When former Republican Senator Elizabeth Dole launched a last-minute ad falsely accusing her Democratic opponent, now-Senator Kay Hagan, of palling around with atheists, taking their godless money, and attending a secret fund-raiser hosted by the Godless Americans Political Action Committee (PAC), she was sharply criticized in the press for smearing the churchgoing, Sunday school-teaching, God-fearing Hagan. Most offensive to critics was the ad’s conclusion, coupling a picture of Hagan with an unattributed voice-over shouting, “There is no God!” (The voice did not belong to Kay Hagan.) This shocking declaration led smart-alecky James Kotecki at Politico.com to preface his replay of the ad with a sober disclaimer: “Warning: Today’s episode of Kotecki TV contains an ending that might disturb young children. Parents, please be advised.”)
Dole’s unfit-for-children video was widely cited as one of the nastiest, most desperate ads of a nasty season, and it may have contributed to her defeat. “Amid all the attack ads out there trying to out-ugly one another, we think we have found a winner,” CNN’s Campbell Brown declared. “Is this really what it has come down to? We are fighting two wars, our economy is a disaster, and Senator Dole’s message to voters is to falsely accuse her opponent of not believing in God?” Even Republican political consultant Alex Castellanos (creator of a notorious, racially charged 1990 ad for the late Jesse Helms) acknowledged on CNN that the Dole ad “seems to cross the line,” carefully adding that Hagan’s association with atheists was fair game. Meanwhile, Hagan reacted with fierce indignation, appearing with her pastor at a press conference the day the ad appeared to denounce the atheism charge and demand its retraction, threatening to sue Dole for libel if she continued running the ad. (Hagan filed suit the next day.)
Hagan had the facts on her side: not only is she not an atheist, but she had not attended a secret fund-raiser with an atheist group. The fund-raiser, held at my home, was sponsored and attended by a group of Democrats who shared nothing more than a desire to increase the number of Democratic senators. Dole seized on the irrelevant fact that one cohost, my husband, had advised the Godless Americans PAC several years earlier. A campaign press release also cited my alleged status as an “anti-religion activist” in decrying Hagan’s willingness to venture into our home. (Actually, I’m more often criticized by atheists for being soft on religion, partly because as a civil libertarian I’m quick to defend religious freedom and partly because the evils that many atheists blame on religion I tend to blame on human nature.)
Hagan was hardly the only candidate in the ’08 campaign to be deemed guilty by association, but, as far as I know, she was the only one indicted for associating with atheists. I don’t blame her for not condemning Dole’s bigotry in the waning days of a tight Senate race. I don’t even blame her for characterizing the atheism charge as libelous; I wouldn’t want to be labeled a devout Christian. I do blame the pundits who took the time to discuss the ad without ever pointing out, much less questioning, the demonization of atheists (which only a few seemed to notice). Criticism of Dole generally focused on her rude, misleading attack on Hagan’s religious beliefs. Indeed, the fury that greeted this ad reflected an assumption that calling someone an atheist was practically akin to calling her a child molester. “Should political candidates talk to atheists?” a straight-faced Wolf Blitzer asked William Bennett and Donna Brazile on CNN. Neither seemed fazed by the question. Neither responded by pointing out to Blitzer that he would never ask if candidates should talk to Jews, Muslims, Mormons, gay people, or members of other minority groups. Instead, Bennett opined predictably that candidates should probably avoid fund-raisers hosted by “active atheists.” Brazile stressed that she found atheism inexplicable “because clearly there’s strong evidence that there is a God.” Still she acknowledged, “I believe you serve all the people (including) those with little or no faith.” Then came the zinger: “That’s how you convert them.”
I like to assume that Brazile was not entirely serious; I don’t imagine that she actually expects public officials to engage in missionary work with irreligious citizens. But even this presumably flip reference to converting atheists reflected concern about the politics of associating with them for other reasons, like a willingness to consider their perspectives on church-state issues or to hear particular grievances about such abuses as coercive proselytizing in the military. It’s so tiresome being repeatedly pressed to assert the obvious: that atheists and agnostics are human beings as likely as any religionists to be ruled by conscience—which, as Americans, they are equally free to exercise, partly by petitioning their government.
But apparently we must still remind our elected representatives that nonbelievers should enjoy basic civil rights. A press release issued by the Dole campaign condemned my husband and me for serving on the advisory board of the Secular Coalition for America, which the campaign noted accurately but with horror is “the national lobby for atheists, humanists, freethinkers and other non-theistic Americans with the unique mission of protecting their civil rights.” Imagine that—protecting the rights of people who don’t believe in God. In Dole’s view, these are people that “most North Carolinians would not be comfortable having over for dinner.”
What was perhaps most striking about this press release was its meanness. The refusal even to dine with nonbelievers is not exactly a testament to the spirit of Christian charity. Dole earned her defeat partly with this low opinion of her own constituents. I like to think that many of them wouldn’t mind dining with the occasional atheist and, whether they know it or not, many of them probably do.