Religion and politics in the United States became closely intertwined after World War II with the assistance of individuals such as evangelical preacher Billy Graham and President Dwight D. Eisenhower. In the 1950s, with the Cold War mounting, democracy and religion as well as faith and patriotism were married, and the country experienced extensive religious revivals. Eisenhower embodied this movement, stating, “our form of government has no sense unless it is founded in a deeply felt religious faith, and I don’t care what it is.”
Fast forward nearly two decades, and the United States saw its first openly evangelical president with the inauguration of President Jimmy Carter on Jan. 20, 1977. Following Carter, President Ronald Reagan was inaugurated in 1981 in one of the most successful presidential campaigns in modern history. Reagan won in a landslide largely due to an endorsement by the Moral Majority, an American political organization founded by televangelist Jerry Falwell in 1979 with aims of “evangelical Christian-oriented political lobbying.”
Although both Eisenhower and Reagan are often credited as champions of religion in American society, the irony remains that neither was particularly religious. Both, however, understood the potential benefit to be gained by supporting the religious movements. The Rev. Ed Dobson said that before Reagan, evangelicals were considered “obscurantist, sweat-drenched Appalachian hillbillies.” With presidential candidate Reagan endorsing and affirming this religious fringe, evangelicals lined up behind the candidate en masse.
Since then it has become common practice for presidential candidates to affirm their faith in an attempt to gain the support of various religious denominations. However, according to a new study from the Pew Research Center, it appears as though that trend may soon end. The study on American values released June 4 indicated the growth of non-religious affiliations among millennials in the U.S. According to the study, among millennials (identified as anyone born after 1981) doubts in God have doubled in the past five years for anyone under 30. The study now shows that 31 percent of American millennials do not affiliate themselves with any religious denomination.
Jesse Galef, communications director of the Secular Student Alliance, says that our generation “is causing a fundamental shift in how society will see religion … the Internet has exposed young people to different worldviews, and they’re carrying their newfound skepticism onto campus to organize.” Assuming this trend continues, the question then arises: When will presidential candidates begin supporting nonreligious citizens? With 30 percent of Americans ages 18 to 30 now voting and openly claiming some form of atheism or agnosticism, the incentive to attract these voters increases.
During Reagan’s campaign in 1980, Reagan and the evangelical community had a mutually beneficial relationship. Reagan saw the base as support for his campaign and evangelicals saw him as a way to be heard and “save the country.” Unfortunately, the public perception of evangelicals during the 1980s was not as negative as current attitudes against those who identify as atheist or agnostic. According to a 2007 Newsweek poll, nearly 62 percent of Americans would not vote for an openly atheist president, and currently Rep. Pete Stark (D-Calif.) is the only openly nonreligious member of congress.
For now, it appears to be too risky to publicly support nonreligious citizens or organizations. However, with the rising atheist population the eventual shift away from religiously affiliated political figures will only be natural. Once the negative stigma attached to atheism decreases, the relationship between presidential candidates and nonreligious citizens will most likely mirror that of Reagan and the evangelicals.
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