Cry If You Want To: Cases of Mistaken Atheism Still Offensive
Frantz, Karen, The Humanist
IF SOMEONE THREW a party in your honor, would you go? Now, before you say yes and then ask where, when, and if you should bring your dance moves, consider the full question: If a Godless American threw a party in your honor, would you go?
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. …