November 7, 2008

Anti-Atheist Bigotry as a Political Tactic

Elizabeth Dole is OutImage by shadrachian via FlickrThe anti-atheist bigotry utilized by Senator Elizabeth Dole (R-NC) during her recent campaign is inexcusable. I have joined countless atheist bloggers in expressing outrage that such bigotry is tolerated in modern America. The challenge for us now, even after Dole lost the election, is one of recognizing that this may be a political tactic of which we will see more examples in future campaigns. It is time to seriously rethink our lack of organization and the political power we sacrifice by refusing to come together. Nobody is going to end anti-atheist bigotry for us; it is our struggle and our responsibility.

Recapping Dole's Bigotry

Dole's bigotry surfaced in late August in the form of a press release in which her campaign denounced her Democratic opponent, Kay Hagan, for meeting with the Godless Americans Political Action Committee. According to Dole's campaign, no politician should meet with groups who do not profess belief in ancient superstitions.

Several of us in the reality-based community recognized Dole's tactics for what they were - bigotry. Unable to distinguish atheists seeking civil rights from "anti-religion activists," the Dole campaign sought to paint Hagan as turning her back on "the values" of North Carolina (as if there was only one set of acceptable values).

But Dole was not finished yet. She received a sufficiently positive response from this strategy to stick with it. In fact, Dole's campaign decided to make Hagan's association with atheists a central issue. They distributed bigoted attack ads, claiming that Hagan should not be elected because atheists wanted her elected. Although Hagan benefited from increased campaign contributions from atheists angered by Dole's bigotry, nothing would deter Dole from sinking even lower by suggesting that Hagan herself was an atheist.

Associating with Atheists as Political Suicide

Not surprisingly, Kay Hagan did the only thing she could do in order to salvage her political future. She joined Dole in denouncing atheists the moment it became politically necessary to do so. Never mind the many atheists who contributed to her campaign. Having questions raised about her own belief in ancient superstitions was too much. Hagan decided to interpret the ad as an attack on her faith.

Hagan could have labeled Dole's tactics as bigotry, but this would have likely cost her the election. Being perceived as too friendly to atheists amounts to political suicide for a candidate. This, rather than even Dole's bigotry, is the central issue to which we should be paying attention in this story. It is great that Dole was defeated, but we have not seen the last of this sort of bigotry in political campaigns.

A Fork in the Road

We are at an important crossroads. Do we keep our heads down and hope nobody finds out what we really think, or are we willing to take what will surely be a risky stand? As much as I have struggled with my own misgivings around this, I am becoming increasingly convinced that our failure to speak out, organize, and flex our political power makes us responsible for continued anti-atheist bigotry.

So what if Hagan or some other politician was an atheist? Would that mean that they were unelectable? If so, why exactly is that? This is a discussion that needs to be had.

Anti-atheist bigotry is both widespread and commonly accepted. We see it routinely in the news, and there is rarely anyone willing to speak out to oppose it. Christians who might be our allies in other matters are unlikely to do so here. After all, if atheists were truly equal to Christians, their dogma would likely collapse. No, I think this task is going to fall primarily to us. So far, it has not been one we have been willing to undertake.

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