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Australia's New Leader Is An Atheist: Americans, Don't Try This At Home!

5 years ago
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When Julia Gillard became Australia's first female prime minister last week she quickly earned international headlines and received a congratulatory call from President Obama for her accomplishment.

Now it turns out she's broken another barrier that, for American voters at least, would be far more daunting than her gender: She doesn't believe in God.

"No, I don't," she told an interviewer at Australia's national radio, ABC (Australian Broadcasting Corp.) who asked her point blank if she believed in God. "I'm not a religious person."

"I was brought up in the Baptist Church, but during my adult life I've, you know, found a different path. I'm of course a great respecter of religious beliefs, but they're not my beliefs."
Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard
Gillard was a studious Christian as a child, winning prizes for catechism lessons and for memorizing Bible verses. But, she noted, "I've made decisions in my adult life about my own views."

The new Australian P.M. is known for her razor-sharp debating skills and direct answers to direct questions, and that was also evident in her interview with ABC radio in Melbourne about her religion, or lack of it.

"I am not going to pretend a faith I don't feel," she said, according to the audio. "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 pretense about mine. I think it's not the right thing."

It's hard to imagine any U.S. politician saying such a thing about religion, or being so straightforward about most anything.

Our pols have their reasons, of course. Polls consistently show that even as Americans grow increasingly comfortable with voting for women, racial or religious minorities, or a homosexual, they are still not likely to back an atheist.

The latest Gallup poll on that question, posed in 2007, showed that 53 percent of American voters said they would not vote for an atheist for president -- the highest negatives of any of the categories. (Gallup has not asked about a Muslim candidate, and odds are that would score even lower. Cold comfort for atheists.) Some 43 percent said they would not vote for a homosexual candidate, and 55 percent said they would be willing to back a gay or lesbian for president.

In 2007, the Secular Coalition for America offered a $1,000 prize to anyone who could guess the name the "highest level atheist, agnostic, humanist or any other kind of non-theist currently holding elected public office in the United States." California's Pete Stark, a 19-term Democratic House member from the Bay Area, proved to be the correct answer, as he acknowledged he is "a Unitarian who does not believe in a Supreme Being."

But it's not like he created a rush on atheist candidates, and of course in the next year the victorious contender for president was Barack Obama, probably the most overtly religious Democratic candidate in years.

Julia Gillard, on the other hand, was able to say that she shared the values of her fellow Australians, if not their religious beliefs.

"What I can say to Australians broadly of course is that I believe you can be a person of strong principle and values from a variety of perspectives. And I've outlined mine to you."

And that seems to be working. An online poll at The Australian newspaper showed that two-thirds of the nearly 15,000 readers who responded to a question about Gillard's beliefs said they didn't care about her "lack of a religious faith."

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