I'm tempted to just dictate the conversation as it occurred in class last night, but I can't resist editorializing a bit, so I'm going to do both, but first this set-up. I love when we're in the middle of a class discussion and one member of a group manages to embarrass the whole group by saying something that the group sort of believe but none would say out loud. That happened last semester when one young intrepid redneck admitted that he wouldn't date outside his race because he doesn't like "black girls. I'm not a racist. I just like white women." The entire "I won't date outside my race" group was squirming at that point. Something similar happened last night.
Once again, the conservative Christians (by this I mean they claim to believe the Bible is true, they are saved, and they at least make a pretense of being good Christians) were trying to convince me that there are good reasons they wouldn't vote for an otherwise qualified atheist to be POTUS. (For the record, there are no rational reasons, and I should point out that this was NOT at a Christian school.) One young woman insisted that she could only vote for someone who believed in a higher power to which the POTUS was subject. Clearly, the Constitution isn't sufficient; one must also swear allegiance to Ahura Mazda, YHWH, Jesus, or Allah as well. (They likely wouldn't vote for a Zoroastrian, though, and I know most wouldn't vote for a Muslim.) Another young woman admitted that she wouldn't vote for an atheist, but that she has no problem with them. "They're the ones going to hell, not me," she explained. After this rather depressing opening salvo, the class's oldest student--likely in his early 60s--weighed in. Dictation to follow. Enjoy.
Old Guy: I'll tell you why I wouldn't vote for him, because you need to believe in God. I can't vote for someone who doesn't believe in God.
Me: So a Hindu would be good. Shiva, Vishnu, Brahma. As long as it's a god?
Old Guy: There is only one God.
Me: So you couldn't vote for a Muslim?
Old Guy: No. I couldn't. My problem is that they don't accept Jesus as the Messiah.
Me: So a Jew is out, too.
Old Guy: No. I could vote for a Jew.
Me: But they don't accept Jesus is the Messiah.
Old Guy: But they believe in the One God.
Me: Then by that reasoning a Muslim must be ok.
Old Guy: I guess that's true.
Me: So atheists are out because they don't believe in any god, but especially because they don't believe in the One God.
Old Guy: There is only one God. And I couldn't vote for an atheist because Satan could just come in and take up his mind.
Me: Just staring.
Old Guy: He wouldn't know how to resist Satan. Satan could control him. That's what I believe.
Me: So, those are your beliefs, ok. But what you're saying is that an otherwise qualified candidate should be excluded because he or she believes the wrong thing? (I was tired of the sexist assumption by this point.)
Old Guy: The Bible says that when the Antichrist is revealed, he will be very competent, a leader even. Leadership isn't enough.
Me: Half the Christians in the world believe the Antichrist was already revealed.
Old Guy: I don't know which Christians you know...
Me: Catholics, Presbyterians, Orthodox, Lutheran, more than half the Christians in the world don't read the Bible the way you do.
Old Guy: Catholics? They're led. They don't even read the Bible.
It just got more depressing. When he dropped the Satan line, you could feel the fight go out of the Christians. Based on the way many of them read the Bible they're sort of obligated to believe in the old nefarious one, but it sure sounds bad in a discussion that is supposed to be about American politics and values. I can't vote for you because Satan will control your mind. Yeah, that sound perfectly reasonable. I'm sure the Catholics were thrilled to know that they're sheep, but he's not, too. It only takes two questiosn to divide a tribe against itself, it seems. Nice way to disguise your prejudices behind theology, and bad theology at that.
I'm more troubled by the implications of the entire group rejecting a qualified atheist based on theological assumptions, though. What about belief uniquely qualifies someone to lead and disqualifies another? It's clear that this is a matter of preference and tribalism. None of them was truly comfortable with more than one degree of difference theologically. In other words, many could vote for a Jewish candidate because they've been taught the Jews are God's chosen people, and according to their theology, the Jews will all come around some day, so, hell, they're practically half-siblings. Muslims have to be included, but the Christians are uncomfortable with it. Once you leave behind the Big Three, they have no problem saying they won't vote for that kind of believer.
When forced to explain why, they are typically at a loss. One student once offered that they needed to know the President was a praying person. Why? What could God possibly say to a President that any sane person wouldn't want verified? What decision should a President make that isn't first vetted by advisors, experts, the American public? What does God have to do with the Oval Office? It's so bizarre and unsettling that I find students react very negatively to the growing realization that their entire preference is a mere prejudice.
Secondary to that was a line the Old Guy used. He's African American, by the way, and that point is finally relevant here. He referred back to the Christian foundations of America. For a black man to make that statement shows the degree to which humans can hold two contradictory truths and even utter them with perfect comfort. That a nation founded with slavery written into its Constitution and built on the back of slave labor is somehow construed to be "Christian" by a descendant of those slaves is a complete categorical breakdown. The selective way Christian is defined to buttress his narrow position vis-a-vis POTUS qualifications would never work if those same Christians were once again discussing the Biblical warrants for race-based slavery.
Next week we're looking at Pascal's wager. Here's hoping Satan doesn't control my mind during that discussion.