On January 1st 2010, Michael Bloomberg was sworn in as New York Mayor. This past Democrat and Republican is now incumbent as an Independent after campaigning to change the city’s term-limits law to allow his third term.
In the chilly New York air outside City Hall, the re-elected Mayor raised his right hand to Judge Jonathan Lippman and repeated the oath while his left hand dropped to his side.
The Bloomberg family Bible also dipped out of the proceedings, held by his two daughters ‘til he appeared to remember his omission and briefly touched it. Oops.
It must have been an oversight rather than a subversive gesture. The Bible was surely not intended to be inconspicuous, having had a press release of its very own stating its provenance (it had belonged to his mother and was printed in 1909 by the Canal Street Hebrew Publishing Company).
Mayor Bloomberg is pro-business and the free market. As a very wealthy, self-made man, he has a lot to thank capitalism for. He is also socially liberal, supporting embryonic stem-cell research, gay marriage rights and vigorously defending abortion rights.
He is a Reformed (progressive) Jew, but seems to keep his religion out of his politics. Even if he were an undercover atheist (and his silence on religious issues suggests it may be possible), as an experienced politician he’d know well-enough to keep his mouth shut in America. (Having said that, if you were to go godless there are worse places to start than NYC.)
Religion has a prominent, and some would say, disturbing place in American politics. A great many issues split cleanly down religious fault lines and religious groups are good at mobilising voters. It is very difficult to contemplate an American politician without a religious affiliation of one kind or another.
The only one I'm aware of at the top is Senator Mark Udall (D-Colorado) who grew up in a Presbyterian family but states his current faith as ‘unspecified’.
Far from being a pallid cop-out, the Senator's declaration is likely as far as you can realistically go at the moment. No Senator is self-declared atheist or agnostic.
However, according to the 2001 census, fifteen percent of the American public are. And the non-believers’ ranks may be swelling. According to the American Religious Identification Survey of 2009, the no-religionists had nearly doubled since 1990.
The Pew Forum’s analysis of religion in the elections campaign of 2008 found that most Americans still stated that it was important for a president to have strong religious beliefs. However both Democratic and Republican frontrunners, Hillary Clinton and Rudy Giuliani among them, were seen as being the least religious politicians. So something of a discontinuity between reality and perception there.
Mitt Romney, former Governor of Massachusetts, was regarded by the voters as the most conspicuously religious of all, even more than George W. Bush. But this advantage was mitigated by the fact that the voters were nervous of his Mormon faith.
However, being a Mormon was still less of a liability than being an atheist, for whom a whopping sixty-one percent would have had difficulty voting (as opposed to 45% for a Muslim or 7% for a Catholic).
Americans still seem to be resolute and relatively unchanged on the traditional red/blue issues. A slim majority (52%) support abortion rights in most or all cases while 43 percent oppose it; 36% favour gay-marriage rights and 55% oppose it.
So where did the religion go in the 2008 election and has it gone forever?
I don’t think so. 2008 was fought on principally domestic issues (the economy, healthcare, the environment and the Iraq War). White, evangelical Protestants were the only major group in which a majority said that social issues like abortion and gay marriage would be very important in their presidential voting decisions.
But a rise in American atheism may be reflected in politics eventually. Organisations like the Secular Coalition for America (tagline: ‘Atheists, Agnostics, Humanists, Americans’) have joined the traditional meleé and will hopefully be able to reassure the religious that atheists are not without morals – a distressingly common misapprehension.
As Jacques Berlinerblau, (associate professor at Georgetown University and atheist) writes:
“American voters … sometimes have difficulty permitting the private sphere to remain the private sphere. This deprives them, again and again, of credible political candidates”