September 8, 2013

Anti-Atheist Bigotry Then and Now

Anti-Atheist Bigotry Then

During a news conference in 1987, then Vice President George H. W. Bush infamously replied to a question from a reporter with the following:
I don't know that atheists should be regarded as citizens, nor should they be regarded as patriotic. This is one nation under God.
Official portrait of George H. W. Bush, former...
Official portrait of George H. W. Bush, former President of the United States of America. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
This statement would go on to be one of the most quoted examples of anti-atheist bigotry I have seen and would have a great influence on me personally. In fact, I quoted it in the first post I wrote for Atheist Revolution back in 2005. It was in my mind as a started this blog, and it has never strayed far from my awareness in the years since. When I think about giving up or letting "the great rift" burn me out, those words come back and remind me that there is much work left to do.

Interestingly, there have been several attempts to discredit the above quote as inaccurate. Those who are embarrassed by the rank bigotry it reflects want to explain it away or pretend that it never happened. Fortunately, Rob Sherman, the man to whom the statement was made by Bush, obtained documents from the Bush Library in 2006 supporting the authenticity of the quote. It appears that former President Bush did in fact give this bigoted reply.

When Bush uttered those words in 1987, there was a quiet response from American Atheists but little else. There was no massive public outrage, large protests, well organized letter writing campaigns, and the like. But we must remember that we are talking about 1987. If something like this were to happen today, the response would be massive…or would it?

Dana Perino, White House Press Secretary for G...
Dana Perino, White House Press Secretary for George W. Bush (in office 2007– ). (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Anti-Atheist Bigotry Now

As it would happen, we do not have to speculate about what sort of response there would be today in the face of anti-atheist bigotry by a public figure. This sort of thing is still far too common, and we had a prominent example as recently as last week. Instead of speculation, we can examine the actual response. We can find out whether the apparent build of of the atheist movement over the past couple of decades actually translates into a much larger and more effective response to expressions of anti-atheist bigotry by a public figure.

Last Wednesday, an episode of Fox News' "The Five" aired in which pundits were discussing the Massachusetts lawsuit opposing the god language in the Pledge of Allegiance. Here is what Dana Perino, former White House Press Secretary for George W. Bush, had to say about those of us who object to the god language in the Pledge and/or the fact that school children in many parts of the U.S. are still expected to recite the god-laden Pledge every day:
I'm tired of them…Our representatives have spoken again and again, and if these people don’t like it, they don’t have to live here.
The video is available here. If you watch it, you'll note that the other guests went on to agree with the sentiment expressed by Ms. Perino. And that sentiment, loud and clear, was that atheists should shut up and leave the U.S. if we don't like church-state violations. Sorry Ms. Perino, but that is not going to happen. As Jerry Coyne (Why Evolution is True) noted, "That, of course, is completely antithetical to democracy in America, where if you don't like something, you can both vote against it and publicly protest it."

So what happens now? Will there be a massive public outcry that puts 1987 to shame? Will atheists across the U.S. stand up and speak out? Is the sentiment communicated by Ms. Perino any less acceptable today than it was in 1987? I guess we'll see.

What Can You Do?

There is an online petition calling on Ms. Perino to apologize for her comments at MoveOn.org. While I am not thrilled with the language of the petition statement or the link to The Huffington Post, it is a start. What else can we do? Contacting Fox News to complain might not be a bad idea. And using social media to keep the story alive and express our reactions to it can be helpful.

If you have other ideas, please feel free to share them in the comments section.

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