Browse By

More than Blacks, Jews or Gays, Atheists are Rejected by Americans in Presidential Politics

Earlier this week, Rowan created a visualization of Pew Research polling data regarding the rejection of atheists as marriage partners in the United States. The lesson was pretty clear: if you’re an atheist in the United States and you want to be accepted by your in-law’s family, you’re either going to need to be lucky, choosy or secretive. Members of the American Christian majority tend to express unhappiness at the prospect of an atheist marrying their son or daughter.

Even though Pew Research has a solid reputation as a social survey organization, one survey alone could be anomalous. Is prejudice against atheists found in other surveys of the American public?

To be blunt, yes. Over a number of decades, the Gallup polling organization has asked the following question a number of times in nationally-representative surveys:

“If your party nominated a generally well-qualified person for president who happened to be _________, would you vote for that person?”

The blank is filled with a variety of social categories. Over the years, what percentage of respondents have answered “No?” I’ve gathered polling results from this Gallup question from 1958 to 2012, the last year in which Gallup asked the question (source | source | source | source). Not every category was included in questioning every year, but despite gaps over time three trends are evident, as you can see for yourself:

Gallup Poll on American Prejudice in Presidential Selection, 1958-2012

Trend 1. Categorical prejudice regarding presidential choice has declined over time for multiple social categories.

Trend 2. Across the 1958 to 2012 period, only four social categories of qualified presidential candidates have ever been rejected by more than 40% of American respondents to the poll: women, blacks, homosexuals and atheists.

Trend 3. In the 21st century, prejudice against qualified atheist presidential candidates has consistently been the most strongly embraced by Gallup respondents, by a significant margin. Without regard to qualification, Americans reject atheists more often than blacks, gays and lesbians, women, Catholics, Mormons, Baptists, Jews and Hispanics in Presidential politics.

If you’re wondering why some atheists seem so gosh-darned touchy, I hope this information helps provide some context: while Americans have come to reject most other prejudices by overwhelming margins, the blanket rejection of atheists from political life remains broadly acceptable.

11 thoughts on “More than Blacks, Jews or Gays, Atheists are Rejected by Americans in Presidential Politics”

  1. Dave says:

    Voting is probably more of an emotional issue for people than it is intellectual. An atheist may seem less vote-worthy by many based on what they believe informs the candidate’s morality, or what provides a moral “compass.” Will [blank] make decisions when in office that are similar to what I would make? Is this person anything like me?

    Atheists probably shouldn’t get their feelings hurt. A candidate who gives a nod in the general direction of the Great Spirit has removed one of the important unknowns from most voter’s minds, but a candidate who is not a believer is asking voters to accept that they were either born with a moral compass adequate for the job or they have the requisite skills for choosing rightly from a smorgasboard of moral ideas. It’s like saying “trust me” without laying out the argument in the usual necessary shorthand as to why people should.

    With the last few presidential candidates the American public is demonstrating that they are, by and large, no longer asking “what formed this candidate’s character”, or if they are, they are being easily fooled; I tend to think it’s the latter, but few of the candidates have been foolhardy enough to let the public think they have no faith or religious affiliation.

    Just saying this is why I think it works this way.

    1. Jim Cook says:

      Dave, people used to openly say the same thing about black people, or gay people, or Jewish people. You just don’t want that sort. They don’t have good character. They aren’t like me. I can’t trust them. A candidate who is [white/straight/Christian] removes that unknown from my mind. A candidate who is [black/gay/Jewish] is asking voters to accept some kind of freaky foreign moral compass.

      I think you’re right that prejudice against atheists is working the same way — but even more strongly, and more persistently.

      1. Dave says:

        Jim, in all honesty, is there no prejudice among atheists against Christian candidates? Aren’t they, you know, that sort?

        1. Jim Cook says:

          I wouldn’t have the experience to know, Dave. I’ve voted for nothing but expressedly Christian candidates in politics my entire life. I haven’t had the choice.

          Take a look at Table 1 here — — the next time you want to ask which group in America receives the most animus out of hand. It’s not the conservative Christians. Atheists are the primary target.

