Last month Julia Gillard was elected prime minister of Australia. Gillard is Australia’s first female and first unmarried prime minister. Even more remarkably, she won Australia’s highest office after openly declaring that she is an atheist.
It is extremely unlikely an avowed atheist could be elected president of the United States. Substantial percentages of Americans say they would not vote for such a candidate. In a 2007 Newsweek poll, 62 percent of respondents said they would not vote for a candidate who admitted being an atheist. This position was taken by 78 percent of Republicans, 60 percent of Democrats, and 45 percent of independents.
Moreover, in a 2003 Pew Research Center poll, 52 percent of Americans expressed a "mostly unfavorable" or "very unfavorable" view of atheists. A 2006 Fox poll reported that Americans were more likely to vote for a Mormon or a Muslim for president than an atheist.
If these polls are accurate, an overt atheist could not be elected president. This question, of course, is asked in the abstract. Would Americans actually refuse to vote for an atheist candidate if they liked his or her policies and personality? I suspect that in 1980, if Americans had been asked the generic question—would you vote for a divorced, former Hollywood actor for president—sizable numbers would have said no, but that year Ronald Reagan decisively defeated Jimmy Carter.
However, in the United States today, being known as an atheist is such a political liability that an individual espousing this position could not gain a major party nomination for president or probably even the Senate. Only five members of Congress refuse to indicate their religious affiliation, and none have no affiliation.
While declaring oneself an atheist would be a huge political liability in this country, it did not prevent Gillard from defeating a devout Catholic—Tony Abbott—to become Australia’s prime minister in August. How was she able to win?
First, a little background: Gillard, who is 48, moved with her family from Wales to Australia in 1966. She was elected to Parliament in 1998, appointed Minister for Health in 2003, and became deputy to Prime Minister Kevin Rudd in 2007. When Rudd’s popularity waned, Gillard challenged his leadership, ousted him as party leader in June, and then prevailed in a general election in August.
So, why was an overt atheist able to win in Australia, but presumably could not in the United States? Here are some indicators:
A smaller percentage of Australians (64) than Americans (about 80) identify themselves as Christians. A substantially higher percentage of Australians say they have "no religion" or declined to identify their religious affiliation (31 versus 16). More significantly, about 7.5 percent of Australians attend church each week, compared with 40 percent of Americans. In many ways, Australia is more secular than America.
Moreover, while affirming that she is an atheist, Gillard frequently declared that she greatly respected the work of religious groups and is "a big supporter" of various church efforts.
Rather than unanimously opposing Gillard, the religious community in Australia was divided. Some religious leaders professed respect for Gillard’s candor about her worldview, liked her personally, and supported her policies. Many Christians as well as the Australian Christian Lobby were more alarmed about the policies of the Green Party, especially its support of euthanasia and gay marriage, than Gillard’s atheism.
Christian leaders in Australia expressed different opinions about Gillard’s atheism. A Catholic archbishop claimed it would cost her votes, declaring: "Many Christians are concerned that someone who does not believe in God may not endorse the Christian traditions of respect for human life, for the sanctity of marriage and the independence of churches, church schools and church social welfare agencies." Anglican Archbishop Roger Herft countered that any statements which portray the Christian faith as being "the sole arbiter on matters of moral integrity and just policy-making are unhelpful and untrue."
Pastor Danny Nalliah of Catch the Fire Ministries urged Australians not to vote for Gillard because "she is an atheist, and she refused to take an oath on the Bible." However, fellow Pentecostal leader Mark Conner, pastor of Melbourne’s biggest church, CityLife, professed to be unconcerned about Gillard’s atheism.
Finally, Gillard’s Labor Party won only 38 percent of the vote in a multi-party election and had to form a coalition to govern. In the United States, presidential candidates typically need at least 51 percent of the popular vote to gain enough electoral votes to be elected.
Despite what happened "down under," do not expect an overt atheist to become president of the United States any time soon. While the new atheists, led by Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens, have become more outspoken in the United States, it appears that too many Americans would refuse to vote for such a candidate.
— Dr. Gary Scott Smith chairs the history department at Grove City College and is the author of "Faith and the Presidency: From George Washington to George W. Bush" (Oxford University Press, 2009). He is also a fellow at The Center for Vision & Values.