Different constituencies, different odds

DIFFERENT CONSTITUENCIES, DIFFERENT ODDS…. Mark Oppenheimer, the director of the Yale Journalism Initiative, has an interesting item in Slate speculating about which “historically oppressed group will see one of its own take the oath of the presidency,” now that Barack Obama has shaken up the rules. After excluding some groups of Americans who are simply “too small to have much of a chance” — he specifically mentions Zoroastrians — Oppenheimer goes through everyone else’s odds.

Women, he argues, have the best shot, followed by Latter-day Saints (Mormons). Jews are fairly well situated, while Muslims are in a tougher spot. Oppenheimer also explores the possibilities for Hispanics, Hindus, gays, and East Asians.

But it was his discussion of atheists that stood out for me.

When the lion lies down with the lamb, when the president is a Republican Muslim and the Democratic speaker of the House is a vegan Mormon lesbian, when the secretary of defense is a Jain pacifist from the Green Party, they will all agree on one thing: atheists need not apply. A 2007 Gallup poll found that 53 percent of Americans would not vote for an atheist for president. (By contrast, only 43 percent wouldn’t vote for a homosexual, and only 24 percent wouldn’t vote for a Mormon.) As Ronald Lindsay, executive director of the Council for Secular Humanism, told me in an e-mail: “Atheism spells political death in this country.”

Indeed. Only one current congressman has confessed to being an atheist: Rep. Pete Stark, a Democrat from the lefty East Bay region of Northern California. If he ever ran for president, he would need God’s help just as surely as he wouldn’t ask for it.

I suspect for non-believers to have a legitimate shot at national office, they’d have to hold statewide office for a while and make a name for themselves. If I’m not mistaken, the only atheist to hold statewide in recent years was Jesse Ventura (once in office, he said religion is “crutch”) and things didn’t work out too well for him.