Thursday, 30 October 2008

When atheism meets US politics

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As humanists/atheists/secularists in the UK we have plenty of battles to fight, but it's always worth reminding ourselves of the greater difficulties our colleagues across the Atlantic have in getting non-religious beliefs accepted in public life. Famously there's only one "openly non-theist" member of Congress, in the form of California Representative Pete Stark, and now a Congressional race in this year's elections is highlighting just how controversial atheism can be in the US.

Incumbent Republican North Carolina Senator Elizabeth Dole (wife of former Presidential candidate Bob) has spent the past two months "accusing" her Democratic opponent, Kay Hagan, of being an atheist (which she actually isn't) and associating with a group called the Godless Americans Political Action Committee, after she attended a fundraising event in September where one of the hosts (Hagan says there were over 40 hosts) happened to be a member.

US blogger Hemant Mehta, aka the Friendly Atheist, is excellent on the details of this, but in short Dole has launched into a vicious smear campaign which, in addition to containing outright lies, including doctored audio of Hagan supposedly declaring "There is no God", has had at its centre the notion that an atheist can not be considered fit to hold public office in the United States. (I've included one of Dole's smear ads below).

If this says a great deal about the position of atheism in the US, what is potentially even more telling is the extent to which Hagan has seen it necessary to refute the "allegations". She is a Christian, so of course she would want to make it clear that she has been misrepresented, but in a long statement yesterday she talked at length about her religious beliefs, as if to say that they do make her a better candidate than if she was an atheist:
"I have taught Sunday school. I’m an elder in this church, where the Hagan family has attended for over 100 years. I go on mission trips. I was raised going to Sunday school and church every week. And I raised my children that way. On Christmas Eve, we attend the 11:00 evening service, then early on Christmas mornings, my children and husband and I go to the Bell House and cook breakfast for the residents there. My family, my community and my church are the anchors of my life."
I think this is telling because it shows the extent to which Hagan feels she needs to distance herself from atheism in order to continue as a credible candidate. Ideally these sorts of allegations could just be met with an answer along the lines of "I'm not an atheist, but so what if I was?" I think that would work here, where we have plenty of atheist politicians, and I guess this shows the greater difficulties humanists in the US face. They've offered their support to Hagan in this race, largely as a reaction to the despicable tactics of Dole, so here's hoping next Tuesday sees the removal of at least one politican who seems to think atheists barely deserve their place in society.


SES said...

Not only is Dole using despicable tactics, but she's an ineffective senator. She's been rated as the 93d most effective senator (out of 100). OK, so somebody has to be in the cellar, but should they be re-elected with such poor performance?

Anonymous said...

Separation of church and state in America is the worst joke since custard pies were invented.