Why George Romney's Defeat is Good for Atheism

• No religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States —Article VI, US Constitution

As an atheist, I have long been aware that the American political structure discriminates against atheists. For example, there have been many polls in which a majority of participants say that they would never, or would be unlikely to, vote for an atheist for high office. The way I've always encoded this bigotry is that only monotheists are allowed to pass the constitutionally nonexistant religious test required to qualify for high office. Romney himself as governor of Massachusetts, along with various senators and representatives who are also Mormons, supported that view, as did the recent election of a Black Muslim into the House of Representatives. I always figured that the divide was between atheists and polytheists on one side, and monotheists on the other.

However, George Romney was defeated in his run for the Republican presidential candidacy because he is a Mormon. This really isn't very ambiguous: the Republican base is packed with religious conservatives who are basically on record that they will never vote for a Mormon, and in state after state, it was shown that this was no empty threat, especially since the religious conservatives could support the nonviable Mike Huckabee with their votes instead. The difference between the presidential campaign and other, lower campaigns, is simply that: the president is the truest test of American prejudices. Various individuals who are not members of mainstream-to-conservative Christian denominations can be elected to lower offices, basically as exceptions or due to the nature of the local consistency or simply as a fluke, but the likelihood of that diminishes to near zero for the office of President of the United States.

Therefore, it appears that the split is not between monotheists and everyone else after all. So what is the nature of the religious test for office and public trust in the Land of the Free?

I think that the test is actually based on fear of being attacked, as are several other important aspects of the US political landscape (the "War on Terror", the Border Fence, the fear of socialism). In this case, religious individuals view atheists and Mormons as a threat because they understand that their ranks are filled with former main-stream Christians who either have become atheists, agnostics, or non-participants in religion, as well as Mormons (and to a much lesser extent, Muslims). That is, the exclusion of certain religious categories is very similar to the kind of discrimination formerly seen among GM workers against Fords and vice versa, or among American autoworkers and foreign cars, or among supporters of various athletic teams. In short, it is a "branding" phenomenon, a defense against competing brands. And why not? At times it appears that our entire culture is based on advertising and marketing. Entire segments of our economy are "ad-based", that is, they make their living by enticing consumers to view or listen to advertising. It should come as no surprise that religions in America have adopted the same kind of advertising/marketing mindset, and that they demand brand loyalty from their adherents. (One might even speculate about the historical connection between religious brand warfare and consumer brand competition: which came first?)

As a practical matter, atheists, Mormons, and Muslims, along with Hindus and most other non mainstream-to-conservative Christians, still fail and will continue to fail the nonexistant religious test for high office in our land. But it is actually comforting to see that the test is not actually based on religious grounds at all, but on brand loyalty. Who know, maybe this insight could show a way to move beyond our current religious divisiveness and pettiness. For example, is there a secular brand (American?) that could actually transcend traditional religious and ethnic branding?

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