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 However, Darwin's majestic theory of evolution by natural selection would sadly not be published in his lifetime.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

How Jim Murphy's mistake cost Labour - and helped make Ruth Davidson

Scottish Labour's former leader's great mistake was to run away from Labour's Scottish referendum, not on it.

The strange revival of Conservative Scotland? Another poll from north of the border, this time from the Times and YouGov, shows the Tories experiencing a revival in Scotland, up to 28 per cent of the vote, enough to net seven extra seats from the SNP.

Adding to the Nationalists’ misery, according to the same poll, they would lose East Dunbartonshire to the Liberal Democrats, reducing their strength in the Commons to a still-formidable 47 seats.

It could be worse than the polls suggest, however. In the elections to the Scottish Parliament last year, parties which backed a No vote in the referendum did better in the first-past-the-post seats than the polls would have suggested – thanks to tactical voting by No voters, who backed whichever party had the best chance of beating the SNP.

The strategic insight of Ruth Davidson, the Conservative leader in Scotland, was to to recast her party as the loudest defender of the Union between Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom. She has absorbed large chunks of that vote from the Liberal Democrats and Labour, but, paradoxically, at the Holyrood elections at least, the “Unionist coalition” she assembled helped those parties even though it cost the vote share.

The big thing to watch is not just where the parties of the Union make gains, but where they successfully form strong second-places against whoever the strongest pro-Union party is.

Davidson’s popularity and eye for a good photo opportunity – which came first is an interesting question – mean that the natural benefactor in most places will likely be the Tories.

But it could have been very different. The first politician to hit successfully upon the “last defender of the Union” routine was Ian Murray, the last Labour MP in Scotland, who squeezed both the  Liberal Democrat and Conservative vote in his seat of Edinburgh South.

His then-leader in Scotland, Jim Murphy, had a different idea. He fought the election in 2015 to the SNP’s left, with the slogan of “Whether you’re Yes, or No, the Tories have got to go”.  There were a couple of problems with that approach, as one  former staffer put it: “Firstly, the SNP weren’t going to put the Tories in, and everyone knew it. Secondly, no-one but us wanted to move on [from the referendum]”.

Then again under different leadership, this time under Kezia Dugdale, Scottish Labour once again fought a campaign explicitly to the left of the SNP, promising to increase taxation to blunt cuts devolved from Westminster, and an agnostic position on the referendum. Dugdale said she’d be open to voting to leave the United Kingdom if Britain left the European Union. Senior Scottish Labour figures flirted with the idea that the party might be neutral in a forthcoming election. Once again, the party tried to move on – but no-one else wanted to move on.

How different things might be if instead of running away from their referendum campaign, Jim Murphy had run towards it in 2015. 

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

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