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 However, Darwin's majestic theory of evolution by natural selection would sadly not be published in his lifetime.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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Why Clive Lewis was furious when a Trident pledge went missing from his speech

The shadow defence secretary is carving out his own line on security. 

Clive Lewis’s first conference speech as shadow defence secretary has been overshadowed by a row over a last-minute change to his speech, when a section saying that he “would not seek to change” Labour’s policy on renewing Trident submarines disappeared.

Lewis took the stage expecting to make the announcement and was only notified of the change via a post-it note, having reportedly signed it of with the leader’s office in advance. 

Lewis was, I’m told, “fucking furious”, and according to Kevin Schofield over at PoliticsHome, is said to have “punched a wall” in anger at the change. The finger of blame is being pointed at Jeremy Corbyn’s press chief, Seumas Milne.

What’s going on? The important political context is the finely-balanced struggle for power on Labour’s ruling national executive committee, which has tilted away from Corbyn after conference passed a resolution to give the leaders of the Welsh and Scottish parties the right to appoint a representative each to the body. (Corbyn, as leader, has the right to appoint three.)  

One of Corbyn’s more resolvable headaches on the NEC is the GMB, who are increasingly willing to challenge  the Labour leader, and who represent many of the people employed making the submarines themselves. An added source of tension in all this is that the GMB and Unite compete with one another for members in the nuclear industry, and that being seen to be the louder defender of their workers’ interests has proved a good recruiting agent for the GMB in recent years. 

Strike a deal with the GMB over Trident, and it could make passing wider changes to the party rulebook through party conference significantly easier. (Not least because the GMB also accounts for a large chunk of the trade union delegates on the conference floor.) 

So what happened? My understanding is that Milne was not freelancing but acting on clear instruction. Although Team Corbyn are well aware a nuclear deal could ease the path for the wider project, they also know that trying to get Corbyn to strike a pose he doesn’t agree with is a self-defeating task. 

“Jeremy’s biggest strength,” a senior ally of his told me, “is that you absolutely cannot get him to say something he doesn’t believe, and without that, he wouldn’t be leader. But it can make it harder for him to be the leader.”

Corbyn is also of the generation – as are John McDonnell and Diane Abbott – for whom going soft on Trident was symptomatic of Neil Kinnock’s rightward turn. Going easy on this issue was always going be nothing doing. 

There are three big winners in all this. The first, of course, are Corbyn’s internal opponents, who will continue to feel the benefits of the GMB’s support. The second is Iain McNicol, formerly of the GMB. While he enjoys the protection of the GMB, there simply isn’t a majority on the NEC to be found to get rid of him. Corbyn’s inner circle have been increasingly certain they cannot remove McNicol and will insead have to go around him, but this confirms it.

But the third big winner is Lewis. In his praise for NATO – dubbing it a “socialist” organisation, a reference to the fact the Attlee government were its co-creators – and in his rebuffed attempt to park the nuclear issue, he is making himeslf the natural home for those in Labour who agree with Corbyn on the economics but fear that on security issues he is dead on arrival with the electorate.  That position probably accounts for at least 40 per cent of the party membership and around 100 MPs. 

If tomorrow’s Labour party belongs to a figure who has remained in the trenches with Corbyn – which, in my view, is why Emily Thornberry remains worth a bet too – then Clive Lewis has done his chances after 2020 no small amount of good. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. He usually writes about politics.