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Breaking the Final Taboo

Electing Atheists to Political Office

By Eddie Tabash

A lecture given at the 28th National Convention of American Atheists in Boston, Saturday, 30 March 2020.

Copyright © 2001, Edward Tabash

• No known Atheist currently holds any major political office in the United States.

It is long overdue that people who do not believe in any god be elected to significant political office. We Atheists are the most unjustly despised minority in America today. Polls show that a greater number of voters would vote against someone just for not believing in a god than they would vote against someone for being gay. Blacks, Latinos, women, gays and lesbians, all of these historically despised and discriminated-against groups have managed to elect some of their own to state legislatures and to Congress. Members of many religious minorities have had the same success. Atheists are the only holders of a viewpoint on matters of religion who cannot point to anyone, serving in either Congress or in any state legislature, and claim such an individual as one of our own. In 2000, I was the only known Atheist to be a major contender for a state legislative seat in the United States. I finished a close second, out of four candidates, for a seat in the California State Assembly. My efforts to gain meaningful support for my campaign from other nonbelievers showed me how far we Atheists are from understanding and implementing the practical necessities of getting at least some of our own elected to political office.

• The gay community is the best model for Atheists to follow in the quest for electing some of our own to office.

The best model for Atheists to use, in terms of attempting to climb the political ladder, is the gay community. Gays and lesbians are the most similar to us in that the overwhelming prejudice and hatred they face stems from religious dogma. The gay community has mastered the art of raising large sums of money for their candidates. They have also achieved the discipline of supporting their own in contested elections.

• Many Atheists can’t even see the self-evident importance of electing some of our own to state legislatures.

Many very active and prominent Atheists were surprised when I contacted them to ask for a financial contribution to my campaign. For all their intellectual firepower in being able to refute supernatural claims, they could not see, even in this day and age, the practical importance of raising money for an election campaign. Worse, many of these colleagues in free thought could not see the connection between the preservation and promotion of Atheism in the United States and the election of Atheists to state legislatures.

That connection should be quite obvious. If President Bush puts even two new justices on the Supreme Court, let alone more, the current blanket protections under the First Amendment, ensuring equal rights before the law for nonbelievers, could very well be nullified. If this happens, all nonbelievers will be at the mercy of the legislature of every state in which we live. The removal of the currently recognized First Amendment ban on any branch of government’s favoring believers over nonbelievers, will open the floodgates to myriad state and local legislation aimed at promoting religion – at the expense of nonbelief.

If a reconstituted Supreme Court were to weaken the nationwide blanket protections of the First Amendment, and thus free the individual states to legislate more broadly in openly promoting religion, the very liberties of nonbelievers will hinge on who composes our state legislatures. With such a large majority of legislators, in virtually all of our states, always falling all over themselves to demonstrate which one is the most pro-religion, or pro-god, we will unfortunately have an avalanche of religion-promoting legislation coming out of our state capitals. The best way to counter such state legislative religious onslaughts would be to have some of our own serving as actual members of those state legislatures. Hopefully, we could continue to rely on very liberal religionists to rise to our defense. However, given the religious fervor that has always abounded in state legislatures, and in Congress, we would be much better off if we could have at least some people, who don’t believe in any god, elected to these legislative bodies.

• Atheists need to learn, just like other unjustly despised minorities have learned, how to put our own interests first.

In my campaign, I also encountered some ideological barriers among a number of Atheists, that, if these barriers persist, could be major obstacles to the prospects of Atheists’ supporting other Atheists for political office. I was running in a Democratic primary in a legislative district in which the Democratic registration was so lopsided that the winner of my primary would be assured of winning the general election. I was the only white person running in this mixed ethnic district. My ballot mates, as I like to call them, were a Hispanic woman, who won our primary and then the general election, and two African American men, one of whom is the son of the area’s Congresswoman.

