Jennifer Michael Hecht laments the fact that so few current public officeholders—-by one count, only five—-have professed their lack of faith. Indeed, it’s almost a mystery to her why more haven’t. After all, we have—-by her lights, at least—-a long and distinguished history on unbelief, even in the Oval Office (about which, more in a moment), not to mention a growing proportion of unbelievers (or at least religiously unaffiliated people) in the population. What better time to come out of this last closet?
Why are atheists, so bold in other contexts, currently less than forthcoming when they seek and hold electoral office? Hecht implies that the only possible reason is a kind of calculated cowardice. Despite our growth in toleration, we the American people punish atheists at the polls. Thus ambitious politicians like Barney Frank, who had no problem affirming his homosexuality while in Congress, wait until after they’ve retired to admit their nonbelief. To be sure, Frank offers other reasons for not being frank, but Hecht isn’t buying them.
That brings me to Hecht’s “history.” She points to Presidents Jefferson, Monroe, Lincoln, and Taft as in some ways questioning God’s existence or not demonstrating belief. I have my own doubts about Jefferson, but have absolutely no doubt that he said this :
[C]an the liberties of a nation be thought secure when we have removed their only firm basis, a conviction in the minds of the people that these liberties are of the gift of God? That they are not to be violated but with his wrath? Indeed I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just: that his justice cannot sleep for ever: that considering numbers, nature and natural means only, a revolution of the wheel of fortune, an exchange of situation, is among possible events: that it may become probable by supernatural interference! The Almighty has no attribute which can take side with us in such a contest.
I also do not doubt that Lincoln was not religiously orthodox, but he also offered some very profound reflections on theodicy, among them this :
The will of God prevails. In great contests each party claims to act in accordance with the will of God. Both may be, and one must be, wrong. God cannot be for and against the same thing at the same time. In the present civil war it is quite possible that Gods purpose is something different from the purpose of either party; and yet the human instrumentalities, working just as they do, are of the best adaptation to effect his purpose. I am almost ready to say that this is probably true; that God wills this contest, and wills that it shall not end yet. By his mere great power on the minds of the now contestants, he could have either saved or destroyed the Union without a human contest. Yet the contest began. And, having begun, he could give the final victory to either side any day. Yet the contest proceeds.
And this .
Perhaps these men were adapting themselves to the culture of their times, speaking the language that would resonate most with their listeners. It wasn’t just that they feared the political repercussions of affirming what they “truly” believed (though Jefferson’s political fortunes were put at risk thanks to his suspected heterodoxy), but also that they had some respect—-a respect that is notably lacking among contemporary atheists—-for the faith and opinions of their fellows. What’s more, they at least recognized that much of the moral energy that could be directed to the common good resided in the pews.
I don’t much like those who “evangelize” by demeaning the beliefs and denigrating the intelligence of those with whom they disagree. Perhaps Hecht should have more patience with the Barney Franks of this world (I can’t believe I’m saying this!) and encourage them instead to seek for the reasonable grounds—-that we on the religious side are confident exist—-for cooperating with their religious colleagues.