Atheists lost yesterday's election in a big way.
I want to state at the start that I do not care about atheism per se. I care about the moral issue of anti-atheist bigotry. So, in effect, the problem is not that atheists lost yesterday's election. The problem is that the opponents of anti-atheist bigotry (regardless of their own religious beliefs) lost yesterday's election in a big way.
One thing that I am certain of is that members of both political parties, from the top-level operatives to the local volunteers, are starting to work on their strategies for the next election. They are looking at what happened in this election for what worked and what did not work, so that they can figure out how to win the next election.
Here are two rules that are now carved in stone in the Democratic play book.
Rule 1: Make sure that you know who the atheist activists are, and make sure that you exclude them from any party or gathering that you might attend, except where the atheist leader might be lost in a crowd and the candidate can claim ignorance of their presence.
One thing that you will not see in the next two years is an atheist leader in the company of a political candidate. The candidate might meet with priests, rabies, imams, and clerics of all types and colors, but not with the atheist. That is political suicide. All of those other people have some type of religious belief – and any religious belief at all is better than no belief.
Rule 2: Make sure that your candidate has her religious bona fides in order.
This way, if some accidental violation of Rule 1 gives the opponent an opportunity to run an advertisement that accuses your candidate of atheism, she can run a massive counter-campaign saying, "How dare you sink so low that you would accuse me, of all people of atheism or of having atheist sympathies."
These are two of the new rules.
They are quite devastating. Not only is it the case that we cannot run for public office, now we cannot even have the attention of somebody who is a candidate for public office. The wall between the atheist and the political representative has just gotten significantly taller.
And this defeat is tied to other defeats – other groups in this country whose one and only lives are made less than what they could have been, less than what they should have been, by those who seek states harmful to others for reasons they rationalize by assigning them to a god that they invented to serve as the vessel and justification for their own harmful prejudices.
These rules were most clearly applied in the Kay Hagan/Elizabeth Dole contest in North Carolina, of course.
However, they were also used to help to win the Presidential election.
These rules came into play in the Presidential election. Remember the Democratic National Convention, which began with a meeting of religious leaders? No atheists were invited. Obama never once met with any representative of any group defending secular values. It is one thing for him Obama to include in his circle of acquaintances the leaders of various religious sects. If I was running for office, I would do the same thing. However, to exclude a group – to shun them – to make sure that one has no association with them – is a different kettle of fish.
It has been a quiet shunning, of course. Atheists know their place, so they are not too demanding. Those few who are demanding can be safely ignored – because they are too few and their voice is too soft for anybody to hear them. So, the shunning, the ostracism, all slips quietly under the social radar.
And, of course, Obama had his religious bona fides in order. Of course, since he was accused of being a Muslim, and not of being an atheist, he could not fire back a response that said, "How dare you sink so low as to accuse me of being a Muslim." That would not have been politically incorrect, and would have earned the (justified) ire of much of the population. In this case, such a response may well have ended Obama's political career. It would have endeared him, of course, to a set of anti-Muslim bigots, but it would not have helped him win votes in the general population.
It turns out that Kay Hagan's response to Elizabeth Dole's accusation of atheism did not harm her at all. In fact, some evidence suggests that her response, "How dare you sink so low as to accuse me of atheism," seems to have earned her about 4 points in the election. We could make the same analysis – that the response would have endeared her, of course, to a set of anti-atheist bigots. However, in this case, anti-atheist bigotry is wide spread through the general population – at least of North Carolina. So, the campaign worked.
Actually, in two years, we can expect that the Republicans will make some progress in regaining some lost ground. We can expect them to pick up a few seats in the Senate and the House, just as a part of the normal course of events. The Democrats have full control of the executive and legislative branches, so any and all criticism can be leveled straight at them. Any amount of unhappiness at all, and the Democrats will pay a political price. And some amount of unhappiness is inevitable – particularly with a Republican political machine telling the people at every opportunity of how Obama and the Democrats have failed them.
So, the Democrats will be focusing on retaining as much of their current political advantage as possible – with some hope of building on it. To do this, they are going to hunt for candidates in contestable races who have their religious bona fides in order. They are going to make sure that no accusation of palling around with atheists can stick, and that the candidate makes sure to give no evidence that he has sympathy for atheist values or pro-atheist judges.
When the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals gives its decision on ‘under God’ in the Pledge (assuming that they declare the phrase unconstitutional), expect to see Democrats will rush to introduce resolutions in the House and Senate denouncing the decision, giving their members an opportunity to go on the record for their anti-atheist bigotry.
Republicans will rush to the microphone to announce that they are introducing legislation (or pushing legislation already introduced) that will strip the courts of the power to hear such cases, and to condemn the Democratic party for appointing judges who do not share the nation’s values . . . who do not share and will not enforce the nation’s bigotry.
This election has left atheists far more marginalized than ever. In spite of the “new atheist” movement during the Bush administration, American atheists have continued to lose political ground – and to lose it at an accelerating rate.
I look at history – at where these types of trends have ended in the past. At the same time, I tell myself that it cannot happen again. It’s not even worth writing about. Yet, evolution does not happen so quickly. What people have been capable of doing in the recent past they are still capable of doing. All it needs is the right confluence of events. History makes it abundantly clear that societies that declare decent and normal people unfit for membership and, ultimately, seek to remove them. When they write that message, “These people are unfit for membership” into the pledge and their national motto, one has to ask, how far they can actually go with such a message.
Decent people would never have tolerated such a message being written into their pledge and motto. Decent people would never have tolerated a political message that said that some segment of the population is not only unfit for public office, but unfit to be in the company of those who seek public office.
Yet, here we are.
Where are we going from here?