The accession of Australia’s 27th prime minister, Julia Gillard, has struck a blow for several demographics traditionally and unfairly repressed, derided and/or mocked: the female, the red-haired, the unmarried, the Welsh. As became clear this week with one of her first pronouncements as prime minister, Gillard also represents another minority whose voice is rarely unapologetically heard in political discourse: she’s an atheist. “I am not going to pretend a faith I don’t feel,” she said. “I am what I am, and people will judge that.”
In Australia, at least, she’ll probably be judged pretty indifferently on this score: Australians tend to regard religious belief as an eccentric minority hobby. In December 2009, a Nielsen poll asked Australians whether they’d be more or less likely to vote for an ostentatiously Christian candidate. Seventy six per cent said it made no difference, and another 14 per cent said they’d be less likely – leaving just one Australian in 10 who’d be impressed by a politician’s holy ardour.
Australia’s equanimity about an unbelieving leader is unusual, but not unique (Gillard isn’t even the first atheist to have led the country – Gough Whitlam, prime minister from 1972 to 1975, was also a self-declared infidel). The UK also – ironically for a country with an established church – appears past caring. Its current deputy prime minister, Nick Clegg, has spoken of his atheism, to little scandal. Indeed, it may be easier for a British politician to be an unbeliever than a believer: the devout Tony Blair was once famously headed off from a theological discussion by his press secretary, Alastair Campbell, explaining that “We don’t do God.”
In the US, however, it is hard to imagine that an admission of atheism would be other than career-ending. In 2007, a USA Today/Gallup poll found that 53 per cent of Americans would not, on general principle, vote for an atheist. To put that in context, only – well, “only” – 43 per cent expressed the same reservation about a homosexual, 24 per cent about a Mormon, 11 per cent about a woman, and 5 per cent about a black person.
“It is strange,” agrees author Peter Stanford, who has written widely on religious issues. “America has that formal separation of church and state but it is unthinkable that a president could say he doesn’t believe in God. In the UK, though, there is a lot of muddleheaded thinking about this – politicians feel this need to be sensitive around the Church of England, and are terrified of offending the electorate. Really, though, I think people should be honest. I think that in a lot of places you’re more likely to get votes by saying you don’t believe.”
Julia Gillard may be more of a pioneer than she realises.