My day was flat out ruined by a political ad.
I’m very passionate about politics to begin with, but usually if a political ad upsets me it’s in the direction of worry (”this is gonna kill us!”) or rage (”that’s a filthy lie!”). But this ad ruined my day because it made me feel a certain emotion in a way I don’t think I had before.
People throw that term around pretty loosely in politics these days. If I were to summarize the 2008 presidential election, I don’t think I’d be too far off if I described it as a competition to see which campaign could take more “offense” at the other.
“That was sexist! How dare you?”
“You accused me of racism! That’s the race card! How dare you?”
But the offense I’m talking about is the kind that really inflames the kind of anger that is one of the ingredients for cohesion in (I cringe at this term) identity politics. This offense is not the false umbrage of Geraldine Ferraro or Carly Fiorina, but the kind that emerges when a statement is made that explicitly says that one group of people is not welcome in America, that associating with them is an example of a flaw in one’s character. Of course, I’m not talking about associations with people who are legitimately questionable (had Barack Obama actually been a member of the Weather Underground, for example, I could see people having reservations). I’m talking about a group of Americans that is vilified even though they are law-abiding, decent, thoughtful citizens.
We’re familiar with this kind of bigotry in terms of race, gender, sexual orientation, or religion. In all cases, it is obviously unacceptable, and more to the point, an example of willful ignorance and/or maleficence on the part of the person advocating for exclusion. What we never talk about, though, is prejudice against people with no religion.
Having made some minor rumblings about this a couple of months ago, the reelection campaign of Sen. Elizabeth Dole of North Carolina along with the National Republican Senatorial Committee have released ads on TV and the web attacking Democratic challenger Kay Hagan for the most unforgivable of sins: consorting with atheists.
Here is the Dole campaign’s ad. Watch and then keep reading below.
Kay Hagan is upset mainly because the ad implies that she is an atheist, which she certainly is not, and is right to be upset at this misrepresentation. I am upset because the ad implies that because I am an atheist, I am someone who no self-respecting public figure should ever come in contact with. In other words, as then-candidate George H.W. Bush said in 1987, “I don’t know that atheists should be regarded as citizens, nor should they be regarded as patriotic. This is one nation under God.”
In my stomach-sickening anger after seeing this ad (and then later the NRSC’s web ad which displays the word “Godless” in smeary, blood-red letters), I wondered why we see so little of this kind of attack, accusing one’s opponent of being an atheist (of course, Obama is being compared to Karl “Religion-is-the-Opiate-of-the-Masses” Marx). Of course, the answer is that there are essentially no atheists in public life. Why is that? The unspoken religious test that disqualifies all atheists from serving in public office (unspoken until, of course, these ads).
There are two exceptions, of course, that I know of. Rep. Pete Stark of California is a non-believing Unitarian, and there is a Nebraska state legislator named Ernie Chambers who is also an atheist (and attempted to sue God, who did not show up for his court date despite calls of “come out, come out, wherever you are”). I know nothing about local Nebraska politics, so I have to chalk Mr. Chambers’ election up to a quirk of the region, and Rep. Stark has been serving in Congress for 18 terms, and only revealed his godlessness to his very liberal constituency last year.
The point is that it’s nearly impossible to accuse public figures of atheism if atheists are not allowed out in public.
Of course, there remains bigotry toward women, racial minorities, homosexuals, and people of faith. In these cases, however, it is now the mainstream position that this kind of prejudice is not okay, and any manifestation of this bigotry must be done covertly, with code, and hints, and innuendo. For atheists, however, a group differentiated only in their utilization of reason over superstition, are not allowed within this political force field. The Dole campaign and the Republican Party have made it clear that it is still okay to express open bigotry and hate toward atheists.
Or is it? These ads are relatively new, and Dole and the Senate Republicans are desperate. Perhaps there is still time for wiser voices in our political discourse to call this what it is: baseless discrimination and unwarranted prejudice.
I have little hope, but I have some. When Mitt Romney gave his semi-famous “religion speech” during the Republican primaries, he made two notable statements: “Any person who has knelt in prayer to the Almighty has a friend and ally in me,” and most notably, made the starkly definitive statement, “Freedom requires religion just as religion requires freedom.” Much to my surprise, major media figures such as Tim Russert and George Stephanopoulos pressed Romney and his campaign as to whether Romney meant to explicitly exclude atheists from “freedom,” citizenship, or less importantly, his friendship. Romney, notably, walked his words back, and allowed a begrudging place for atheists in America. Thanks, Mitt.
But as of now, the ire against Dole and her pals is all focused on misrepresenting Hagan’s religion, with little about how the ads spit on nonreligious Americans, treat them like criminals, and declare them unacceptable in American society.
So I’m experiencing a small taste of offense in the way that I expect many other oppressed groups have experienced it. Of course, no one is locking me up, telling me where I can drink from a fountain, where I can sit on a bus, or keeping me from voting. But now I am more certain than ever that if many people had their way, they would.