Recently, in Westminster Wisdom, Gracchus referred to a Gallop Poll that contained the finding — possibly not particularly surprising to anyone who’s lived in the USA that the real no-no in American politics is admitting to being an atheist; apparently 53% of Americans questioned said they wouldn’t vote for an atheist for president, as compared with 4% who wouldn’t vote for a Catholic, 5% for someone who’s black, 42% for someone who’s 72 years of age or 43% for someone who’s gay.
The figures, of course, don’t necessarily reflect people’s actual voting behaviour; Ronald Reagan’s age was never a particular problem electorally (69 when he won the presidency for the first time), and neither — it seems — is it a particular handicap for the prospective Republican candidate Senator John McCain (who’ll be 72 in 2008). Nor, come to that, is the fact Rudy Giuliani is on his third wife the electoral liability that the poll’s finding that 30% of voters wouldn’t want to vote for so frequently-married a candidate.
The reason the findings should be taken with a degree of scepticism is, I think, that all they tell you about the putative candidate is that he’s an atheist, 72, much-married or whatever. In reality, voters consider candidates who have a significance other than their religious affiliation, age etc; they’re voting for the Republican or Democrat who’s got a particular record, personality and set of policies and who’s running against another real individual.
Nevertheless, as I said, it doesn’t come as a particular surprise to learn that someone’s being an atheist doesn’t particularly recommend them to American voters, while here it wouldn’t matter, any more than would the candidate’s being a Methodist or a Catholic or Jewish. I dare say that Neil Kinnock’s being Welsh was probably more of a liability than his being an atheist, just as Gordon Brown’s being a Scot is more of an issue than his being a Presbyterian.
What, though, are we to make of someone like Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney’s potential presidential candidacy? He’s a Mormon, so his beliefs — or, at least, those of his church — seem distinctly odd to most of us and many of that church’s social beliefs seem downright sinister. Despite this, he managed to get himself elected governor of Massachusetts on what appears to have been a considerably more socially liberal platform than either his church’s beliefs would seem to indicate or are the positions with which he now seems to be aligning himself, presumably in an attempt to make himself more acceptable to the Republicans in general and the American religious right in particular. Many of them, I understand, would see his church’s religious, as opposed to social, views as not just eccentric but downright satanic.
My main objection, I think, to Gov. Romney is based more on his present views — and the fact they seem eminently flexible, having apparently changed dramatically (and, to my mind, frequently for the worse) now he’s trying to appeal to a constituency outside Massachusetts, than on his church’s somewhat eccentric beliefs. Most Mormons I’ve met — socially, rather than ones who come knocking at the door, I mean — seem perfectly reasonable, sane and pleasant people and, of course, the State of Utah doesn’t appear to be any stranger a place to live, or notably worse-run, than, for example, California, so the oddity — to most of us — of what they profess to believe doesn’t necessarily seem to carry over into oddity in the rest of their lives.
What, I suppose, this is leading up to is the point that the apparent irrationality or eccentricity of someone’s personal beliefs doesn’t necessarily make them any more irrational or eccentric than the rest of us in other respects. It’s a sobering thought that the late Ronald Reagan had some distinctly bizarre beliefs, taking astrology very seriously, and was, nevertheless, a very popular and successful president. He certainly seems to have received better advice from his astrologers than did Mr Blair from his advisors about Iraq, for example.
And, while obviously I don’t know, I rather suspect that even Richard Dawkins, when it comes down it, votes for the candidate with whose political views he most agrees, whatever the candidate’s irrational and stupid — to the Professor — religious views rather than for an atheist with whose political policies he disagrees, just as I’m willing to bet that when he needs an operation he doesn’t worry so much about the surgeon’s intelligence, rationality and scientific outlook, as evidenced by his beliefs, as he does about the surgeon’s professional expertise and professional reputation. To demand to be operated on by an atheist rather than anyone else, because he must be rational (and who wants to be operated on by an irrational, unscientific surgeon?) would be as odd as to insist on being treated by a Methodist.
It may well be, of course, that someone’s — to me — odd religious beliefs lead him to hold political or social views with which I disagree, in which case I’m not going to vote for him, obviously. But that’s because of his views, not because of how he’s come to hold them. And if he starts telling me that such-and-such is obviously the right policy because God’s told him it is, then I’ll start to worry; even though I think there should, indeed, be laws against both murder and theft, I’d worry about someone whose main reason for wanting such laws is that God’s reliably reported to take a dim view of such activities (even though I believe He does).
My distrust of the legislator with a hot-line to God, though, is based partly on the fact I distrust any politician who’s got a hot-line to The Truth; I feel the same way about politicians who recommend policies simply because ‘that’s what Adam Smith would have us do’ as I do about politicians who recommend them simply because ‘that’s what Jesus would do,’ though in both cases there may well be — probably will be — excellent practical and pragmatic reasons for following such policies. That’s because I want to live in a liberal democracy rather than anyone’s ideal society, since liberal democracy is what I’m used to and seems to work reasonably well (or, at least, not so badly that I want to swap it for something else).