We Americans pride ourselves in being the prototypical democratic society, something we celebrate each July 4. Our specialness stems in part from the fact that we, unlike most other countries, are a nation made up of immigrants rather than a predominantly indigenous population. To be sure, some of those immigrants are now in their third, fourth or even tenth generation. So there is an element of myth to our nation of immigrants story, and also a degree of lip service paid. Down on the ground, as symbolized by the controversial (mostly struck down) Arizona law, we find some hostility and resistance toward immigrants these days, but that’s really nothing new. At some point we, or our ancestors, were all looked on as strangers in the land. We had funny names, strange accents — my mother who spoke perfect English pronounced shopping, chopping, to her dying day — odd customs or an unfamiliar/alien appearance. Of course, those once strangers have been absorbed in the melting pot, have made their way and place in a now shared national story. Well, yes and no.
From the days George Washington took office, we have been led almost exclusively by people who embody a stereotyped or, one might say aspirational, just like me look. It turns out, just like me means Protestant Christian, Caucasian and definitely male. In a sense, looking at our presidents probably gives us a more accurate picture of the American self-perceptive ideal than all those stories about immigrants and melting pots. To date, only one non-Protestant, Jack Kennedy, has reached the White House and only in 2008 did we elect, again for the first time, a Catholic Vice President. Needless to say, Barack Obama was the first elected African American and only time will tell if that is to be repeated any time soon or ever. Whatever religious and racial barriers may have been breached, one significant barrier has not. The presidency remains an exclusive men’s club, this despite there being (according to recent Gallup polling) more than 90% of us say we would vote for a qualified woman running for president. .
Gallup has been periodically asking the, would you vote for a ___ for president, since 1937. Back then the study universe was limited to women, Jews and Catholics. Protestant was obviously the of course default. By 1958 Blacks and Atheists were added (both scored badly) and in 1967 Mormons (reflecting George Romney’s candidacy). Astoundingly, Hispanics weren’t added until 2007 and Muslims only this year. Gays and Lesbians made the list in 1999 and 68% of respondents said they would vote for one (they are lumped together as one) in 2012. There remain gaps. Ethnic Indians aren’t included even though two are sitting governors and one, Bobby Jindal, is often mentioned as a potential vice president. So too with Asians, a good number of whom hold public office, among them Chinese American and former Governor Gary Locke, now our ambassador to China.
Polls are interesting to some degree merely because they mirror what we’re thinking or what’s happening at any given time. The inclusion of Hispanics and now Muslims reflects both. But polls are often flawed, failing to include important data or asking the right questions in the right way. According to Pew, another well regarded research organization, Asian Americans are the highest-income, best-educated and fastest-growing racial group in the United States. So why aren’t they included in Gallup’s study? There is also a big difference between how might you vote if the qualified candidate were African-American, and will you vote for Barack Obama?
Gallup’s list has grown since 1937, but aside from Kennedy and Obama we’ve elected only male white Protestants. People do act differently when a choice goes beyond the hypothetical and, just as when they are probed about, say church attendance, there is an element of not wanting to be seen in a bad light. 90+ percent of respondents say would vote for a woman, a Jew, a Catholic or an African American. White, male, Protestant remains the default. Demographics would suggest that may change in the years to come. Our Latino community accounted for 56% of our growth rate from 2000 to 2010 and have themselves grown 43% in that decade. At some point, one would expect the presidency and other high offices to be more reflective of the population. And in that, no group lags more than women who account for 50.8% of us but 0% of our presidents.
Of greatest interest to me in the Gallup poll, and generally under reported, was that for the first time a majority (54%) of respondents said they would vote for an atheist. Back in 1958 that number was 18% and by 1999 it had only climbed to 49%. There are other studies that suggest the Gallup numbers may be generous and that a substantial majority of Americans would be uncomfortable with an atheist in the White House. Indeed, were it not for younger respondents (18-29, 70% and 30-49, 56%) whose views tilt the total number toward majority, most older voters remain reluctant (an average of only 44% of those over 50 would vote for an atheist). As you might expect, Democrats and Independents are more receptive to an atheist than Republicans. It is also not surprising that young people are more open to atheists as they are to Gay/Lesbian and, for that matter, to all other groups. That is reinforced by a different but consistent finding, this time from Pew’s Religious Landscape Study. While 16% of the general population now identifies with no religion at all, that number rises to 25% among those under 30. With all the negative news we have these days, including how narrow-minded so many of us are, our more egalitarian young people constitute a ray of brightness and hope.
CNN Journalist Anderson Cooper announced the other day that he was gay. It was not big news because his identity had long been assumed. But Cooper felt that a personal revelation like that might have interfered with his professional job. I think we’re long beyond that, but these are very personal choices and his should be respected, not judged. Just as gays and lesbians long felt it necessary to hide their identity, my guess is that many more people in public life than would care to admit so are neither religious nor do they believe in God. Despite my characterization of our presidents being Protestants, the truth is a few including the great Abraham Lincoln had no church affiliation. Lincoln invoked God, but we don’t know what he meant by it. Jefferson, who did belong to a church most of the time, might well have not been very much of a God believer. Again, we can only speculate. The default in America for politicians remains being religious, preferably a religion just like mine (whatever mine might be). Our polling has heretofore always confirmed that being an atheist is a political non-starter. Perhaps, the new Gallup numbers suggest that could change in the future. Perhaps, one day will bring more people out of God’s closet. To be sure there is nothing wrong with believing in God, but a society in which women and men can be honest about their beliefs, including their atheism, would be an even better democracy.. Happy July 4.