Many Atheists refused to support me because I was a white person running against people of color. It didn’t matter to these other Atheists that all three of my primary opponents would make frequent references to their god. It didn’t matter to these other Atheists that our state legislature already had many black and Latino members. They were so enslaved by knee jerk left-wing dogma that they could not bring themselves to support a white male over candidates of color. One colleague in free thought even angrily asked me why I would run against a Hispanic woman.

This exposes the inertia that we nonbelievers must overcome if we are to ever have a chance of electing any of our own to political office. You would never hear of black activists refusing to support a black candidate because that candidate was running against people of some other race or ethnicity. You would never hear a gay activist chastise a gay candidate for running against heterosexuals. The obvious problem is that many Atheists have not yet internalized the notion that we nonbelievers have just as much right to put our own candidates and our own interests first, as do members of other historically unjustly despised groups, who have finally succeeded in electing a number of their candidates.

• Prejudice against Atheists is just as evil and destructive as racial bigotry.

Prejudice against someone for nothing more than that person’s inability to believe in anything supernatural is as evil and as destructive of the quest for a modern, enlightened, society as is racial bigotry. Wanting to deny public office to someone, just because that individual holds a naturalistic view of the universe that rejects supernatural claims, is as backward and as dangerous to human progress as wanting to see a candidate defeated because of that candidate’s race or ethnicity. Accordingly, bigotry against someone because of that person’s Atheism is as pernicious as bigotry against someone because of that person’s race. It follows, then, that if members of racial minorities are morally justified in giving top priority to electing their own to public office, so are we Atheists.

• We Atheists need an affirmative-action program of our own to start electing people of reason to political office, regardless of considerations of race or ethnicity.

The practical realities of contemporary society are that most, though not all, people who consciously decide to become Atheists, after pondering the nature of existence, will be Caucasian, at least for the foreseeable future. With the pervasive influence of the churches in the African American Community and the virtual stranglehold the Catholic Church has on Hispanics in the United States (except for those Latinos who are being wooed away by charismatic Protestant churches), most Atheists, at this juncture in our nation’s history, are likely to be white. So, while it would be wonderful if black Atheists or Mexican American Atheists would step forward as candidates for political office, the stark probabilities are that any Atheist who runs for office in the near future will be Caucasian. Even among the ethnic Asians, currently serving in both Houses of Congress, virtually all of them identify themselves as Christians, as do most Native Americans who hold public office.

We must learn to shake off the type of white-liberal guilt that motivates so-called progressives to always choose the racial minority candidate over the white candidate. I am not saying that it is no longer important to continue to try to elect members of racial and ethnic minorities to political office. I am arguing, though, that for us nonbelievers, it is more important at this time to start electing some of our own. So, rather than giving top priority to always electing people of color, we Atheists need a new affirmative action program in which we give priority to electing people of reason, regardless of their color.

Left-of-center Atheists can continue to favor the ethnic or racial minority candidate in many elections. I am only recommending that if one of the candidates happens to be a colleague in free thought, then, that candidate should, if not too ideologically unacceptable, receive support in that particular election from other nonbelievers.

• Another lesson to be learned from the gay community is how to show gratitude for, and obtain the support of, powerful and important political figures who are sympathetic outsiders.

Another phase of political activism from which we can learn from the gay community is in supporting sympathetic outsiders. For many years, even before they started successfully electing their own to office, the gay community learned how to win and keep friends among heterosexual politicians. They would shower non-gay politicians, who were supportive of gay rights, with large sums of money and campaign volunteers. As far back as 1974, here in Los Angeles County, powerful politicians visited gay bars in West Hollywood, in order to curry favor with the gay community. And, of course, would that we Atheists wielded as much power and influence in any major American city, as the gay community does in San Francisco.

