Mark Kingwell is a professor of philosophy, University of Toronto.
"I think I read he is an atheist," wrote the Democratic National Committee's chief financial officer, Brad Marshall, referring to Bernie Sanders. This was one of thousands of e-mails leaked in advance of this week's convention to anoint Hillary Clinton as the party's presidential nominee. "This could make several points difference with my peeps," Mr. Marshall noted. "My Southern Baptist peeps would draw a big difference between a Jew and an atheist."
I still can't quite fathom the thinking behind that last sentence. All Jews are borderline objectionable with the peeps, but atheist Jews are just too much? The peeps hate atheists even more than they hate Jews, because … well, even those godless unbelievers know the Old Testament. Or something?
I also have a perverse fondness for Mr. Marshall's use of the phrase "I think I read." (I think I read that "peeps" is painfully out-of-date slang even for Southern Baptists.) Mr. Sanders's religious beliefs, or lack thereof, have not made hard news precisely because they're irrelevant to his unexpectedly persistent campaign for social change, affordable postsecondary education, and fair distribution of wealth.
Nevertheless, the suggestion that Mr. Sanders might be an atheist was seen as heavy ammunition in the DNC's attempt to discredit him in favour of Ms. Clinton. The tactic mars the historic prospect of the first female U.S. president even as it highlights the real barrier to the country's highest office – more than money, perhaps even open homosexuality (although the latter is the stuff of fine speculation).
Barring a massive cultural shift, an avowed atheist cannot hope to be president of the United States. The original stained-glass ceiling kept women from the top of religious hierarchies; this one keeps non-believers from the levers of power.
A recent ABC News poll found that 83 per cent of the country's adult population identified as Christian, with 53 per cent hewing to various Protestant faiths. Another 4 per cent follow other faiths, including Judaism and Islam. Only 13 per cent reported having no religious convictions. This is out of step with the world at large, where the majority (52 per cent) is non-Christian, and with most other Western countries, where atheist or agnostic positions are dominant, albeit without fuss given broadly secular social cultures.
In the United States, John F. Kennedy's ascension to the Oval Office as a practising Catholic was considered a milestone. The only Jewish candidates for presidential nomination before Mr. Sanders were Milton Schapp in 1976 and Joe Leiberman in 2004. The republic is, in effect, a Christian theocracy where scaling the presidential peak demands at least professed New Testament faith.
Nobody can really divine the intent of the country's Founding Fathers (although many have claimed to). But it's at least plausible that, having seen first-hand the damage that religious conflict can do, they envisioned a country that, although united under one God, kept church and state genuinely separate. That, after all, is the essence of the classical liberalism to which most of them subscribed. We cannot agree on paths to salvation; in the interests of good order and good business, such differences shall be set aside.
But why stop there? Those who eschew religious belief are, ethically speaking, no better or worse than other people. When it comes to statesmanship, they might conceivably be superior, since the virtues proper to elected office are, in democratic politics anyway, reason and compromise rather than privileged access to a supreme being. The will of the people is the only guiding light you need.
Principled state atheism might prove a necessary condition for increasingly diverse democratic countries. It brings no controversial metaphysical commitments, no trappings of debate-proof conviction. It governs without fear or favour. Of course, real-world politics are not so rational, especially in charisma contests that demand that a candidate be someone you'd feel comfortable having a beer with.
And for those who are thinking that Republican nominee Donald Trump is the most secular candidate yet seen, I have news for you. A Trump presidency would entrench, not challenge, American theocracy. Although he is only a casual Presbyterian, Mr. Trump is in fact a truly devout theist. As we know from last week's Republican convention, the god he worships is himself.