Bush Senior says atheists are not citizens

This is an unusual quote from George Bush’s 1987 Presidential election campaign:

Robert Sherman: Surely you recognize the equal citizenship and patriotism of Americans who are atheists?

George H.W. Bush: No, I don’t know that atheists should be considered as citizens, nor should they be considered patriots. This is one nation under God.

I found this quote via Kevin Drum’s Political Animal, and it would be fair to say that its provenance is hotly disputed in the comments.

But, what I find most interesting, speaking from the perspective of a Brit who has lived in the States, and is therefore not entirely clueless about US politics, is that I have no problems in believing that a Republican US politician could think that this was either:

  1. Actually true
  2. A politically astute way of appealing to the religious vote

Either of these options is damaging for the integrity of American politics.  If a politician doesn’t believe atheists should be citizens or, worse, doesn’t care but is prepared to sell them out for votes, then one day atheists could actually lose their right to be citizens.

2 thoughts on “Bush Senior says atheists are not citizens”

  1. You may well be right about Point 1 and Point 2 (though Bush père never struck me as *that* kind of Republican), but I’ve lived in the US for a few decades myself, and it seems to me that the likelihood of “atheists losing their right to be citizens” is exceedingly remote, as things stand. Maybe it could happen someday, but a lot of things could happen someday. I’d guess it’s more probable than an invasion of space aliens, but less probable than the establishment of a monarchy.

    That’s not to say Bush père didn’t deserve a swift kick for talking such utter, howling gibberish.

  2. In chasing down this quote, it was apparently part of an exchange with American Atheist reporter Robert I Sherman (http://www.holysmoke.org/sdhok/aa011.htm). If you’ve followed the American Atheists at all, and I had the ‘pleasure’ of having their TV program show up on my local cable as a youngster, you will know that they are aggressive bigots who are devoted to fighting against christianity and denigrating it. It’s not a “live and let live” type of movement. I’m reasonably comfortable with the idea that it’s a pernicious misquote spread about by a bunch of unfriendly militants. It wouldn’t be the first time in US political history. Supposedly this was done at a campaign stop in 1987.

    A 1989 White House Counsel letter was written about the affair which said

    Your letter of December 19, 1988, to President Bush has been referred to me for reply. As you are aware, the President is a religious man who neither supports atheism nor believes that atheism should be unnecessarily encouraged or supported by the government. Needless to say, the President supports the Constitution and laws of the United States, and you may rest assured that this Administration will proceed at all times with due regard for the legal rights of atheists, as will as others with whom the President disagrees.

    Since this comes from the reporter who supposedly asked the original question, the page is not without interest.

    Of course, in the 4 years that President George HW Bush was in office, there never was any actual move against atheists or atheism. A little perspective might be in order. Of course, the whole thing is about getting at the son by attacking the father (who was not noted for his outspoken religious statements). It’s a bit shameful, really.

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