There is only one major American political figure who has actually taken risks on behalf of achieving full equality for Atheists. That is the Governor of Minnesota, Jesse Ventura. He is the only governor in the United States to consistently veto the Day-of-Prayer resolutions passed by his state’s legislature. In so doing, he always mentions that Atheists are as much a part of his state as anyone else. On page 104 of his book, Do I Stand Alone?, he mentions Atheists in a positive way five times. Recently, when I tried to develop support, from within our ranks, for Governor Ventura’s possible reelection campaign, I was met with the objection from a number of nonbelievers that he was not liberal enough on welfare. Some left-wing Atheists also claimed they could not support him because he favored too little gun control. Some Libertarian Atheists said they could not support him because he favored too much gun control. Such attitudes are causing considerations extraneous to what is in the best interests of Atheism and Atheists to ruin support for the only major political figure in the country who has truly stuck his neck out for us. I would be embarrassed to have to explain these attitudes, held by a number of my colleagues in nonbelief, to Governor Ventura, after all he has done for us, compared to any other major political office-holder in the United States.

• We Atheists must begin the task of determining on what political issues, tangential to Atheism, we can compromise, in order to support an Atheist or Atheist-friendly candidate in a given election.

If we Atheists continue to allow other priorities to always come before the defense and survival of Atheism and Atheists, we will never be able to win friends among those already in office, and we will never be able to elect any of our own. We must address the question of how we can compromise on our otherwise personal list of political positions, when the larger good of Atheism is involved. We all have criteria that candidates must meet in order for us to be willing to support them. I am now suggesting that when it comes to an Atheist candidate, or to a definitely Atheist-friendly candidate, we try to reexamine our own political priorities to see if we can make any concessions, even concessions that we otherwise would not make, in order to achieve the greater good of electing the Atheist or Atheist-friendly politician. Each of us must decide on what issues we can compromise our otherwise existing requirements of a political candidate, if that candidate is an Atheist or is uncommonly Atheist-friendly, like Governor Ventura.

I cannot tell any of you what issues, that are otherwise important to you, should now take a back seat, if a viable Atheist or Atheist-friendly candidate is running, who may not agree with you on such issues. I do hope, however, that we will all at least think about the issues on which we can let an Atheist or Atheist-friendly candidate slide, if that candidate has a real chance of winning a given election. Each of us will have a different threshold, where compromise will be permitted, in order to support one of our own, or a candidate supportive of our interests as nonbelievers.

For me, I can say that I will go very far in supporting a candidate that I may not agree with on a variety of issues, in a contested election, if that candidate is the most fervent supporter of the separation of church and state.

• Colleagues in Atheism, who did not support me for the California legislature, because of my views on immigration, allowed an issue tangential to Atheism to deter them from supporting the only Atheist in the country who had a real chance of winning a state legislative race.

Though I disdain labels, as I do not believe that such political labels can accurately always encompass the totality of the thinking of independent-minded political office seekers, if I had to accept any such characterization, I would probably call myself a moderate liberal Democrat. There is an issue, though, on which I do deviate from the standard view currently prevalent in my party. I do favor drastically reducing both legal and illegal immigration, not because of any racial prejudice, but because of the connection between large numbers of immigrants and overpopulation, particularly in my home state of California.

There are now over 35 million people in California and over 10 million in Los Angeles County. When I was born, in 1950, California had a population of around nine million. My heart goes out to the people seeking to come to the United States, and to California, in the hope of finding a better life. However, I believe that my nation and my state cannot afford to absorb everyone who wishes to come here. I am on record as stating that Mexico, the country that is the largest single source of immigration to California, has a moral obligation to take better care of its own people, so that they would not be as desperate as they currently are to cross the border. There were a number of Atheists who refused to support me for the state legislature, because of my views on immigration. Now, I have supported candidates who disagree with me on this issue. So, I raise this topic not so much to make points about my views on immigration. Rather my experience here is instructive in showing how many of our colleagues in free thought allow issues tangential to what is best for Atheism to dominate their decisions on whether or not to support a candidate.

