The conventional wisdom in American politics has long been that someone who is not religious cannot be elected president of the United States. Most Americans have consistently said that it is important to them that the president have strong religious beliefs. And a new Pew Research Center survey finds that being an atheist remains one of the biggest liabilities that a presidential candidate can have; fully half of American adults say they would be less likely to vote for a hypothetical presidential candidate who does not believe in God, while just 6% say they would be more likely to vote for a nonbeliever.
On the other hand, the share of American adults who say they would be less likely to vote for an atheist candidate has been declining over time. Moreover, one of the candidates who is widely viewed by Republicans as a potentially “good” or “great” president, Donald Trump, is not widely viewed as a religious person, even by those in his own party. And on the Democratic side, the share of Americans who say Hillary Clinton is not a religious person now stands at 43%, which is sharply higher than it was in the summer of 2007, when she was seeking the presidential nomination for the first time.
These are among the key findings of a new Pew Research Center survey conducted Jan. 7-14, 2016, on landlines and cellphones among a national sample of 2,009 adults. This is the latest in a long line of research the Center has conducted on the role of religion in presidential campaigns. In 2012, for instance, polling found that Mitt Romney’s Mormon faith was a potentially important factor in the Republican primaries but was not likely to play a major role in determining the outcome of the general election. In the run-up to the 2008 campaign, voters who saw presidential candidates as at least “somewhat” religious expressed more favorable views of those candidates; but the Center’s research also showed that White House contenders need not be seen as very religious to be broadly acceptable to the voting public. And in 2004, a majority of the U.S. public thought it was improper for the Catholic Church to deny communion to pro-choice politicians like John Kerry.
The new survey confirms that being an atheist continues to be one of the biggest perceived shortcomings a hypothetical presidential candidate could have, with 51% of adults saying they would be less likely to vote for a presidential candidate who does not believe in God. Indeed, in the eyes of the public, being a nonbeliever remains a bigger drawback than having had an extramarital affair (37% say they would be less likely to support a candidate who had been unfaithful), having had personal financial troubles (41% say they would be less likely to support a candidate who had had financial struggles), or having used marijuana in the past (20% would be less likely to support a former pot smoker).
What is your opinion?
Does the religious preferences of a candidate for public office, whether it be a local election or presidential, matter to you when voting?