Americans Are Skeptical of Muslim, Atheist Candidates, but That Could Change

That level of opposition to Muslim candidates reflects public perceptions of Islam, according to some experts.

“I think it’s a real indicator of how Muslims have been denigrated in the American mind,” said David Gibson, the director of Fordham University’s Center on Religion and Culture, in a Dec. 1 interview. “There’s been so much anti-Islamic talk over the years, and especially now, that continues to have an effect.”

During his 2016 campaign, President Donald Trump regularly leaned on anti-Muslim rhetoric in making his pitch to the electorate, most notably calling for “a total and complete shutdown” of Muslims entering the United States. That posture has continued during his presidency; last week he re-tweeted three videos from a British far-right group purporting to show Muslims committing violent acts.

Gibson said higher support for candidates with a Judeo-Christian background shows “people still want their elected representatives, and especially their top leaders, to be men and women of faith.”

“It’s really important whether they’re sincere about it or not it’s really important that they tick that box,” he said.

Twenty percent of adults under the age of 30 said they would oppose an atheist candidate, and 21 percent said the same of Muslim candidates, making young adults less likely than other age groups to oppose atheist or Muslim candidates.

A Pew Research Center study in October found that 56 percent of Americans now say it’s not necessary to believe in God to be moral and have good values. A similar study in 2011 found 49 percent of Americans expressing that same view.

As that tide has started to turn, some elected officials are being more open about their lack of belief in a deity or deities — although many still shy from using the term atheist.

In November, Rep. Jared Huffman, who represents a Democratic-leaning district in coastal California, came out as a “humanist” — the rejection of religion as the foundation of human morality.

Huffman says he’s been surprised by the amount of positive feedback he’s received from constituents, and expects some of his colleagues will follow suit.

“I think this will be demystified in the years ahead,” Huffman said in a Nov. 30 interview at the Capitol. “I’ve got a lot of colleagues who agree with me spiritually. I serve here with atheists, non-believers, agnostics, spiritual seekers, humanists and people of deep faith, and it covers every part of the spectrum, just like the American people themselves.”

Huffman was one of 10 members of Congress — all Democrats — who declined to state their religious affiliation at the start of the 115th Congress. That group represents about 2 percent of lawmakers on Capitol Hill, even though 23 percent of U.S. adults describe themselves as unaffiliated.

Congress remains overwhelmingly Christian: Almost 91 percent of its members identify as such, according to Pew, compared with approximately 71 percent of American adults. The share of the electorate that is unaffiliated is smaller than that. CNN exit poll data from the 2016 presidential election showed 15 percent of voters had no religious affiliation, in contrast to 75 percent of the electorate who identified as Christian.

Trump’s anti-Muslim rhetoric could still be effective in certain parts of the country, but it’s likely to lose some of its punch as millennials overtake Baby Boomers as the biggest share of the electorate, according to Daniel Cox, director of research at the Public Religion Research Institute.