Editor’s Note: Here’s another story dealing with our far-right social conservative brethren in the South. I’m constantly amazed that these people seem to have forgotten who won the Civil War, and still don’t accept the fact that they’re part of the United States. Ever since we Yankees made them give up their slaves, they just hate being forced to live by our Constitution.
Conservatives who feign a strict constructionist view of the Constitution often castigate liberal jurists for “legislating from the bench”; however, they’re oddly unconcerned when religious fanatics ignore our Constitution to legislate from the pulpit. Just ask recently elected City Councilman Cecil Bothwell.
Social conservatives are threatening to sue the City of Asheville, North Carolina, because the state’s Constitution bans anyone who doesn’t believe in god from holding public office. Bothwell believes in “the Golden Rule, rather than a deity,” but doesn’t deny god’s existence, calling the entire subject “irrelevant.” Labeling himself a “post-theist,” he never made religion an issue during the election (or since) and has continuously contended that Asheville has more-important problems to address.
This dust-up sounds like another excuse to debate the First Amendment’s establishment clause, which liberals and libertarians claim creates “a wall of separation between church and state” and conservatives deem to be illusory. However, the First Amendment isn’t the issue here. Banning unbelievers from holding office violates Article VI of the U.S. Constitution, which states explicitly, “No religious test shall ever be required as a qualification for any office or public trust under the United States.”
Article VI’s supremacy clause renders bans such as North Carolina’s unenforceable. In 1961, the U.S. Supreme Court threw out a similar Maryland proscription. In 1997, the South Carolina Supreme Court ruled that an atheist could become a notary public, following an eight-year campaign by religious fanatics to deny him this right. Evidently, many residents of the old Confederacy still feel that “states’ rights” trump the U.S. Constitution (Texas, Arkansas and Tennessee also bar atheists from holding office). North Carolinians enacted their law in 1868, just three years after being defeated in the Civil War, which should have taught them otherwise.
Right-wingers can’t resist meddling in these areas because there’s no group that “real Americans” despise more than those who can’t quite bring themselves to believe in a deity. In a recent Gallup poll, 43% said they couldn’t elect a homosexual president, 42% wouldn’t vote for someone 72 years old and 30% wouldn’t vote for someone who’d been married three times, while 53% would never vote for an atheist.
Ron Reagan, Jr. has conceded that candor about his atheism prevents him from following in his father’s political footsteps. Of course, voters have the right to withhold support from atheist politicians; indeed, they’re free to back or oppose any candidate for any reason. For example, as a lifelong Connecticut resident and University of Conn. alumni, I’d have trouble voting for a candidate I knew to be a Duke University basketball fan. But I wouldn’t support legislation banning Duke fans from holding office.
In contrast, far-right pundit Michael Medved asserts that an atheist president, even one who’s a good person, politician, family man and patriot, would be “bad for the country.” His rationale is both fatuous and bigoted, especially the absurd prevarication that affirming atheism demonstrates “contempt for the Protestant or Catholic faith.”
The first President Bush (reputedly the religious moderate of the dynasty) took this a step further, declaring, “I don’t know if atheists should be considered citizens. This is one nation under god.” Here, he was citing a phrase from the Pledge of Allegiance that wasn’t inserted into the Pledge until the Red Scare of 1954. And he was expressing a shockingly intolerant attitude toward millions of his constituents.
Here’s a question to ask your friends on the Right: “Whom would you rather see in the White House — a 50-year-old, decorated war veteran, with a 175 IQ, and Ph.D.s in political science and physics, who also happens to be an atheist, or an 90-year-old, high school dropout with a drinking problem, four ex-wives and a room-temperature IQ who goes to church every Sunday? I’m guessing most of the answers would be scary.
At some point in this debate, social conservatives generally affirm America’s legacy as a “Christian nation,” and quote a few Founding Fathers. This sword cuts both ways. John Adams, our second president, said, “This would be the best of all possible worlds, if there were no religion in it.” Deist Thomas Jefferson was more specific: “I do not find in orthodox Christianity one redeeming feature.”
Benjamin Franklin sarcastically commented, “In the affairs of the world, men are saved, not by faith, but by the lack of it.” Thomas Paine, one of 18th-century America’s most-eloquent and godless patriots, opined, “Theology is the study of nothing; it has no data; it can demonstrate nothing.”
As regards the Asheville City Council, this debate is mere sound and fury, signifying nothing. The Constitution that right-wingers supposedly revere nowhere mentions god, Jesus, Christianity or the Bible, and it specifically prohibits any test of Councilman Bothwell’s religiosity. He passed the only relevant test on election day.
Every year during this festive season, Bill O’Reilly and his fellow wingnuts at Fox News whip up outrage over the liberals’ “war on Christmas.” Despite my total lack of piety, I always enjoy decorating a Christmas tree in my living room. However, I feel no urge to force my way into your living room and compel you to do the same. It would be nice if more Americans, especially southern conservatives, felt the same.
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