The presidential turnoff that The Wall Street Journal forgot to ask about

On Monday, The Wall Street Journal published a survey conducted with NBC News that flipped the traditional presidential thermometer questions on their heads and asked readers what traits would make them less likely to vote for a candidate.

After all, we know that “shares my values” and “strong leader” are political turn-ons, but polls don’t take time to quantify what sends the wrong thrill up voters’ legs nearly as often.

The survey found that more Americans either have reservations about or are very uncomfortable with voting for an Evangelical Christian (44%) than do about voting for an LGBT candidate (37%). The candidate traits that voters are least ready for are having no prior experience in government (69%) and not having a college degree (63%). The two groups that registered the least discomfort were, perhaps unsurprisingly, candidates who are black (13%) or female (14%).

The survey went out of its way to ask questions relevant to the 2016 race. For instance, Scott Walker’s lack of a college degree almost certainly prompted that question’s inclusion. Respondents were also asked about their discomfort level with a candidate who has a former president in their family (34%), an obvious nod to Hillary Clinton and Jeb Bush.

However, the survey left one item off of their list of traits that probably should have been there. Respondents should have been asked how they would feel about voting for a candidate who does not believe in a personal God.

Depending on how you ask the question, nonbelievers are viewed with either suspicion or disgust by the average American voter. A recent Pew survey had “atheists” in a statistical tie with Muslims for last place in terms of how favorably religious groups saw each other. Atheists came in at 41% favorable; for comparison, Evangelical Christians — the group 44% of Americans have at least some reservations about voting for in a presidential election — were rated at 61% favorable.

Given the confusion about what the word “atheist” means, this isn’t all that surprising. Many in the ranks of the religious mistakenly believe that atheism implies an active rejection of God that amounts to a belief in and of itself. It doesn’t. It simply means a lack of belief.

And there is at least one candidate in the 2016 race who, for all intents and purposes, embodies this lack of belief: Bernie Sanders.

The Wall Street Journal, via Gil C / Shutterstock.com

The Wall Street Journal, via Gil C / Shutterstock.com

Bernie Sanders officially identifies as Jewish, but he’s Jewish in the same way that I and many other American Jews are Jewish: culturally, not religiously. Another Pew survey found that 62% of American Jews consider being Jewish to be a matter of ancestry and culture as opposed to formal religious beliefs. The same survey found that, when given a list of characteristics and asked to indicate which ones were “essential” to being Jewish, only 19% indicated that “observing Jewish law” was a requirement for Jewish identity, the second-least important trait (eating traditional Jewish food came in last). For reference, more than twice as many American Jews (42%) consider “having a good sense of humor” to be an essential part of being Jewish.

So while it wouldn’t be quite accurate to describe Sanders as an “atheist,” I’d be willing to bet my Bar Mitzvah money that if you asked Sanders if he believed in a personal God the same way that Mike Huckabee and Hillary Clinton claim to, he’d say something between “no” and “why are you even asking me this when the Koch brothers still exist?” Sanders practically never discusses religion, and his politics tracks about as far away from the faithful as could be. He’s regularly earned himself 0/100 ratings from the Christian Coalition, and was described in this post from Religion News Service last week as “unabashedly irreligious.”

Bernie Sanders entry into the 2016 race makes his non-belief as relevant as Ben Carson and Carly Fiorina’s lack of political experience. Even more relevant, given that Sanders is performing better in the polls than either of them. That we actually have elected a President with no political experience in the modern era — Eisenhower — while there are currently no openly unbelieving members of Congress, makes the question even more worth asking.

America is a religious contradiction, founded on secular values and averse to secular leaders. It would have been interesting to see just how averse we remain to the idea of a truly secular President. Next time around, the voters should be asked.


Jon Green graduated from Kenyon College with a B.A. in Political Science and high honors in Political Cognition. He worked as a field organizer for Congressman Tom Perriello in 2010 and a Regional Field Director for President Obama's re-election campaign in 2012. Jon writes on a number of topics, but pays especially close attention to elections, religion and political cognition. Follow him on Twitter at @_Jon_Green, and on Google+. .

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