I recently wrote about the professed religious views of presidential candidates. I asked my favorite candidate, Bernie Sanders, at a public forum in South Carolina, if he would acknowledge being an atheist. Sanders, who almost always gives direct answers to questions, said, "Not gonna happen." At least he didn't lie about his religious beliefs, as many candidates do.
The most surprising and disappointing reaction to my attempt to "out" Bernie Sanders came from other atheists who support Sanders. They also assume that this Jewish socialist is an atheist, but they think he should stay in the closet.
Here are a few of the comments I heard: "You should know better than to think an open atheist could ever be elected president. Bernie does not want to commit political suicide by acknowledging he is an atheist. Bernie should wait to get elected, and then say he is an atheist. People who want political power better not reveal little quirks that would alienate a great majority of voters. Most religious Americans don't believe in evolution, so they certainly wouldn't vote for an atheist. This country is not yet ready to elect an atheist to high office."
If these critics are correct that the country is not yet ready to elect an acknowledged atheist, then how can we change "not yet ready" to "ready?" If we do nothing, the country will never be ready. Our country was once not willing to elect African-Americans, women, gays, and other minority groups. The model for atheists is more similar to that of gays because African-Americans and women could never be closeted. Attitudes toward gays changed rapidly when people realized that their friends, neighbors, family members, and even famous people are gay. And so it can be for atheists. Here are two attitude-changing national organizations that aim to end the secrecy.
Openly Secular: Its purpose is to provide support and encouragement for atheists, agnostics, humanists, and other nonreligious people who feel they can't be open about who they are. They provide resources to help secular people live full, honest, and open lives. Their goal is to eliminate discrimination and increase acceptance of the secular community. Their website contains dozens of short videos made by ordinary and extraordinary people from all backgrounds in all walks of life, describing why they became openly secular. Here is mine.
Freethought Equality Fund: This is a Political Action Committee (PAC) dedicated to expanding voter choices by backing the candidacy of open nontheists. The PAC supports candidates who want to protect the separation of religion and government and defend the civil liberties of secular Americans. The PAC also aims to dispel the bigoted notion that atheists are immoral and lack values. It is the first such PAC with a paid staff. (Disclosure: I'm an unpaid advisory board member.)
Both Openly Secular and the Freethought Equality Fund think the country is ready to elect nonreligious candidates. More than 20 percent of Americans now claim no religious identity, and the percentage is even higher among young people. Nonreligious Americans are one of the largest minorities in the United States, but you'd never know it because they have lacked political power. Interestingly, Congressman Barney Frank publicly came out as gay in 1987, but didn't come out as an atheist until he left office.
My candidate Bernie Sanders may not win the Democratic nomination, but he can show the country that he is one of many reasonable and honest atheists. And voters willing to support a Jewish socialist are not likely to abandon Sanders if he says he is an atheist. In fact, I think he would energize a lot of "nones," people with no religion who cringe when political candidates try to turn their personal supernatural beliefs into government policy, and claim a "holier than thou" morality.
Speaking of holier than thou, Pastor Mark Burns, a pastor in South Carolina and a Donald Trump surrogate, said at a Trump rally in North Carolina that Bernie Sanders doesn't believe in God and that he needs to find Jesus. (I agree with the former statement, but not the latter.) A case can be made that the Jesus of the Gospels wants us to feed the poor, love our neighbors, welcome the immigrant, promote peace and social justice, turn the other cheek to insults, and be humble. Jesus is even more of a Jewish socialist than Bernie. Jesus wants us to sell our possessions and give to the poor (Matthew 19: 21), share what we own with one another (Acts 2:44), and not brag about being rich (Mark 10:25).
Regardless of labels, it sounds like Donald Trump, not Bernie Sanders, is the one who needs to find Jesus--or at least to take seriously the more compassionate passages in the Gospels. Also, Jesus and Bernie both spent their early years as carpenters, not hiring carpenters to build expensive towers for the pleasure of wealthy people.
We should judge candidates by their behavior and political positions, not on their professed religious beliefs. And I won't even mention in this political season what Jesus said about hypocrites.