  2. J Clifford says:

    That’s a really good point, Dave.

    A candidate who gives a nod in the general direction of the Great Spirit of God has removed one of the important unknowns from most voters’ minds.

    I mean, if a person says they believe in God, then the person must have a moral compass, right?

    For example, Christian radio show host John Baylo ( ) has said that he believes in God, and therefore has proved that he has a moral compass, so he would make a good candidate for public office.

    Also, along these lines, if a political candidate is a member of the Christian clergy ( ), not only believing in God but doing it professionally, we could know that this candidate had a moral compass.

    In another example, we know that when an army marches under the motto “God With Us”, they are fighting for a just moral cause. Now, the question is, when and where has there ever such a morally upright army? Hold on, let me check… Oh yes, Germany, 1940s: “Gott Mit Uns” ( )

    An atheist candidate, on the other hand, we’ve got to worry about. How could anyone know whether an atheist candidate would have the kind of true north moral compass that Christians and other God believers have ( ), right?

    Thanks for that clarification, Dave.

    1. Dave says:

      J., I suppose it wouldn’t be difficult to surf around and find myriad examples such as those on offer in your comment that would illustrate a lack of moral rectitude on the part of newsworthy atheists, but what would be the point? For that matter, what was your point?

      If what I said in the initial comment doesn’t explain the public’s hesitance to vote atheist, then what does? I simply stated in so many words that if a person says they believe in God it is a kind of shorthand for use by the low information voter or any voter who wants to briefly synopsize the qualities of a candidate. I repeat, an atheist saying “trust me” is not laying out his argument in the necessary shorthand as to why people should.

      Come to think of it, a bad Christian minister is probably considered by the public to be someone who, because of his religious training and his subsequent badness, at least knows he’s an untrustworthy jerk. When an atheist is bad, what does the public perceive that he knows about himself?

      In the end, I think people believe that “God-fearing” candidates (even if that turns out to be a joke) have some restraints on the worst aspects of their human nature but it is difficult for them to know what restrains the dark side of an atheist. Mao. Stalin. Idi Amin.

      1. J Clifford says:

        Yeah, Dave, the big difference is that whereas you have twice now claimed that Christians are entitled to an automatic moral superiority score in the political arena, I claim no such thing for atheists. I don’t argue that atheists are naturally entitled to be thought of as having a better moral compass than everyone else.

        It’s amazing to me that your response to the evidence of Christian bigotry against atheists is to suggest that it doesn’t count as bigotry because, after all, Christians are morally superior to atheists. My jaw is actually dropping.

        Here you are in your latest comment, actually saying that when a Christian minister is bad to people, he’s entitled to a benefit of the doubt that atheists don’t get, just because he’s a Christian.

        Do you really believe this?!?

      2. Jim Cook says:

        Idi Amin was a devout Muslim, not an atheist.

        1. Dave says:

          Careful. Someone may see that as good reason to keep Muslims out of politics. Let’s just blame his crimes on the atheists to keep it simple.

  3. Dave says:

    J., I’m talking about the public and you’re talking about me. Nowhere have I claimed that Christians are entitled to an automatic moral superiority score in politics. I have attempted to explain what I think is the public’s perception, sub-conscious as it may be, and you have ascribed it to my personal veiwpoint. Get some duct tape for that jaw, fella.
    One more time: An atheist saying “trust me” is not able to lay out his argument (short of ‘splainin his entire philosophy of life) to a time-challenged and presumptuous public in what I called the “NECESSARY SHORTHAND” as to why people should do so. I have simply said twice now that I think that is the reason why an atheist would have a hard time of it in politics, and I will add particularly state and national. Haven’t you noticed that politicians like to be photographed walking into a church carrying a Bible? I see them as picking up on the same public perceptions that I am. Do I vote for someone because they photo-op their church attendance? No. I think it’s silly, and for most politicians rather hypocritical.

    1. J Clifford says:

      Dave, I apologize for misinterpreting the position you described as the position that you yourself held.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Psst... what kind of person doesn't support pacifism?

Fight the Republican beast!