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Could an atheist ever be elected as president of the United States?

A cross with a clown mask is held aloft during the National Atheist Organization's 'Reason Rally' March 24, 2012 on the National Mall in Washington, DC.
A cross with a clown mask is held aloft during the National Atheist Organization's 'Reason Rally' March 24, 2012 on the National Mall in Washington, DC.
Photo by Allison Shelley/Getty Images

It happened on November 4, 2008. After many said: "not in my lifetime," the majority of the American voters who stepped into the ballot box pulled the lever and elected the first African American president in the country's history, Barack Obama. While the election of an African American for president was long overdue, there is another voting block that might never get their chance to call a president one of their own, atheists.

According to multiple reports and studies, atheists and nonbelievers, known as "the nones," make up between 12% and 19% of the population in the United States. Though non-believing Americans account for nearly 20% of the population, less than 2% actually identify themselves as an "atheist." In the United States, atheists have been branded with the negative stigma of lacking morals and ethics. Though atheism is on the rise, the idea that Americans could look past false claims and stereotypes to elect a president who doesn't believe in a higher power is questionable at the very least.

While a religious litmus test might be given by the American people, the U.S. Constitution says otherwise. Article VI of the constitution reads: "no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States." Though the First Amendment does guarantee freedom of religion, it makes sure not to declare any one religion or belief above any other.

In 2007, a Gallup poll was released that showed that only 45% of Americans would vote for an atheist as president, compared to 53% who said they wouldn't. The number of people who could elect an atheist as a president is lower than those who would vote for a Hispanic, a Mormon or a gay American. The poll was taken a year before the 2008 election and since the rise of the Tea Party and the evangelical Christian right, backlash against atheists and nonbelievers is increasing at a time when more Americans are backing away from organized religion.

Over the years, more Americans are leaving organized religion, Christianity in particular. With Americans leaving the church, the number of nonbelievers are increasing and it was evident when over 10,000 "nones" attended the "Reason Rally" in Washington, DC in March of 2012. With the American electorate so divided, atheist continue to struggle to find a place where they feel welcome. Republicans have stamped themselves as the party of evangelical Christianity, but the Democrats haven't exactly opened their arms to nonbelievers.

Though Democrats haven't fully embraced "the nones," President Obama did make a point to include them in his inaugural address.

"We are a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus, and nonbelievers. We are shaped by every language and culture, drawn from every end of this Earth."

At one point in history, Americans never thought they would see the day that an African American would hold the highest office in the country. That day has come and gone and the United States is still struggling with issues of race that don't seem like they will be going away any time soon. If the United States is going to progress to the point that an atheist or nonbeliever can be president, the country will have to change and change quickly.


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