From Pete Stark to Mitt Romney, atheism to Mormonism, the discussion of religion (or the lack thereof) in politics and the larger culture is changing. I wrote newspaper column about it, and you can read it after the jump.
by Edward Cone
News & Record
In a culture with few taboos left to break, California congressman Pete Stark managed to make headlines earlier this month by saying that he doesn't believe in God.
A group called the Secular Coalition for America set out to name the "highest-level atheist, agnostic, humanist or any other kind of non-theist currently holding elected public office in the United States," and they were delighted to find Stark; he may not be the highest elected official with such a worldview, but seems to be the highest to admit it.
The reluctance of vote-seekers to veer from the appearance of piety is understandable, if not exactly a profile in courage. Poll after poll shows that a vast majority of Americans say they believe in God (although the specifics of what such a belief means are less than clear) and the inelectability of candidates who say they are godless is received wisdom.
A new openness
Taken on its own, the statement by the 75-year-old Stark, a congressman since 1973, would seem to say as much about the freedom granted by advancing years and the power of incumbency as it does any great change in American attitudes toward atheism. But there seems to be something bigger afoot, a willingness to challenge the traditional eggshell-walking practiced around the beliefs of others, and a self-confidence about frank claims of disbelief in the broader culture (even if "atheists" are still defined from outside with a word that categorizes them by their relationship to a cosmology they disavow).
Some of this new openness about religious skepticism is playful, like the Flying Spaghetti Monster spoof (www.venganza.org) launched in response to the "Intelligent Design" debates. And some of it is aggressive and unapologetic in its opposition to religion -- "the New Atheism," as writer Gary Wolf called it in a Wired magazine article about much-discussed books by Richard Dawkins ("The God Delusion"), Daniel Dennett ("Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon") and Sam Harris ("Letter to a Christian Nation").
Conservative politics shifting
None of which seems likely to usher in any time soon a change in the vague enthusiasm with which most politicians talk about religion (some, like Jimmy Carter and the current George Bush, can get pretty specific about their beliefs; the acerbic Dawkins might point to the track records in office of those two in particular as evidence for his thesis). But a change may be coming nonetheless. One driver of a new discussion about belief is the debate evangelicals are having over the role of their faith in national affairs, as old-school leaders such as James Dobson, who made sexual morality and conservative politics their focus, are challenged by the likes of the Rev. Jim Wallis, who would like to see more consideration of issues like the environment and poverty on the agenda.
Another key story line this electoral season could be the emergence of a major presidential candidate, Mitt Romney, who is a Mormon; it is hard to imagine that the beliefs of the LDS Church will not be the subject of much discussion if Romney remains a factor in the race. Not just the broad contours, either, but details like the appearance and disappearance in 19th-century New York state of golden plates inscribed with divine revelation. You can picture the covers of the newsweeklies, asking "What do Mormons believe?"
The tone of that discussion will be interesting to hear. Talking about someone else's religion is another taboo, and members of religious groups often are given great latitude in setting the parameters of what others can say about them. A certain sensitivity in this area seems polite and practical; people kill each other over this stuff in some parts of the world. But when beliefs become part of the news, the old rules are called into question -- just think back to the discussion in Greensboro last year when this newspaper refused to publish any cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammad, even though those drawings were part of a huge international news story.
Or look at the case of former John Edwards campaign-blogger Amanda Marcotte, who got in trouble for a remark about some central elements of Christian theology being "mythology." Marcotte's comment was phrased for maximum shock value in ways that went far beyond that loaded word, but the usage burned hot on the screen. Marcotte ended up resigning under fire, yet the fact is that we all believe that the sacred texts of religions other than our own are, essentially, mythologies -- stories that explain the world but are not true; unless you are a literalist, you believe the same of at least parts of your own religion.
We are probably a long way still from hearing a presidential candidate speak so bluntly about faith. But in a nation that values religious pluralism, discussions of what pluralism really involves seem like a healthy thing.
For all the talk about the role of religion in politics, we seem underinformed and unwilling to talk about religion itself.
© News & Record 2007