Many of us take it for granted that the southern United States remains a bastion of religious fundamentalism, where right-wing “personalities”—especially in the Baptist church and other evangelical Protestant denominations—hold sway over local politics and social life, and where change equals degradation of the social fabric. But how stereotypical is this assumption? If it is indeed a stereotype, Asheville, North Carolina, is one southern town which has shown small signs of changing attitudes about the relationship between theology and politics—namely, atheists in political office. Conversely, the idea of atheists in office seems to have sparked more controversy in U.S. cities outside the American south, as well as among civil rights leaders, suggesting how unexpected and widespread the apprehension towards atheism is in American politics.
The recent election of Cecil Bothwell to the Asheville City Council is one example of this “daring” “intrusion” of atheism, but unfortunately for Bothwell it was not the local civil rights organization who challenged the portrayal of his election as scandalous. As David Forbes of Mountain Express reports, “only one opponent, H.K. Edgerton, a former president of the Asheville NAACP best known locally for walking around town brandishing a Confederate flag”, invoked North Carolina’s state constitutional ban on atheists in public office in order to stop Bothwell’s election. Forbes notes, however, that such state bans “have been routinely trumped by Article VI of the U.S. Constitution, which explicitly prohibits any religious tests for public office”. Meanwhile, it seems that the majority of Asheville’s city council showed a laid-back acceptance of Bothwell, even giving “an enthusiastic round of applause”.
It is a rather ironic inversion of attitudes. For those of us devoted to fairness and tolerance, the counter-intuitive stance of nominally progressive leaders like Edgerton shows how arbitrary and unreliable social reform organizations in America can be, as well as the isolation and obscurity of potential voices of support.
Where, then, can anti-discrimination activists find a home-base, as it were, to lobby for their interests, where moderation and professionalism prevail in the media? Not necessarily in the big northern city, the supposed centre of education and progress. Further illustrating America’s general, endemic phobia towards atheists in power, Forbes states that “the proverbial Internet flood gates have opened, with national blogs from across the political spectrum weighing in”, noting how even the Washington Post’s blog has sensationalized Bothwell’s election.
The media sensationalism surrounding the election of an open “atheist” to a city council seems absurd for those of us who believe that separation of church and state is codified in the U.S. constitution. Indeed, it seems even sillier when one notes that Bothwell does not even identify as atheist—a term which he claims has unpleasant “evangelical” connotations—but rather as a “post-theist”. His characterization as an atheist, in fact, comes from “a now-defunct MySpace page for his 2008 County Commissioner campaign”, according to Forbes. But not even the accommodating label of “post-atheist” has soothed and placated the national media, who often seem intent on caricaturing atheists and agnostics as weird, exotic, or insidious.
The response of social justice activists to this controversy has largely been splintered, marginalized, and unfocussed, while the blogs and newspapers have begun to resemble a carnival. However, acceptance of faith minorities in positions of power cannot remain the province of small-town southern councilors or anomalous islands of progressive politics, but must become the trend in the nation’s capital, major cities, and publishing houses, where the most effective modes of communication operate. It must, in the end, become the mainstream in American media.