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Thinking cautiously on political affiliation and identity

If you had to vote for one of two hypothetical candidates for president, and one was a liberal Christian and the other was a conservative atheist, and that’s all you knew about them…who would you vote for?

This question, originally posed at Atheist Revolution, has been labeled a stupid question and an easy question by PZ Myers and Ed Brayton, respectively.

I don’t think it’s stupid. I do think it’s easy, but only because of the limited amount of information on offer for each candidate– religious affiliation (or lack thereof), and political leanings described in a single word. I find it discomfiting to be described as liberal or conservative, but the positions of people who are just fine with being labeled in one direction or the other are pretty simple to guess, and it’s just as simple to decide which one you’d prefer in the White House. It doesn’t mean you’re behind them in every way, but most of us have a general idea of which choice would make us less likely to wake up in a cold sweat in the middle of the night for having supported such a candidate.

Asking us how we feel about a person who is a member of our group (or not) being elected to the highest office in the land appeals to our desire to have that person empathize with us. That only works if we know literally nothing else about the person, other than whether or not he/she is a member of our group. A Christian, or an atheist? By all means, the atheist please. But when you add in other elements that not only are more likely to affect his or her policies, especially things that directly describe his or her policies…that changes the question entirely.

I want someone whose policies most closely align with mine, period. A person who shares other traits with me might be more likely to agree with me on policy, but not necessarily. So if you stipulate straight out that they don’t agree with me on policy, I could hardly care less how similar they are to me in other regards.

Generally speaking, a liberal candidate is far more likely to agree with me on policy than a conservative candidate. But there are individual liberal-leaning candidates who are further from me, ideologically, than certain individual conservative-leaning candidates. This is why limiting the information given by telling me only a candidate’s religious affiliation (or lack thereof) makes the decision easier, but it’s also made easier by expanding the information by telling me more about the particular ways in which a candidate leans liberal or conservative.

We speak critically of people who make their entire decision about who to vote for based on incidental traits of that person which were more or less unchosen, because that means weighing such traits over things that were chosen, and which have a much greater impact on that candidate’s potential behavior during his or her time in office. Whether the candidate is an atheist or a Christian is one such judgment– if it’s all you have to go on, then by all means go ahead choose the candidate who is more like you. But it’s never all we have to go on. Far from it.

That’s why these “who do you agree with?” quizzes are somewhat useful– they encourage you to think solely about what platform issues concern you most, to the exclusion of what party is endorsing them or how the candidate running on that platform is similar and/or familiar to you. They also can, for that very reason, show some manipulation in favor of showing that everybody is really a libertarian, so nobody should vote Democrat or Republican if they know what’s good for them! That’s a pitfall to avoid, but the general interest in discouraging partisanship and getting people to consider where they actually stand on issues, and who agrees with them, is a good one.


I actually think that's not a super-easy question, and one I'd need more information to answer with complete certainty. Most likely, I'd find a liberal Christian shares more of my policy goals, values, etc. than a conservative atheist, but specifically on separation-of-church-and-state issues, which definitely affect me as an atheist, I don't know if I could trust the liberal Christian to recognize Christian hegemony when s/he sees it.

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