The Christian Candidate’s Guide to Infidels

Which is worse for evangelicals like Rick Perry—being an atheist or a Muslim?

Texas Gov. Rick Perry and Rep. Michele Bachmann

A Minnesota-based filmmaker and self-proclaimed atheist won a contest sponsored by the Rick Perry campaign, and his short video was to be shown at one of the evangelical Christian candidate’s events over the weekend. Meanwhile, Perry’s GOP rival (and fellow Christian) Michele Bachmann indicated on Meet the Press that atheism wouldn’t exclude someone from her Cabinet. What’s worse from the perspective of a devout Christian—atheism or belonging to another religion like Islam?

Atheism. It’s difficult to make blanket statements about the theology of American evangelical Christians, because they don’t have a pope to issue statements on the movement’s official views. Nor do they have any official religious texts aside from the Bible itself, which predated the modern idea of atheism. Nevertheless, academics who study the movement note without textual evidence that atheism—and the advance of secular culture in the United States and Europe—seems to be a particular bugaboo. To be sure, many American evangelicals have their problems with Islam, but mainstream leaders of the evangelical movement have sought to create understanding between Christians and Muslims, often in very public forums. You may not see as many Christian ministers forging partnerships with Richard Dawkins or Slate’s own Christopher Hitchens.

Modern American evangelicals seem to agree with their ancient forebears: If you’re not going to be a Christian, at least be a Jew. The original Christians realized that their God had made numerous Old Testament promises to Jews, many of whom did not adopt the Christian faith. Thus Jews occupied a favored position in the non-Christian world and may get a special final opportunity to accept Christ when he returns on Judgment Day. This assumption is based, in part, on the assurance in Paul’s letter to the Romans that “all Israel will be saved.” American evangelicals cite Paul’s letter regularly, and strong support for Israeli security is now a primary element of the evangelical political movement.

The ancient and medieval Christians wouldn’t have had much to say about pure atheism, which is an 18th-century concept. Their closest analog would have been Epicureanism—the belief that worldly pleasure matters above all. In Christian-themed literature, at least, Epicureans were held in special contempt: Dante placed Epicurus and his followers in the sixth circle of hell, where their punishment for denying the immortality of the soul was to live out eternity in a fiery tomb. Honorable Muslims and pagans occupied Limbo, the relatively pleasant first circle of hell where the only punishment was the inability to ascend to paradise. A couple of pagans, including an obscure character from the Trojan War named Ripheus, even managed to make the improbable trip to paradise. Ripheus got there based on his strong belief in God’s providence, even though he couldn’t have accepted Christ during his lifetime. (The message of Ripheus is that God is unpredictable.) Dante had a particular dislike for the indecisive—those we might call agnostics. They wandered around the fringes of hell, and the poet wouldn’t even waste his time talking to them.

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Explainer thanks Randall Balmer of Columbia University, Stephen Fowl of Loyola University Maryland, Paula Fredriksen of Boston University and author of Augustine and the Jews, and Guy P. Raffa of the University of Texas and author of The Complete Danteworlds: A Reader’s Guide to the Divine Comedy.