I'm convinced that the nation . . . needs a person of faith to lead the country.
Presidential candidate Mitt Romney made this statement to a heckler at once of his speeches who said, because Romney is a Mormon, that he is a pretender and he did not know the lord.
For this, he got a standing ovation.
He uttered almost exactly the same words on MSNBC.
In response, a few atheists and non-atheists who have the capacity to recognize religious bigotry made a few comments. The expected retort, “What would have been the reaction if he had said that we need a man in the White House, or a Caucasian in the White House, or a Christian in the White House?”
We know what the reaction would be.
Now, where would that reaction have come from?
It would have started with the National Organization for Women, the NAACP, or the Anti-Defamation League, respectively. It would have been started by the people who had been insulted by this remark. They would have continued to make noise, until somebody listened.
Atheists cower and say nothing. Because they say nothing, they give the press permission to move on to more important matters, such as the disposition of Anne Nichol Smith’s body or Brittany Spears’ choice of hair style. You know, things that really matter.
For a moment, I would like to invite you to put this event into the mind of a 16-year-old high school student, who has political aspirations, or who is just struggling for acceptance among his peers. He is an atheist. Now, he is in a society where a man can stand up and say, “No atheist is good enough to be President,” and for this he gets a standing ovation.
In some places, this happens in a school where, every day, the other students rise to say a pledge of allegiance to “one nation, under God”.
In some places, this happens in a school where the sign on the classroom wall says, “In God we trust,” and where every student at least knows that their money says this.
This happens in a school where there are students looking for any excuse to put down those among them, and there is no excuse better than the excuse that earns a standing ovation on television, the excuse that students pledge to uphold every day, the excuse advertised by the sign on the classroom wall and on the money.
What is the effect of this emotional abuse?
Head-bowed, eyes down, silent, submission.
Even while the next generation begins another year of being subjected to the same emotional battering in the schools, the last generation does nothing. The last generation is more interested in hiding the shame of their lack of belief, and hoping that nobody notices, than fighting for an environment where their children, nieces, nephews, the children of their friends, the children of those parents they know through internet discussions and bulletin boards, can go to a school free from the abusive and belittling statements that have been written into this nation’s laws and rituals.
I have pondered for the past week what could be done about Romney’s statement. Obviously, writing to him is out of the question. Nor is it reasonable to expect any fair and just treatment from the bulk of the people that will attend his speeches. Attending his appearances with signs of protest would not likely be effective; the bulk of the population will see this as reason to cheer him, rather than condemn him. After all, when they went to school, they too learned to pledge allegiance to bigotry. In promoting this bigotry, they are simply living up to the promise they made as a child.
So, what might actually communicate, to Romney, to the audience, and – most importantly – to the press, how despicable this culture of hatred is.
I would like to offer this:
That, if you have an opportunity to attend an event in which Romney is speaking, that you go with the intent of asking him a question, in public, and where the press can pick up his answer.
For example, bring your teenage child (or a teenage child you know) who is an atheist. Stand up with the child and say, “Governor Romney, you said that we need a person of faith to run the country. I would like you to tell my daughter here, who is an atheist, that no matter how kind she is, no matter how intelligent she becomes, no matter how much it pains her to see people suffer and how much she wants to make the world better, that the mere fact that she does not believe in God means that anybody else in the country who does believe in God is better qualified to be President.”
Or, ask, “If you had a child who was as intelligent as you, as concerned for the future of this country as you, and as committed to making the world a better place as you, who shared all of your features but one, that he did not believe in God, and he was running for President, would you endorse him or his opponent?”
Or, “If something should happen to you, the line of succession for the Presidency is first the Vice President, then Speaker of the House, then President pro tempore of the Senate, then Secretary of State, then Secretary of the Treasury, and so on. Since you hold that the nation must be led by a person of faith, do you consider it wrong to have an atheist in any of those positions that might end up being President?”
Or, “You state that the nation needs a person of faith to lead the country. The founding wrote into the Constitution that there shall be no religious test for public office. Do you think that this was a mistake on their part, and would you favor a Constitutional Amendment that barred atheists and agnostics from running for President?”
Or, “President Bush said, ‘I believe that it points up the fact that we need common-sense judges who understand that our rights were derived from God. And those are the kind of judges I intend to put on the bench.’ This effectively states that atheists, for some reason, lack some essential capacity to serve as judges. Do you agree with this policy and would you continue it?”
Or, “You stated that the nation needs a person of faith to run the country. Are there other positions that you believe atheists are not qualified to hold. For example, can an atheist be a good governor? Senator? Teacher? Parent? What is the limit to what an atheist is qualified to do?”
Or, “If you had a daughter, and her boyfriend – let us say, a black man – asked for permission to marry your daughter – what would you say? What if he was an atheist?”
Or . . . make up your own question.
Remember, the most important point in making such a display is not to convince Romney not to be a bigot. The best one can hope for here is that Romney will do a better job of recognizing the bigotry of his statements than the audience he is trying to impress and be put in the uncomfortable position of trying to give an answer that is not blatantly bigoted without losing a substantial portion of his blatantly bigoted base.
The real purpose of this exercise is to educate the press – to get the press used to the idea of asking and seeking answers to these questions.
In fact, I would recommend asking questions like this of all political candidates, recording them, and posting those answers on YouTube or some similar platform.
Let’s see how many hours of bigotry we can collect between now and November, 2008.