The intriguing question of atheists who seek public office in America is currently being fictionalized on the TV drama “The Good Wife,” which achieves decent ratings though viewers never know when an episode will start because CBS won’t plan around Sunday football games. Lead actress Julianna Margulies has scooped up award after award for her portrayal of Alicia Florrick, the estranged but never-quite-divorcing wife of the Illinois governor.
At the moment, the atheistic Alicia (Margulies herself is quoted as saying “I’m not really religious”) is running for chief prosecutor of Chicago. The Constitution says in article 6 that “no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States,” but that law doesn’t control individual voters’ choices.
During the 2012 campaign, Gallup asked whether respondents would vote for “a generally well-qualified person for president who happened to be” an atheist. Only 54 percent said yes, the lowest standing of any group, compared with 58 percent saying yes for a Muslim, 68 percent for a gay or lesbian, 80 percent for a Mormon, and virtually total acceptance for a Jewish, Hispanic, Catholic, female, or black president. In 1958, only 18 percent would vote for an atheist.
We owe a lot to the Gallup organization, which, because of visionary leadership, has asked religious questions that can be compared over decades.
In one episode, Alicia ponders how to finesse the religion problem after handlers tell her the A-word is deadly. Did they consult Gallup data?
Alicia fudges matters in a TV interview, presenting herself as an open-minded quester instead of the convinced atheist she actually is. As our heroine misleads voters her daughter Grace (yes, they named her Grace), who became a Christian believer in season two, squirms when her Bible study buddies are enthused to think Mom may convert as well.
Journalists can extract readable cultural commentary from this sort of thing, as Regina Lizik has done for thedailybeast.com.
Lizik said “Good Wife” regularly questions why voters “pretend that the illusion of religion is more moral than a lack of belief” and why “religion is still the prime indicator of morality and goodness.” More: “We ask politicians to do something immoral just so that we can cling to the false belief that religion is the only path to fairness and strength of character.” Thus voters force politicians to be “disingenuous.”
There’s some truth there, but isn’t it misleading to suggest each and every politico who professes faith is lying or cynical? Lizik also thinks “Good Wife” shows us that “the widely held opinion that all atheists want to suppress any and all religious expression is false.”
Of course that isn’t true for “all” atheists, but don’t we see some of this in the news?
“Good Wife” is not atheistic propaganda, since the appealing Grace character gives religious faith some expression. That was also the case with another cleverly-written series from the past, “House, M.D.” on Fox. Hugh Laurie’s lead character was anti-religious and yet pitiful because he was so desperately unhappy and unbalanced. Unlike Alicia, who respects Grace’s choices and opinions, Dr. House lashed out at believers -- but scriptwriters usually allowed them to hold their own in response.
Somehow, though, showbiz finds it difficult to treat religious faith as a natural element of characters’ everyday lives, the current CBS cop show “Blue Bloods” being a notable exception, and seems more sure-footed portraying skeptics like Alicia and House.
As for religious professionals, the WB and CW offered a presentable Protestant parson on the sweet “Seventh Heaven,” TV’s longest-running “family” drama (1996 – 2007). But then we had the excruciating 2006 series “The Book of Daniel,” portraying an Episcopal rector and his cronies. Verily, it was a blessing for Episcopalians and the rest of us when NBC yanked the show after only eight episodes.
So what is the valid news story here?