A Jewish Atheist PM?

When reading about the British elections yesterday and today, I was already aware Labour leader Ed Miliband was Jewish. What I didn’t know until today is that he is also an avowed (though not noisy about it) atheist.

Now some people, of course, deny there’s any such thing as a Jewish atheist, but I’m not about to tell the descendent of Holocaust survivors he has to be religiously observant to qualify. Karl Marx’s atheism sure didn’t protect him or his ethnic and ideological heirs from anti-Semitism, did it?

But getting back to the main issue, I shouldn’t have been surprised by Miliband’s atheism. Wikipedia has a nifty “List of atheists in policy and law” that mentions two Labour PMs, Clement Atlee and James Callaghan, as nonbelievers. But I guess I figured more the more typical background for leaders of the British Left was the sort of Social Gospel non-conformist heritage of Lloyd George, Ramsey McDonald, Harold Wilson and Gordon Brown (Tony Blair probably stands alone as a conspicuously observant Church of England Labour leader, though he converted to Catholicism after leaving office).

The fact that Miliband’s atheism is not taken as a big deal in the UK–or no more of a big deal than the atheism of current Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg, or even the occasional “Christian Nation” rhetoric of David Cameron, an admittedly not very observant member of the C of E–is another negative proof of American exceptionalism in cultural matters that affect politics. I’m one Christian who would be happy to see separation of church and state finally reflected in the freedom of nonbelievers to abandon the hypocrisy of nominal affiliation and say what they are and are not without a great deal of drama. If a country like Britain with a state church can handle it, so can Jefferson’s America.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.