Traditionally, religious values have been a major factor in Americans’ selection of presidential candidates. For better or for worse, personal faith plays a major role in how well a candidate relates to the public and, subsequently, how successful he or she is at the polls. But there’s evidence that this dynamic may be changing. According to a new poll released by Gallup last week, 54 percent of Americans are now willing to vote for an atheist presidential candidate.
While this proportion is still relatively low, it marks a major change in thinking about faith and values. Consider that in 1958, only 18 percent of Americans said they’ve vote for a secularist. Over the past five decades, we’ve seen steady growth, though, with more than half of Americans now reporting the same.
Interestingly, gays have experienced a similar uptick in potential support, with only 26 percent saying they’d vote for a homosexual presidential candidate in 1978 and 68 percent saying the same in 2012. Other groups, too, have experienced increasing support. Only 33 percent of the nation was willing to vote for a woman in 1937 — a proportion that now stands at 95 percent.
As for atheists, the growth seems a bit slower than with other minority groups (although Muslims, too, experience a similarly poor showing). Also, it’s important to note that non-believers still account for the smallest percentage of potential presidential support when juxtaposed against women, gays, Catholics, Jews, Muslims and African Americans. Also, another important indicator of cautiousness and distrust on the part of the U.S. public can be seen among those who would not be willing to vote for atheists — a startling 43 percent.
The breakdown along party lines is intriguing to see as well, as Republicans are far less likely than Democrats to embrace secular candidates. On the flip side, young people are more likely to embrace non-believing candidates.
Gallup has more about the partisan and age breakdowns:
Americans of all political party affiliations are nearly unanimous in saying they would vote for a black, female, Catholic, Hispanic, or Jewish president. Democrats are significantly more likely than Republicans to say they would vote for a presidential candidate who is gay, Muslim, or an atheist. Republicans, in turn, are more likely to say they would vote for a Mormon.
Republicans’ willingness to vote for a Mormon for president is higher this year, likely because their presidential candidate is of the Mormon faith. […]
Gallup also finds wide differences in support for various presidential candidates by age. At least seven in 10 young adults, those under age 30, would vote for a presidential candidate of any background. However, fewer than half of senior citizens would vote for a candidate who is gay, an atheist, or Muslim.
Overall, there was a more even split among Americans in 2011 when it came to voting for an atheist presidential candidate. While 49 percent said that they wouldn’t choose a secular prospect, an additional 49 percent said they would (three percent were unsure).
Atheists may certainly continue to make gains when it comes to acceptance and support, but it may come, as we’ve seen thus far, at a slower rate. After all, people are cautious about non-believers and their worldview, as evidenced by a 2011 study that found that atheists are trusted at around the same level as rapists (a surprising revelation, to say the least.
Would you be willing to vote for an atheist for president? Take the poll and let us know below:
This Gallup poll was conducted from June 7-10, 2012, with a random sample of 1,004 adults (age 18 and older) from all 50 states and Washington, D.C. The margin of error, with 95 percent confidence, is +/- 4 percentage points.