including questions about if he was truly a Christian and accusations that he may be a secret Muslim.

The president of Ireland is actively working to be more inclusive of all Irish citizens regardless of faith, while the leaders here often do the opposite, attempting instead to ostracize nonbelievers--as evidenced by the recent reaffirmation of "In God We Trust" as the national motto. Issues like these pit Americans against each other and deflect focus from working together to solve very serious problems in the day-to-day lives of citizens, such as the economy.

While the congressional approval rating in the U.S. is at an all-time low of 9 percent, by contrast, people in Finland--with its atheist president--overwhelmingly trust their governmentEighty-two percent of people in Finland say they trust their political institutions. Voter turnout in Finland--a measure of public trust in government and of citizens' participation in the political process--was 74 percent during recent elections, compared to 38 percent voter turnout  in the 2010 U.S. election.

In Norway, which  has the world's highest Gross Domestic Product, 93 percent of the people believe hard work will get them ahead in life and 74 percent say other people can be trusted.

While America's politicians focus on putting God into government, these other countries focus on the things their people actually elected them to do--create policies that work for the people--and they are happier and have more trusted, productive governments because of it.

America could learn a lesson from its European counterparts: it's time to let go of God when it comes to governing. 


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