As presidential candidates spent weeks in Iowa, many of them let their religious flags fly high. Donald Trump brought out the Bible his mother gave him. Marco Rubio and Hillary Clinton both spoke about their faith. Even Bernie Sanders, who doesn’t participate in organized religion, spoke up about his personal beliefs.
One voter wondered where all this God talk left Americans who were not religious. What about atheists and other nonbelievers? So he decided to ask the candidates.
Justin Scott, a self-employed photographer and Iowa native, spoke to every major presidential contender and more than a few of the minor ones. At pizza parlors and coffee shops, meetups and rallies, Scott asked the candidates about atheists. He asked them if they support the separation of church and state and why an atheist voter should vote for them.
Political observers parsed the answers, speculating on how they would play with various religious voters. But what about atheists?
I spoke on the phone to Scott, who lives in Waterloo, Iowa, a few hours before the caucuses began on Monday. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Why did you want to talk to the presidential candidates about the separation of church and state and atheist voters?
I went into this as an atheist activist, as a secular activist, as somebody who wants to know where candidates stand on separation of church and state.
Two years ago, I came to the realization that I am an atheist. I am completely comfortable saying I am an atheist and I felt a longing to make some kind of positive impact, whether that’s spreading the word about atheism or letting people know that I am an atheist.
I feel like just saying, “Hi. I’m an atheist” really tears down walls. A lot of people know who I am in Eastern Iowa, so it’s going to tear down the idea that you can’t be good without God.
I’m all for you having your beliefs. Go to church. Wear your cross necklace. Bring your Bible to school. I don’t care. But when I have elected officials trying to influence my life and my family’s life based on their religious beliefs and traditions and preferences, I have a huge problem with that.
What did it feel like to ask your question?
As an atheist voter, going in to some of these, you realize you’re going to be surrounded by people who disagree with you. I really felt that with Ted Cruz.
He had an event at a small coffee shop. It feels like, everyone believes in God and it’s the Christian God. The people talking ahead of Cruz, they’re going on these pro-God, pro-gun, anti-Obama rants to get the crowd into a frenzy. People are so excited. It’s like a rock concert.
Then they welcome Ted Cruz, the savior, this Christian savior, and then he gets the crowd even more riled up. It was like injecting Christian steroids into these voters. The place was just worked up.
I put my hand as high as I could reach. I said, “Mr. Cruz, I have a question for you.” I said, “Hi. I’m an atheist.”
The room went silent. It was fun!
Who did you feel answered the question best?
With Bernie Sanders, I could sense this was not a talking point. He basically said the Founding Fathers wanted there to be separation of church and state: That’s how they set this thing up. We have seen other governments mix the two, and we have seen what has happened out of that, and we don’t need that in our country.
Hillary Clinton gave a very good answer as well. The thing that I really appreciated about Hillary wasn’t so much her answer, but that she took the time and she engaged. I had a T-shirt on that said “Atheist Voter.” She had every reason to ignore me. She had every reason to keep taking selfies with voters. I said, “Secretary Clinton, I have a question for you about religious freedom in this country.” She stopped. She said, “Go ahead.” She said she supported separation of church and state.
What about the Republicans?
Donald Trump and Rand Paul both blatantly ignored my question. Would not answer it. Would not acknowledge me. Would not give me the time of day.
The very devout Christian candidates, Marco Rubio, Rick Santorum and Mike Huckabee, took part in a dialogue. There was a genuine conversation.
I seriously felt like I could sit down with Marco Rubio and ask him, “Hey, what about this policy? What about that policy?”
My question was provocative. I asked him if he was running for commander in chief or pastor in chief. But after it was all over, I went up to him, I shook his hand. He thanked me for my question. I thanked him for his answer. We took a selfie together.
Santorum, Rubio and Huckabee — and Jeb Bush as well — were people I could really talk to. Jeb Bush was probably the Republican, out of all of them, that I could appreciate. He didn’t try to take a shot at me or my disbelief. Jeb Bush just gave me a very solid, non-preaching answer about how a Catholic and atheist could come together. He didn’t take that little dig at me.
John Kasich, he made a comment about, “Well, don’t give up on your Bible. Keep reading the Bible.” I really have a problem with that.
One reason religious groups can be politically powerful is because they’re organized. Do you see potential for the organization of a secularist voting bloc?
I’m having internal battles in my head. I want to see all the differently labeled nonbeliever groups come together. We all support this idea of keeping our government secular. We all are part of this movement that doesn’t want to have laws that are dictated by someone else’s religious belief.
We want to have a way of life that’s free from discrimination and oppression based on religious beliefs. If we found out that a law was going to discriminate against an entire group of people, we’d be mad enough. But if we found out that law was based in someone’s religious belief, that would cause all of us to slam on the brakes. We could all get involved in that.
I think these issues are really big now: religion in government, religion in public education, religion’s attempt to control reproductive rights. Even if you are a very conservative atheist, you could stand for small government and limited government power, and still say if you’re against abortion simply because your holy book says that, and I have a problem with that.
A lot of voters — even some who aren’t very religious themselves — use the authenticity of a candidate’s religious commitments to judge character. How do you think candidates should be evaluated?
Mike Huckabee told me he’d rather vote for a genuine atheist than a Christian candidate who talks the talk but doesn’t walk the walk. I was pretty happy with that answer.
I don’t care how deep of a believer you say you are. What I want to know is that when push comes to shove, are you using superstition and a book that was written 2,000 years ago as your guide or are you using an evidence-based approach?
I would weigh out specific issues based on, does this limit somebody’s freedom? Does this decision promote, advance or limit my freedom?
There are a lot of different ways that religious beliefs can inform or shape politics, though. If someone like Hillary Clinton supports a policy that you do and she gives a religious reason for that, does that matter to you?
Hillary Clinton has come out and been very vocal about her beliefs: “God bless Iowa” and that sort of thing.
I find it slightly annoying.
It’s tough. I don’t want to talk out of both sides of my mouth here. I’m always going to side with science and evidence. I’m pro-choice, and if Hillary were to say she’s pro-choice because God told her, part of me would have a problem with that.
At the end of the day, I would look at what is the outcome, and I would weigh out the evidence. So maybe whether or not the inspiration comes from religion doesn’t matter.
Do you think it would be possible in the foreseeable future for an open atheist to be elected president?
For a while, we didn’t think we could have an African American president. And look what happened.
I’d really like to see a secular Supreme Court justice. How amazing would it be when they are sitting there talking about where do rights come from to have someone in there saying, “Rights come from humanity and rights come from human beings and society”? It’s exciting to even think about.
I think it would just be exciting to see, in a future election cycle, just to see one of these candidates pander to the atheist vote. How funny would that be to tune in to the 24/7 news cycle and hear, “Is candidate XYZ doing enough to win the atheist vote?” That would be great.
Daniel Silliman is an instructor of American religion and culture for the Heidelberg Center for American Studies at Heidelberg University. He is an associate editor of “Religion and the Marketplace in the United States” and you can follow him on Twitter @danielsilliman.