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One such group is the Republican Party of Texas. This is important because so many of the nation's top Republicans over the past few years have come from Texas. Some have even discussed the manner in which national Republican politics have been transformed in ways that mirror Republican politics from Texas. So, an official expression of anti-atheist bigotry from Texas could have consequences down the road on the national level.
The official blog of the Republican Party of Texas attacks Ben Franks, Democratic candidate for the Sixth Court of Appeals, for being a "professed atheist" who "apparently believes" that the Bible is a "collection of myths":
During debate over a plank in the State Democrat Platform, members of the Platform Committee debated dropping “God” from a sentence on the first page of the document. The plank stated: “we want a Texas where all people can fulfill their dreams and achieve their God-given potential.”
What's wrong with removing "God" from that statement? What's wrong with simply expressing the desire that all people can fulfill their potential, period? Republicans sound incredibly insecure if they think that "God" has to be repeated regularly, as if a failure to mention God often enough will cause people to forget about God.
The Republican Party Blog says that an article published in the El Paso Times cites Ben Franks as saying: “I’m an atheist…” This, apparently, makes Franks wholly unqualified to not only be a judge in Texas, but to in fact hold any elected office in the entire state. The Republican Party Blog also quotes the Texas Constitution:
"I, _____ , do solemnly swear (or affirm), that I will faithfully execute the duties of the office of _____ of the State of Texas, and will to the best of my ability preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution and laws of the United States and of this State, so help me God."
They then say:
Should Franks be elected in November, one would have to conclude that he will hold true to his out of touch “atheist” belief system and ignore the laws and Constitution of Texas.
So, a person who can't say "so help me God" at the end of an oath and must instead simply affirm that oath and promise to do their duty cannot be trusted? Is the Texas Republican Party really trying to claim that only those who swear an oath explicitly in the name of their god can be trusted and that everyone else will ignore the laws? That's stupid in an addition to being bigoted — not a surprise, since they also seem to think that atheism is a "belief system." If they don't know what atheism is, how can they be trusted to form any reliable conclusions about it?
Even more astounding is that the claims about Franks being an atheist appear to be false:
The Republican Party's allegation that Franks is an atheist stems from a June 18, 2002, article published in the El Paso Times, after the Texas Democratic Party held its state convention in the far west Texas city.
As noted in the article, Democrats on the party's platform committee debated whether to drop "God" from a sentence on the first page of the committee's platform report that read: "We want a Texas where all people can fulfill their dreams and achieve their God-given potential."
The article quotes Franks, a member of the platform committee, as saying, "I'm an atheist, [and] this does not bother me. I'm a pragmatist."
Franks says the article misquoted him and what he said was, "Let's say I'm an atheist. I still have no problem with this platform, because I'm a pragmatist." What he was saying, Franks says, is that, if he were an atheist, he would not be offended by the reference to God in the platform.
Republicans are undeterred, however:
But Jeff Fisher, the state Republican Party's executive director, says there are other sources of the allegation. Fisher says "some people who know Franks" -- people whom Fisher did not identify -- have told him that Franks professes to be an atheist.
Oh, that's a good reason to do all this. Some unidentified people who claim to know Franks also claim that they said he is an atheist. Therefore, it's justified for the Republican Party of Texas to play upon people's hatred and/or fear of atheists by sending out an online newsletter claiming, falsely, that an atheist cannot uphold the laws and Constitution of Texas.
Anthony Champagne, a political science professor at the University of Texas at Dallas, says he has watched judicial races in Texas and other parts of the country for 25 years and has never before seen a judicial candidate accused of being an atheist. "I've never seen the religious issue pushed that hard," Champagne says. ...
Amber Moon, spokeswoman for the Texas Democratic Party, says, "The Republican Party of Texas is questioning somebody else's faith in order to win an election, and that's completely out of line." Moon also says she thinks it's inappropriate for the Republican Party's executive director, who is a political operative, to pass judgment on another person's faith.
I think we all know that Texas Republicans wouldn't easily get away with this is they made the same statements about Jews or Hindus — the so-called "liberal" media would pick it up and quickly shame them into retracting the bigoted post (though they wouldn't necessarily change their beliefs). Since the bigotry is being expressed about atheists, though, that's OK and isn't worth reporting on. Atheists don't matter and bigotry against atheists isn't a problem. Right?
Update: Alonzo Fyfe points out something very important about Franks' reaction which I failed to pick up on:
So far, Franks has not had the courage to condemn the Republicans for such blatant religious discrimination. In fact, if silence implies consent (or, at least, assent) Franks thinks that the Republicans are correct to assert that voters are justified in keeping atheists out of office. At least, he is not concerned with taking a stand against the practice.
Instead, all he has done is deny that he is an atheist. Such an assertion tacitly accepts the premise, “Well, yes, if I was an atheist, then your charge would be correct and people should vote against me. But, since I am not, your accusations should be rejected.”
It is a bit like standing up to the Nazi party in Germany by saying, “I am not a Jew. I am a good German. I hate Jews as much as you do. I spit on them. Ptoooie.”
I can certainly understand why he would be hesitant to condemn this blatant bigotry. If Republicans playing the "atheist card" really will cost him votes, then it makes pragmatic sense that he would want to avoid being tainted by the smear in any way possible, including saying that there is something inappropriate about hating atheists.
On the other hand, while this may be understandable from a purely pragmatic and selfish perspective, it doesn't indicate that he has a very strong moral character. If we're generous and assume that he's not bigoted against atheists as well, then about the best we can say is that he doesn’t have a strong enough character to stand up and condemn such bigotry.
Remember, he's trying to become a judge. What sort of judge would he be if he can be pressured to allow such immorality to pass? I suppose he'd still be better than his opponents who actively promote such bigotry, but it's not a big improvement.
Alonzo Fyfe also has a good idea about how people should react to this:
Atheists have to do more than simply say, “I am an atheist.” They have to point shout – in ways that others are sure to hear, “And you are a low-life bigot for failing to give me the proper respect and consideration that I deserve. Your comments here – to ban us from public office – belong in the same family as Jim Crow bigotry against African Americans and early Nazi bigotry against the Jews. The Nazis did not start with the Holocaust. They started off with simpler, easier forms of bigotry and hatred – such as banning Jews from holding public office. In short, this represents the type of religious bigotry that we can expect to find in Afghanistan and other parts of the Middle East, and is best left confined to that region.”
At the same time, somebody should say to Mr. Franks, “If you are not willing to stand up to bigotry while on the campaign trail, then we should assume you do not wish to stand up against bigotry on the courts. The last thing the state of Texas needs is an elected judge who is worried that he must prove to the voting public that he has no interest in defending atheists from bigotry.”
I can't think of anything to really add to this. I agree that it's important to be firm in saying that anti-atheist bigotry really is bigotry. We shouldn't allow it give it a free pass as if such attitudes and behavior are somehow acceptable when atheists are the target.
Understanding Atheism & Atheists:
- Atheism 101
- What is Atheism?
- Defining Atheism
- Is Atheism a Religion?
- Who Are Atheists?
- Why Don't Atheists Believe in God?
- Questions About Atheism
- Atheism Myths
- Polls on Atheism
Resources for Atheists: