The American religious muddle 

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The First Amendment famously guards against a government “establishment of religion,” while simultaneously protecting “the free exercise thereof.” But it says nothing about private religious biases, which are widespread and play an interesting political role in modern America.

Anti-Muslim bias, and anti-anti-Muslim bias, have been all over the news. Only about three weeks ago, Islamic State-inspired terrorists slaughtered 14 Americans in San Bernardino, an attack that followed hot on the heels of the murder of 130 people in Paris. But within days, horror over these Islamist attacks was replaced by horror over Donald Trump’s silly call for “a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States.” Trump’s bluster somehow managed to recast Islam as the innocent victim of San Bernardino.

With all the focus on assuring America’s roughly 5 million Muslims that their country accepts them, America’s atheists might be forgiven for asking “hey, what about us?”

After all, atheists are arguably less popular with their fellow Americans than are Muslims. Apparently, slightly more Americans would be willing to vote for a Muslim than for an atheist for President (cue Obama birther joke here). That is the result from a Gallup poll, taken this summer, in which 60 percent of respondents said they would be willing to vote for a Muslim, while 58 percent said they would vote for an atheist.

Yes, that was before the San Bernardino attack. But it’s not as if America had been immune from Islamist violence before that. Yet belonging to the religion most commonly associated in the public eye with mass murder is considered more acceptable than belonging to no religion at all.

While atheism is an anchor, religious fervor is hardly a sail. That’s how I interpret the fact that, after Muslims, the next least popular religious group consists of evangelical Christians, perhaps the most fervently religious group in the country.

Roughly a quarter of Americans say they would not vote for an evangelical Christian for President. Among Catholic respondents, roughly equal numbers said they would be willing to vote for a Muslim as for an evangelical Christian, despite Catholics sharing most tenets of faith with the latter.

Indeed, according to Gallup, more Americans would vote for a homosexual/lesbian, woman, African-American, or Latino than for an evangelical Christian. When one considers the history of discrimination against those groups, the reversal of fortunes must be considered stunning.

The two religious groups that nearly everyone would vote for? Catholics and Jews, each of whom had greater than 90 percent support among poll respondents.

Catholics and Jews seem to be in vogue in government these days. Every Justice on the United States Supreme Court is either Catholic (six) or Jewish (three). Catholics and Jews also are over-represented in Congress, together claiming more than 36 percent of the seats in the current Congress, despite representing less than 25 percent of the population.

There are no doubt many explanations for these facts, starting with Catholic and Jewish over-representation in the high-powered Washington-New York-Boston corridor.

But maybe part of the story is that Americans don’t fear Catholics and Jews. In today’s America, Catholicism and Judaism are as much cultural as religious traditions; Catholics and Jews are each less likely than Protestants to attend regular religious services, or to say that their religion is very important to them. No one is worried that America will become a Jewish theocracy anytime soon.

Look at the current field of Presidential contenders. The two leading candidates are mainline, not evangelical, Christians. The word “pious” is unlikely ever to be paired with Trump (an Episcopalian), and while Clinton (a Methodist) professes religious faith, there are questions (fair or not) about her sincerity. Rubio, Bush, and Christie are Catholic, and Sanders is Jewish. Among the top candidates, only Cruz and Carson appear to be regularly observant Protestants.

My take on all this data: Americans want some religion in their politicians (sorry atheists), but not too much. That a politician has some religion (Catholics and Jews) suggests adherence to universal principles and, perhaps, humility in the face of a higher power. Too much religion (evangelicals and Muslims) suggests dogmatic views and intolerance.

And the common creed of America in 2015 clearly is tolerance. Is there any other way to explain the Kardashians?

Contributing columnist Kevin P. Martin is a constitutional and regulatory law expert practicing in Boston. The views expressed in this column are his own and not those of his law firm. View his past columns here.