Get G.O.D. out of the G.O.P.

By Hannah Sparks

A friend of mine recently “came out” as an atheist to her mother, who dismissed her daughter’s beliefs (or lack thereof) as “just a phase,” like sporting pink hair or black nail polish. Another friend of mine struggles to hide her atheism from her staunchly Catholic family.

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These two incidents are in no way isolated. In our increasingly tolerant world, atheism is still a taboo. Atheists are distrusted and even disliked in some cases. Those in the public eye are often accused of having the inability to make moral decisions, as they have no beliefs on which to base their morality. To not believe in anything is, to most Americans, not only strange but also unacceptable and threatening.

The results of the 2011 American Values Survey show that two-thirds of Americans would feel uncomfortable with an atheist president. To offer a comparison, two-thirds of Americans would vote for a gay or lesbian candidate, and a third would vote for a Muslim candidate. That the American public is far more comfortable electing a Muslim or homosexual candidate than an atheist is striking, given the diverse and oftentimes controversial views held by many Americans regarding those groups.

While Christian values have long informed conservative beliefs, they have become a focus since the Tea Party came to power in the Republican Party in 2009. This has been made clear in the current race for the GOP nomination. Frontrunner Mitt Romney and recent dropout Jon Huntsman are both Mormon; Rick Santorum’s views are informed chiefly by his very conservative Catholic beliefs; previous contenders Michelle Bachmann and Rick Perry claimed that divine intervention inspired their ultimately unsuccessful bids.

Of all the candidates, Santorum is the most open about his religious views, and thus the most criticized and mocked by both opponents and the press. He is prominently and aggressively anti-gay rights and has made numerous inflammatory comments comparing gay relationships to polygamy and bestiality. Such remarks have led to the famous repurposing of his name by gay rights advocate and columnist Dan Savage. Santorum has also questioned long-held assumptions regarding women’s rights to birth control, saying that it harms both women and society. The scary part of all of this, for those who do not subscribe to conservative Christian beliefs, is the fact that while the GOP race is still anyone’s game, Santorum is very much in it.

The religious undertones of the GOP race rest upon the erroneous assumption that Christian values and American values are now and have always been synonymous. Christian values, however, are not as inherent to American politics as many Americans might think. The First Amendment of the Constitution maintains freedom of religion, and the Establishment Clause calls for the complete separation of church and state, disallowing the declaration of an official religion. Familiar monikers like “In God We Trust” and “One Nation, Under God” only appeared in the American consciousness in the 1950s. Stereotypical Christian, American values did not even exist before United States became a superpower after World War Two.

The “Leave it to Beaver” conformity of the 1950s called for a unified American identity that was wholesome, white, middle-class and Christian. A lot has changed since the 1950s, and as the primacy of the United States on the international scene is in question, we should not look for answers in antiquated values. Some prosperous, albeit not internationally dominant, nations in Europe such as Sweden, Denmark, and France regularly make it on to lists of least religious countries. I do not mean to conflate secularity with success, but with politics as turbulent as they are, removing religion from the equation would free up space for more meaningful arguments regarding pressing economic and environmental concerns.

To use a ubiquitous idiom, “legislating morality” is just not practical in times when there are more important issues on the table, such as economic disparity and high unemployment.

Extremely conservative beliefs, such as those that target minorities and seek to take away rights and entitlements already granted, do not address the true problems facing this country, such as lack of government efficacy and high unemployment. I do not advocate a wholly secular future but I do support a turn from the exclusionary religious rhetoric of current conservative politics to more pragmatic views that better suit the modern world.

Hannah Sparks is a Collegian columnist. She can be reached at [email protected]