Cry if you want to: cases of mistaken atheism still offensive.
Certainly for me, the answer doesn't change (I'm still coming with all my moves). But, as the North Carolina senatorial race illustrated in late October, I'm in the minority of those for whom the question would give no pause.
The question was posed in the second of two campaign advertisements released by the North Carolina republican incumbent, Senator Elizabeth Dole. Trailing in the polls behind then little-known democratic rival State Senator Kay Hagan, Dole decided to pull out all the stops and go for smear the week before Election Day.
Here's how the first ad went [cue requisite foreboding music ... "This message is approved by Elizabeth Dole"]:
"A leader of the Godless Americans PAC recently held a secret fundraiser in Kay Hagan's honor," says a female announcer over grainy footage of Kay Hagan looking, well, grainy. It then switches to members of the Godless Americans Political Action Committee declaring, "There is no God," and arguing against the phrases under God in the pledge of allegiance and In God We Trust on U.S. currency. Then back to the announcer: "Godless Americans and Kay Hagan. She hid from cameras, took Godless money. What did Hagan promise in return?" The ad ends with a still photo of Hagan and a woman's voice declaring, "There is no God!"
Despite what the ad would have you believe, that last voice isn't Hagan's. Nor did the Godless Americans PAC hold a secret fundraiser in her honor. It's true that the fundraiser in question was held at the house of Woody Kaplan, a member of the advisory board of the Godless Americans PAC. But it certainly wasn't a Godless Americans fundraiser. Explained Kaplan: "It was part of a series of fundraisers, put together by an informal group of about forty supporters of democratic challengers for U.S. senate seats. To the best of my knowledge, none of those we were raising money for knew anything about the Godless Americans Political Action Committee, and there was no discussion of anybody's religion at the fundraiser--or any issues regarding religion, in fact."
So, surprise, politicians lie in their campaign ads. Really not so shocking in and of itself. But what did seem to shock people was exactly how low Senator Dole had sunk--accusing her challenger of being an atheist.
The outcry was quick and loud. The story became a national one, and McClatchy-Tribune reported that within forty-eight hours of the first airing of what become known as Doles first "Godless ad" Kay Hagan received 3,600 contributions. And she gained a few points in the polls. People clearly didn't tolerate the nasty spirit of the ad; lying about someone's faith, they felt, shouldn't be tolerated.
But amid the outcry, few made the painfully obvious point that accusing someone of being an atheist really shouldn't be a put-down in the first place. And by using the term in that way--as though it were a bad word, as though there is something wrong with being an atheist--Dole managed to trash about ten percent of the U.S. population. In other words, millions of Americans who are law-abiding and patriotic, who pay their taxes and love their families but whose only offense is not believing in God.
Hagan's campaign reacted quickly after the first Godless ad was released. An e-mail to supporters read, "I can't begin to tell you how outraged I am that [Elizabeth Dole] has attacked my Christian faith. Her latest ad is fabricated and pathetic ... Help me respond by paying for an ad directly addressing these claims attacking my Christian faith" The email also enumerated Hagan's Christian credentials, including that her family has attended the First Presbyterian Church in Greensboro for over 100 years, that she herself attends church every week, and that she used to teach Sunday school.
Hagan also released her own television spot, offering similar clarifications. In it she stated: "Elizabeth Doles attacks on my Christian faith are offensive." But nowhere was there any mention of the inappropriateness of the Dole campaign's use of the term atheist. Only a declaration of Hagan's Christianity made an appearance--as if piety is what determines fitness for holding public office.
The Dole campaign fired back with the second ad-the "death throe" as it were, of her campaign--that was equally, if not more offensive than the last. Even if Hagan is Christian, so what, the ad argued, she's still untrustworthy because she fraternized with atheists. "If Godless Americans threw a party in your honor, would you go?" the ad infamously asked.
So now, not only is it not okay to be an atheist, it's not okay even to be supported by an atheist. The very notion is absurd and offensive. "Why shouldn't somebody godless have the right to express their political support?" questioned Kaplan. "Did Senator Dole vet all of her supporters for their religious beliefs?"
The second ad didn't fare any better with the public than the first. Hagan ended up winning the election with 53 percent of the vote to Dole's 44 percent, a larger than previous margin that was almost certainly due to the Godless ads.
Still, few made the point that atheists had been hung out to dry.
Senator John McCain (R-AZ) faced a similar stir in his bid for the presidency. At a Minnesota rally in October, McCain supporter Gayle Quinnell said she didn't trust Senator Barack Obama (D-IL) because he was "an Arab."
Like Hagan, McCain didn't correct the underlying false assumption that adherents of a non-Christian tradition--in this case Islam--might somehow be un-American or unfit for public office. Rather, he quickly took the microphone away and responded, "No ma'am, [Obama's] a decent family man and citizen that I just happen to have disagreements with on fundamental issues."
But this time the failure to address such bigotry managed to rankle Colin Powell, former secretary of state under President George W. Bush. Soon after the Minnesota rally, Powell publicly endorsed Barack Obama, and in an appearance on Meet the Press, Powell cited several reasons for his endorsement, including the negative way McCain was running his campaign--using smear tactics and false allegations to create distrust of Obama. Powell then said what few were courageous enough to say:
It is permitted to be said such things as, "Well, you know that Mr. Obama is a Muslim." Well, the correct answer is, he is not a Muslim; he's a Christian. He's always been a Christian. But the really right answer is, "What if he is?" Is there something wrong with being a Muslim in this country? The answer's no, that's not America. Is there something wrong with some seven-year-old Muslim-American kid believing that he or she could be president? Yet, I have heard senior members of my own party drop the suggestion, "He's a Muslim and he might be associated [with] terrorists." This is not the way we should be doing it in America.
Bravo for Powell. McCain absolutely should have made that point during his rally. It is unacceptable to allow such wrongheaded statements to go uncorrected in this country. But where was a similar outcry from a prominent figure when atheists were slandered in the same way? Where was the denunciation of the idea that not believing in God somehow makes a person un-American? Hagan certainly didn't make this point, instead simply pointing to her church attendance as refutation of Doles "Godless" attacks.
Sadly, the failure of an outcry simply reflects the still-strong anti-atheist sentiment that exists in this country. Belief in any god--even if it's not your god--is still much better than not believing at all; far more Americans say they would vote for a Muslim for president before they'd vote for an atheist.
So Hagan's failure to stand up for atheists and the defense of her piety might simply have been the safest political decision she could have made. As Kaplan said, "I was initially disappointed with Senator Hagan's response-cloaking herself in religiosity instead of defending her supporters' right to have any worldview they choose. But I understood the reasons for doing so."
We clearly have a long way to go in this country before we see a godless American elected president. But a good place for us to start is to loudly denounce such attacks on our character and our patriotism--and hold politicians accountable when they fail to do the same. There is no religious prerequisite for being an American, and a seven-year-old atheist should too be able to dream that one day he or she could become president of the United States. We need to continue to make the point that what binds us as a people is not a belief in God, but our shared embrace of the ideals of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
In other words, we need to reach a moment in history when we all have the same answer as Melinda Hennenberger did to the question, if a Godless American threw a party in your honor, would you go? "Maybe," the Slate magazine blogger wrote. "Would there be cake?"
Karen Frantz is the policy and advocacy associate at the American Humanist Association.