Sunday, January 03, 2010

Councilman under fire for atheism

"Question with boldness even the existence of God; because, if there be one, he must more approve of the homage of reason than that of blindfolded fear." -- Thomas Jefferson

Councilman under fire for atheism By David Zucchino - December 20, 2009

When Cecil Bothwell took the oath of office as a city councilman this month, he did not swear to uphold the U.S. and North Carolina constitutions "so help me God." He merely affirmed that he would, without mentioning the Almighty. Nor did the political newcomer place his hand on a Bible. He simply kept it at his side.

Bothwell, you see, is an atheist -- or as he often describes himself, a "post-theist." And that has outraged some in this picturesque mountain resort who say Bothwell violated an obscure clause in the state constitution that disqualifies from elected office "any person who shall deny the being of Almighty God."

A conservative group has distributed pamphlets warning locals that Bothwell is "Satan's helper" and a "radical extremist" who is "bashing religion." A supporter of Southern heritage has threatened to sue Asheville for allowing Bothwell to take office.

The controversy has lighted up talk-radio phone lines nationwide and prompted hundreds of calls and e-mails to Bothwell, a soft-spoken environmentalist who lived for 21 years in a house -- which he built himself -- that relied on solar power and a gravity-fed water system.

"I didn't anticipate all this attention," Bothwell said last week, after presiding at his first City Council meeting. "I haven't even done anything yet."

Raised a Presbyterian, Bothwell began questioning Christian beliefs as a young man. He's a member of the Unitarian Universalist church, which includes atheists and agnostics as well as believers in God.

... Six other states have provisions outlawing atheists in public office. The North Carolina clause was in the state constitution when it was drafted in 1868. In 1961, the U.S. Supreme Court reaffirmed that states were prohibited under the U.S. Constitution from requiring a religious test to serve in office. The court ruled in favor of an atheist in Maryland seeking to serve as a notary public.

... As for Bothwell, he says his atheism is irrelevant to his duties as a councilman.

"I don't find any need in my day-to-day life for God to explain things to me," he said. "When religion gets tangled up with government, it always causes problems."

And while his fellow council members are "bemused" by the whole affair, Bothwell said, he's not worried about being forced from office. He said the controversy was manufactured by political opponents "who don't want to see a progressive on the council."

Bothwell ran on a platform of energy conservation, government transparency and campaign finance reform. But what really upset his opponents, he said, was his book "The Prince of War," which is highly critical of the Rev. Billy Graham, who lives outside Asheville.

Another newly elected council member who took the oath this month, Esther Manheimer, did so with her hand on two sacred Jewish texts: the Pentateuch and the haphtara. She replied, "I do," to an oath that included the phrase "so help you God." Bothwell merely promised his "solemn affirmation."

Manheimer, a lawyer, said the clause banning nonbelievers is unconstitutional. "Mr. Bothwell, therefore, is entitled to hold office to the same extent I am," she said in an e-mail.

Last week, the first City Council meeting for new members opened with a prayer. There was no mention of God -- only a plea for "justice and peace" and for the safety of U.S. troops overseas.

The council rotates responsibility for the opening prayer. Bothwell said he doesn't object, although he would prefer a moment of silence.

When his turn comes, he said, he may read from Charles Darwin's "On the Origin of Species" or Stephen Hawking's "A Brief History of Time."

Bothwell predicted that the furor would pass, allowing him to focus on political objectives, which include retrofitting businesses and homes to reduce energy consumption. That's what many voters who elected him want, he said ...

It's kinda odd that we always make a big deal about religious persecution but you'll rarely hear stories like this make national news. And if you do, it's only to criticize the person being persecuted.

Exercising freedom of religion is also the right to be free of religion if you so choose. And if we are not infringing upon the rights of others to do the same, then what's the problem?

The reason is that we speak of liberty and freedom but we don't mean it. Or we have a peculiar nuanced definition for it. We'll allow you to have any beliefs you want as long as they fit into a very small box that we define.

I grant you that this is just some small town in the South and is not necessarily the viewpoint of the rest of the country. But, let's be honest, can you imagine an openly atheist candidate running for a statewide or national office? Not very likely. It's my sincere belief that there are quite a few atheists or agnostics that hold those offices but have hidden their beliefs because of the ridicule they know they would receive.

It's intellectually dishonest to say that an atheist officeholder is any less (or more) virtuous or qualified to govern than a Christian one.


CyberKitten said...

dbackdad said: The reason is that we speak of liberty and freedom but we don't mean it.

I have been of that opinion for some time now....

Laura said...

We (society) only make a big deal about religious persecution when someone is prevented from expressing their BELIEF. When it comes to non-belief, that's a whole other ballgame. I honestly don't understand why atheism is so threatening to some people. One person recently told me that the worst thing about dating in the South is being an athiest - the first question is "where do you go to church?" Nobody wants anything to do with an atheist.

So while stories like this are rare, the feelings are quite pervasive. It usually takes some catalyst like this to shine to hold a mirror up to it. If you were to ask one of these people what disqualifies an athiest from public office, they can't come up with any logical argument other than it makes them personally uncomfortable.

wunelle said...

So... no one is allowed to hold office unless they agree with these people's views; they declare that Bothwell is "Satan's helper," conveniently sidestepping Bothwell's rejection of a "Satan" along with their deity (a rejection which, amusingly, a goodly number of christians make as well--considerably larger numbers of religious folks believe in heaven than in hell, as if the concepts were not linked).

How silly. I'm amazed again and again at christians' insistence that THEY are being persecuted if they are prevented from infringing on the rights of other people. What would they say if their small community had a sudden influx of muslims who tossed them out of office because of their christian views?

The Separation Clause is just not that difficult to grasp...