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 However, Darwin's majestic theory of evolution by natural selection would sadly not be published in his lifetime.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 UK is dangerously close to breaking apart - there's one way to fix it

We must rethink our whole constitutional settlement. 

When the then-Labour leader John Smith set up a report on social justice for what would be the incoming government in 1997, he said we must stop wasting our most precious resource – "the extraordinary skills and talents of ordinary people".

It is one of our party’s greatest tragedies that he never had the chance to see that vision put into practice. 

At the time, it was clear that while our values of equality, solidarity and tolerance endured, the solutions we needed were not the same as those when Labour was last in power in the 1970s, and neither were they to be found in the policies of opposition from the 1980s. 

The Commission on Social Justice described a UK transformed by three revolutions:

  • an economic revolution brought about by increasing globalisation, innovation and a changing labour market
  • a social revolution that had seen the role of women in society transformed, the traditional family model change, inequality ingrained and relationships between people in our communities strained
  • a political revolution that challenged the centralisation of power, demanded more individual control and accepted a different role for government in society.

Two decades on, these three revolutions could equally be applied to the UK, and Scotland, today. 

Our economy, society and our politics have been transformed even further, but there is absolutely no consensus – no agreement – about the direction our country should take. 

What that has led to, in my view, is a society more dangerously divided than at any point in our recent history. 

The public reject the status quo but there is no settled will about the direction we should take. 

And instead of grappling with the complex messages that people are sending us, and trying to find the solutions in the shades of grey, politicians of all parties are attached to solutions that are black or white, dividing us further. 

Anyone in Labour, or any party, who claims that we can sit on the margins and wait for politics to “settle down” will rightly be consigned to history. 

The future shape of the UK, how we govern ourselves and how our economy and society should develop, is now the single biggest political question we face. 

Politics driven by nationalism and identity, which were for so long mostly confined to Scotland, have now taken their place firmly in the mainstream of all UK politics. 

Continuing to pull our country in these directions risks breaking the United Kingdom once and for all. 

I believe we need to reaffirm our belief in the UK for the 21st century. 

Over time, political power has become concentrated in too few hands. Power and wealth hoarded in one corner of our United Kingdom has not worked for the vast majority of people. 

That is why the time has come for the rest of the UK to follow where Scotland led in the 1980s and 1990s and establish a People’s Constitutional Convention to re-establish the UK for a new age. 

The convention should bring together groups to deliberate on the future of our country and propose a way forward that strengthens the UK and establishes a new political settlement for the whole of our country. 

After more than 300 years, it is time for a new Act of Union to safeguard our family of nations for generations to come.

This would mean a radical reshaping of our country along federal lines where every component part of the United Kingdom – Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and the English regions – take more responsibility for what happens in their own communities, but where we still maintain the protection of being part of a greater whole as the UK. 

The United Kingdom provides the redistribution of wealth that defines our entire Labour movement, and it provides the protection for public finance in Scotland that comes from being part of something larger, something good, and something worth fighting for. 

Kezia Dugdale is the leader of the Scottish Labour party.