An atheist in the White House? Why not? It’s happened before

A quick glance at American history could give non-believers hope for the future.

According to an excellent and thought-provoking article by Sholto Byrnes, atheism is not allowed under the constitution of Indonesia. In the scope of the article, he also claims that "a declared atheist would not stand a chance of running for America's highest office". It is something that can be said around anyone with even a fleeting knowledge of American politics and society which will, more often than not, be met with agreement. The idea that a non-religious person could not be made president of the United States is, in most circles, the conventional wisdom.

The case could be made, however, that the conventional wisdom is wrong.

First, the United States has already elected presidents with no supernatural means of support. The three names – which might sound familiar – are those of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln. These three unelectable heathens have all merited impressive memorials in Washington, DC. All three were re-elected for second terms.

Washington, America's first president, did attend church services during his adulthood, but refused to take Communion. Told by the priest that he was setting a bad example by attending but refusing to participate, he chose to stop going altogether. So while he may not have been expressly an atheist, religion was clearly not something that weighed heavily on his mind and politics. Being religiously pious may be viewed by some as an essential characteristic of a US president today, but the man regarded as "the Father of America" was anything but.

Jefferson, author of the Declaration of Independence and America's third president, was adamantly opposed to the establishment of a state-sponsored church. It was he who wrote the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom. This document was the primary inspiration for the First Amendment to the US constitution, which forbade the establishment of any religion by the state.

Admittedly, Jefferson was more of a deist than an all-out atheist. However, Darwin's majestic theory of evolution by natural selection would sadly not be published in his lifetime. Considering Jefferson's brilliant scientific mind, being aware of and understanding that theory may have pushed him strongly into atheist territory.

Lincoln, the man who signed the Emancipation Proclamation into law, was also not consoled by supernatural ideas.

After the death of his son, he was understandably devastated. One of the reasons for this despair was the idea that there was no "next life" after this one. He believed his son was gone for ever and dismissed any notion of an afterlife (a view that was not shared by his wife, who tried all kinds of supernatural ideas in order to feel a connection with her lost child).

Lincoln never made any public pronouncements of faith, yet is still regarded by a vast number of Americans as the greatest president the nation has ever had.

So, if one looks at history, America has already elected non-religious presidents. Whether they could be classed as atheists or not is up for debate, but certainly it is possible for someone who does not subscribe to any denomination (or, in the case of Jefferson, to be repulsed by the very idea) to be elected to America's highest office. Bringing the argument into the 21st century, how many people in 2002 would have said that America would elect as its next commander-in-chief an African American with a Muslim father and an atheist mother?

The non-religious (be they atheist, agnostic or otherwise) is the fastest-growing section of American society. To dismiss the idea that the US could never elect such a person would be to dismiss the unpredictability that makes American politics so interesting.

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The tale of Battersea power station shows how affordable housing is lost

Initially, the developers promised 636 affordable homes. Now, they have reduced the number to 386. 

It’s the most predictable trick in the big book of property development. A developer signs an agreement with a local council promising to provide a barely acceptable level of barely affordable housing, then slashes these commitments at the first, second and third signs of trouble. It’s happened all over the country, from Hastings to Cumbria. But it happens most often in London, and most recently of all at Battersea power station, the Thames landmark and long-time London ruin which I wrote about in my 2016 book, Up In Smoke: The Failed Dreams of Battersea Power Station. For decades, the power station was one of London’s most popular buildings but now it represents some of the most depressing aspects of the capital’s attempts at regeneration. Almost in shame, the building itself has started to disappear from view behind a curtain of ugly gold-and-glass apartments aimed squarely at the international rich. The Battersea power station development is costing around £9bn. There will be around 4,200 flats, an office for Apple and a new Tube station. But only 386 of the new flats will be considered affordable

What makes the Battersea power station development worse is the developer’s argument for why there are so few affordable homes, which runs something like this. The bottom is falling out of the luxury homes market because too many are being built, which means developers can no longer afford to build the sort of homes that people actually want. It’s yet another sign of the failure of the housing market to provide what is most needed. But it also highlights the delusion of politicians who still seem to believe that property developers are going to provide the answers to one of the most pressing problems in politics.

A Malaysian consortium acquired the power station in 2012 and initially promised to build 517 affordable units, which then rose to 636. This was pretty meagre, but with four developers having already failed to develop the site, it was enough to satisfy Wandsworth council. By the time I wrote Up In Smoke, this had been reduced back to 565 units – around 15 per cent of the total number of new flats. Now the developers want to build only 386 affordable homes – around 9 per cent of the final residential offering, which includes expensive flats bought by the likes of Sting and Bear Grylls. 

The developers say this is because of escalating costs and the technical challenges of restoring the power station – but it’s also the case that the entire Nine Elms area between Battersea and Vauxhall is experiencing a glut of similar property, which is driving down prices. They want to focus instead on paying for the new Northern Line extension that joins the power station to Kennington. The slashing of affordable housing can be done without need for a new planning application or public consultation by using a “deed of variation”. It also means Mayor Sadiq Khan can’t do much more than write to Wandsworth urging the council to reject the new scheme. There’s little chance of that. Conservative Wandsworth has been committed to a developer-led solution to the power station for three decades and in that time has perfected the art of rolling over, despite several excruciating, and occasionally hilarious, disappointments.

The Battersea power station situation also highlights the sophistry developers will use to excuse any decision. When I interviewed Rob Tincknell, the developer’s chief executive, in 2014, he boasted it was the developer’s commitment to paying for the Northern Line extension (NLE) that was allowing the already limited amount of affordable housing to be built in the first place. Without the NLE, he insisted, they would never be able to build this number of affordable units. “The important point to note is that the NLE project allows the development density in the district of Nine Elms to nearly double,” he said. “Therefore, without the NLE the density at Battersea would be about half and even if there was a higher level of affordable, say 30 per cent, it would be a percentage of a lower figure and therefore the city wouldn’t get any more affordable than they do now.”

Now the argument is reversed. Because the developer has to pay for the transport infrastructure, they can’t afford to build as much affordable housing. Smart hey?

It’s not entirely hopeless. Wandsworth may yet reject the plan, while the developers say they hope to restore the missing 250 units at the end of the build.

But I wouldn’t hold your breath.

This is a version of a blog post which originally appeared here.

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