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 However, Darwin's majestic theory of evolution by natural selection would sadly not be published in his lifetime.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.

Photo:Getty
Show Hide image

Why isn't Labour putting forward Corbynite candidates?

Despite his successes as a candidate, the organisational victories have gone the way of Corbyn's opponents. 

The contest changes, but the result remains the same: Jeremy Corbyn’s preferred candidate defeated in a parliamentary selection. Afzhal Khan is Labour’s candidate in the Manchester Gorton by-election and the overwhelming favourite to be the seat’s next MP.

Although Khan, an MEP, was one of  the minority of Labour’s European MPs to dissent from a letter from the European parliamentary Labour party calling for Jeremy Corbyn to go in the summer of 2016, he backed Andy Burnham and Tom Watson in 2015, and it is widely believed, fairly or unfairly, that Khan had, as one local activist put it, “the brains to know which way the wind was blowing” rather than being a pukka Corbynite.

For the leader’s office, it was a double defeat;  their preferred candidate, Sam Wheeler, was kept off the longlist, when the party’s Corbynsceptics allied with the party’s BAME leadership to draw up an all ethnic minority shortlist, and Yasmine Dar, their back-up option, was narrowly defeated by Khan among members in Manchester Gorton.

But even when the leadership has got its preferred candidate to the contest, they have been defeated. That even happened in Copeland, where the shortlist was drawn up by Corbynites and designed to advantage Rachel Holliday, the leader’s office preferred candidate.

Why does the Labour left keep losing? Supporters combination of bad luck and bad decisions for the defeat.

In Oldham West, where Michael Meacher, a committed supporter of Jeremy Corbyn’s, was succeeded by Jim McMahon, who voted for Liz Kendall, McMahon was seen to be so far ahead that they had no credible chance of stopping him. Rosena Allin-Khan was a near-perfect candidate to hold the seat of Tooting: a doctor at the local hospital, the seat’s largest employer, with links to both the Polish and Pakistani communities that make up the seat’s biggest minority blocs.  Gillian Troughton, who won the Copeland selection, is a respected local councillor.

But the leadership has also made bad decisions, some claim.  The failure to get a candidate in Manchester Gorton was particularly egregious, as one trade unionist puts it: “We all knew that Gerald was not going to make it [until 2020], they had a local boy with good connections to the trade unions, that contest should have been theirs for the taking”. Instead, they lost control of the selection panel because Jeremy Corbyn missed an NEC meeting – the NEC is hung at present as the Corbynsceptics sacrificed their majority of one to retain the chair – and with it their best chance of taking the seat.

Others close to the leadership point out that for the first year of Corbyn’s leadership, the leader’s office was more preoccupied with the struggle for survival than it was with getting more of its people in. Decisions in by-elections were taken on the hop and often in a way that led to problems later down the line. It made sense to keep Mo Azam, from the party’s left, off the shortlist in Oldham West when Labour MPs were worried for their own seats and about the Ukip effect if Labour selected a minority candidate. But that enraged the party’s minority politicians and led directly to the all-ethnic-minority shortlist in Manchester Gorton.

They also point out that the party's councillor base, from where many candidates are drawn, is still largely Corbynsceptic, though they hope that this will change in the next round of local government selections. (Councillors must go through a reselection process at every election.)

But the biggest shift has very little to do with the Labour leadership. The big victories for the Labour left in internal battles under Ed Miliband were the result of Unite and the GMB working together. Now they are, for various reasons, at odds and the GMB has proven significantly better at working shortlists and campaigning for its members to become MPs.  That helps Corbynsceptics. “The reason why so many of the unions supported Jeremy the first time,” one senior Corbynite argues, “Is they wanted to move the Labour party a little bit to the left. They didn’t want a socialist transformation of the Labour party. And actually if you look at the people getting selected they are not Corbynites, but they are not Blairites either, and that’s what the unions wanted.”

Regardless of why, it means that, two years into Corbyn’s leadership, the Labour left finds itself smaller in parliament than it was at the beginning.  

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.