Americans Voters Moonlight as Existential Philosophers

People care more about belief in God than specific religious affiliation in their presidents.

When Americans vote for their president, they use lots of questions to figure out who to pick. Does this guy seem like a jerk? Does he represent my interests? Would I want to have a beer with him—and seriously, does it really have to be a "him" again? But as citizens stroke their chins at the ballot box, one question seems to be particularly powerful:

What does this guy think about the existential nature of the universe?

That's what new Pew data about American attitudes towards presidential candidates suggests. More than 1,500 people were asked how much they care about a candidate's faith, military service, sexuality, and age, among other things. While religious affiliation seems to matter somewhat, belief matters a lot more. 

Of all the surveyed groups, evangelical Christians were by far the most likely to care whether their commander-in-chief practices the same faith as them—roughly 58 percent. About a quarter of Catholics said they'd be more likely to vote for a candidate who belongs to the Church. But among all groups—Protestant, Catholic, white evangelical, and even people who don't identify with a particular faith—many said they'd be less likely to support a candidate who doesn't believe in God. 

Likelihood of Supporting a Candidate Who ...

Pew Research Center

Overall, 53 percent of those surveyed said they'd be less likely to vote for a candidate who doesn't believe in God. Even a quarter of the unaffiliated said they'd be wary of an atheist president—this from people who don't go to church and are probably agnostic or atheistic themselves.

This number has shrunk in the past half-decade; when Pew asked a similar survey question in 2007, 61 percent of respondents said they'd be less likely to vote for an atheist. But even then, the fact of belief seemed much more important than affiliation. Only 45 percent of people said they would be less likely to vote for a Muslim, and 25 percent said the same for Mormons; by far, these were the two most unpopular faiths.

This suggests an interesting impulse among American voters: They're willing to vote for leaders who believe something different from them, as long as they believe something. Maybe it's the feel-good appeal of that "God bless America!" tossed in at the end of every stump speech; maybe it's the relative rarity of atheist Americans, who only make up a little more than 2 percent of the population. Or maybe it's something more superstitious—a vague feeling that the highest office in the land is not a good place for Nietzschean pessimists. Although it's impossible to know whether there's true faith in a candidate's heart of hearts, he better seem like he believes in God if he wants voters to keep believing in him.

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Emma Green is an associate editor at The Atlantic, where she oversees the National Channel, manages’s homepage, and writes about religion and culture.

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