So When Will a Muslim Be President?
A guide to which minority group has the best chance to win the White House next.
The Muslims: Muslims, you may have heard, have a PR problem. And a Muslim running for president would be in a tricky situation: There's more hostility to Muslims in the red states, so a Muslim candidate would have to bank on the blue states. But if he or she hewed closely to traditional Islam on matters like the role of women, he would never win California or New York. To go blue, he'd have to be a pretty secular Muslim—but if he were too publicly secular, he'd lose potential donations of money and time from fellow Muslims. Of course, many American Muslims are quite secular, so nobody knows what kind of Muslim could count on ethnic politics to be an asset, rather than a detriment. Which is why the first Muslim president may well be a black Muslim, not Arab or Persian, and it so happens the only two Muslims in Congress—let's call them the top candidates—are African-American: Keith Ellison (D-Minn., raised Catholic) and André Carson (D-Ind., raised Baptist). Bonus prediction: In future years, look for a relatively secular politician to emerge from the large Iranian community in Los Angeles and achieve national prominence.
The Hindus: It's actually fairly surprising that there's no Hindu in Congress or in a governorship, given the popular perception of Indians as an industrious, nonthreatening model minority. If, like millions of Americans, you've been introduced to Indian folkways from The Simpsons and that stellar character actor who often works alongside Seth Rogen, you're probably inclined to like them. But as we learned in the aftermath of 9/11, some Americans assume that any dark-skinned, South Asian-looking person is an Arab or a Muslim—and despise him accordingly. It's likely that the first Hindu (or South Asian) president will come from a red state, having earned the white-guy seal of approval. Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal would be a perfect example, except that he is a convert to Catholicism. According to the Hindu American Foundation, there are four Hindu state legislators, including Kumar Barve, the majority leader of the Maryland House of Delegates. But my bet is that the first Hindu president will be an Indian-American celebrity who, before entering the political arena, has already transcended ethnicity in people's minds. Top candidate: Kal Penn, better known as Kumar from Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle. Penn is more intellectual than most actors (I've interviewed him, and he's impressive), was a visiting professor at the University of Pennsylvania, and stumped for Barack Obama.
The gays and lesbians: Yes, I know, we may already have had a gay president—Lincoln is a much-nominated candidate for closeted commander in chief—but if we're talking about an openly gay president, it won't be for a while. Still, we know what to do to improve a gay candidate's chances: murder an old person. Younger generations are far more tolerant of homosexuality; we know, for example, that voters under 30 opposed California's Proposition 8. When the time comes, voters may feel more comfortable with a lesbian president than with a gay man, given the stereotypes about lesbian monogamy and domesticity. Top candidate: a young woman, a college freshman somewhere in the progressive Midwest, maybe Wisconsin or Minnesota, who just worked her ass off for Barack Obama and is planning her run in 2048.
The atheists: When the lion lies down with the lamb, when the president is a Republican Muslim and the Democratic speaker of the House is a vegan Mormon lesbian, when the secretary of defense is a Jain pacifist from the Green Party, they will all agree on one thing: atheists need not apply. A 2007 Gallup poll found that 53 percent of Americans would not vote for an atheist for president. (By contrast, only 43 percent wouldn't vote for a homosexual, and only 24 percent wouldn't vote for a Mormon.) As Ronald Lindsay, executive director of the Council for Secular Humanism, told me in an e-mail: "Atheism spells political death in this country."
Indeed. Only one current congressman has confessed to being an atheist: Rep. Pete Stark, a Democrat from the lefty East Bay region of Northern California. If he ever ran for president, he would need God's help just as surely as he wouldn't ask for it.
Update, Nov. 12, 2008, 9:57 p.m.:As several readers have noted in "The Fray," this guide is not exactly comprehensive. With apologies to Summum, herewith two more groups that have good odds at winning the White House in the not-too-distant future.
Mark Oppenheimer writes the Beliefs column for the New York Times. He can be found at markoppenheimer.com and followed on Twitter @markopp1.
Illustration by Mark Alan Stamaty