You may not have heard of Julia Gillard, Australia’s new prime minister after a revolt in the country’s ruling Labor Party last month saw the former prime minister, Kevin Rudd, stand aside. And it’s really a shame that you may not be familiar with Gillard because she’s accomplished in Australia what in the United States is nearly impossible: she’s the leader of her country and she’s an atheist.*
“I’m not a religious person,” Gillard said after being asked if she believed in God during an interview with Australia’s national radio, ABC (Australian Broadcasting Corp.). “I am not going to pretend a faith I don’t feel. And for people of faith the greatest compliment I could pay to them is to respect their genuinely held beliefs and not to engage in some pretence about mine. I think it’s not the right thing.”
In the United States our politicians’ religious affiliations are under constantly scrutiny and most people wouldn’t vote for an atheist for public office. A 2007 Gallup poll revealed that 53 percent of American voters wouldn’t vote for an otherwise generally well-qualified atheist for president–the highest negative of any of the characteristics asked about. (The second highest negative came in at 43 percent saying they wouldn’t vote for a qualified gay or lesbian candidate.) And so it’s no surprise that atheists in public office have been few in number in this country–Representative Pete Stark is the only “open” nontheist in the U.S. Congress–and atheist candidates elected to or running for office often face stiff challenges.
Even mere association with nontheist individuals or groups can have consequences for politicians–just look at the smear campaign waged in 2008 against North Carolina’s then-candidate for the U.S. Senate, Kay Hagan. During the election season incumbent Elizabeth Dole lambasted Hagan in a series of campaign ads for being “Godless”–all because Hagan attended a fundraiser that happened to take place at the house of a Godless Americans PAC advisory board member (the fundraiser was in no way affiliated with the political action committee). Hagan ended up winning the election–after making it clear that she is an elder in her Presbyterian church and used to be a Sunday School teacher.
Thus, it’s refreshing to see a national leader elsewhere in the world not only be so open and honest about her lack of belief–but also to see a populace who mostly shrugs in response. Two days after Gillard’s interview with ABC in which she declared she didn’t believe in God, the Australian conducted a poll that revealed that of the approximately 17,000 respondents, a whopping 65% didn’t care about Gillard’s faith.
Gillard should be recognized and commended for being forthright about her lack of belief in God while at the same time showing respect for others who hold differing views. Our election process here in the United States would greatly benefit from politicians practicing similar honesty about their beliefs or lack thereof. Until we see more humanists, freethinkers and other nontheists in the U.S. who are brave enough to be open about their convictions and face the initial firestorm of criticism that will no doubt be brought upon them, however, honesty about and respect for the private beliefs of our public figures may be a long way off.
* The original version of this article erroneously stated Julia Gillard was elected prime minister. Although Gillard was elected in 2007 as a member of parliament, she was appointed prime minister by her political party.