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A President Who Thinks Outside the Pew

A beautiful old church

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Will there ever be a U.S. President who sits outside mainstream Christianity? That might be the wrong question to ask.

When I was growing up in Indiana, a black president seemed impossible. An openly gay president even more far fetched. With Mayor Pete leading the polls in key states, it’s at least possible that a gay man will occupy the Oval Office.  

It’s remarkable and head-spinning. But another prejudice is still under the radar and little discussed. Americans, it seems, may be just fine with voting for people of color, minorities, and LGB (maybe not the T yet) folks, but they want them to attend a traditional church. (Mayor Pete, for his part, is an Episcopalian.)

About 23 percent of Americans, according to Pew Research, say they are athiest, agnostic, or “nothing in particular.” Only one member of Congress checks this box, Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (although another 18 declined to answer at all). Religious diversity is almost nonexistent, with 471 members of Congress self-identifying as Christian, 34 as Jewish, 8 as Muslim, Hindu, or Buddhist, 2 as Unitarians, and 1 — Sinema — unaffiliated. The most mainstream, common, and old Christian denominations are overrepresented, with Methodists, Episcopalians, Presbyterians, and Catholics far more represented in Congress than in America as a whole. 

Suppose Mayor Pete wins his party’s nomination and wins the general election. He would certainly be the first gay president in the modern sense. But sexuality has been more complicated than me-Tarzan-you-Jane since, well, forever. Abraham Lincoln had notably warm relations with other men (sharing his bed with his bodyguard when his wife was traveling) and James Buchanan died a bachelor after living with men for decades. That, of course, doesn’t mean either was oriented toward men. In the case of Buchanan, though, he didn’t and doesn’t fit neatly into the man-marries-a-woman box. The past is more woolly than we sometimes imagine. There is nothing new under the sun. 

If an agnostic, atheist, spiritual seeker, or some other person with non-traditional religious or spiritual beliefs ever makes a serious run at the highest office, we’ll probably realize that he or she both is and is not a first. The 45 men who have been president offer a more interesting religious panoply than people might assume. Two of the first three presidents rejected the divinity of Jesus. Let that sink in. 

John Adams and his son John Quincy Adams, Thomas Jefferson, James Polk, Lincoln, Andrew Johnson, William Howard Taft, even Dwight Eisenhower: They all had beliefs or at least backgrounds that would shock and offend some today. But the past isn’t the past that people imagine. And I hope that soon we’ll have a candidate who can take us back, again, to a time when a president can openly have an inquisitive, idiosyncratic approach to faith. 

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