I would hope that even if a colleague in nonbelief were to disagree with me on immigration, upon understanding that my position is not based on racial prejudice, that person would still support me for office, so long as I was an otherwise viable candidate and so long as I was the only Atheist in a given election. My experience with the immigration issue is one of the best examples that I can come up with to demonstrate the type of compromises that I would like to see other Atheists make in the interests of the larger good of getting nonbelievers elected to significant political positions.

If it seems that I am highly critical of colleagues in free thought, politically to the left of me, who did not support me in my bid for the state legislature, it is because leftists constituted the majority among those Atheists who turned down my requests for help. It is a sad commentary on how knee-jerk left-wing dogma can cloud an otherwise rational analysis of a situation. California’s 55th Assembly District has the worst toxic pollution in the state. I was the only candidate who made this a major issue in the campaign. Even though I was the only white candidate, I was also the only candidate who campaigned against racial profiling by the police. Yet, even though I was the only Atheist running, and also the most progressive candidate on the environment and on ending racial discrimination in law enforcement, I was unacceptable to many left-wing Atheists because I was a white male competing against people of color and because of my views on immigration. At this point, I should point out that there were also a sizable number of Libertarian Atheists who rejected my requests for support.

• Some Atheists, but not enough, understood the importance of supporting one of our own for a major political office.

I should acknowledge that there were prominent Atheists who did support my candidacy. Paul Kurtz did the most to both personally contribute and to help me raise money from others. However, if future Atheist candidates for office are able to generate no greater support for their candidacies, overall, from nonbelievers nationwide, than I did, such future Atheist candidates will probably lose, just like I did. I truly appreciate those colleagues in nonbelief who did support me. However, they do not constitute a sufficient number of the free thinkers, from whom I sought help – either directly or through other non believers – in order for me or for any other future Atheist candidate, to have any real chance of success. The next time an Atheist is a major contender for a state legislative seat, or for some other important political office, free thinkers have to respond with much greater support than I received, in order for any such candidate to have a real chance of winning.

• In order to gain respect in society-at-large, Atheists cannot afford to be off-beat or mere protest candidates, but should be viable in races in which we run.

I have been making reference to Atheist candidates who would be viable. Given the degree to which so much of society wishes to marginalize us, we cannot afford to run as mere protest or off-beat candidates, who have no real chance of winning. We need to show that Atheists can run formidable campaigns and that we are mainstream people who can use rational thought to offer effective solutions to the problems that the holder of a given political office should be working to solve.

• Given the current climate of pervasive prejudice against Atheists among American voters, we may frequently have to resort to stealth campaigns, until the mood of bigotry against us begins to change, as did many gay politicians when they began their careers in elective office.

In my campaign for the legislature, I did not personally inform the voters that I was an Atheist. However, anyone who cared to put my name into any Internet search engine would have been able to pull up a plethora of references to me as a spokesperson for nonbelief. In my campaign, as I knocked on over 14,000 doors, I did not introduce myself to the voters I met by saying: “Hi, I’m Eddie Tabash, I don’t believe in God and I want to represent you in the State Assembly.” I told each voter that I was the only candidate in the race who was placing great emphasis on cleaning up the toxic pollution that was poisoning our area.

The year in which I ran was the last year that California still had an open primary, in which people of all parties could cross over and vote for whomever they wished. That meant that every voter, regardless of registration, had the same ballot, even for the primary election. Accordingly, I also campaigned to the registered Republicans in my district. The strategy was that since the winner of the Republican primary could not win the seat, under any circumstances, due to the high Democratic majority in this district, if I could persuade enough Republicans to vote for me, it might help me win a close Democratic primary, because the winner of each party’s primary was determined by which candidate received the most votes cast for each candidate of that same party.

Some Republicans, whose homes I visited, actually asked me about my religious views. I responded by telling them that my father is an ordained orthodox rabbi and that my mother was an Auschwitz survivor. I then said that I will do everything I can, if elected, to make sure that all Californians have equal rights, regardless of their views on matters of religion. Every word of what I just said is true, even though I refrained from volunteering my personal Atheism to these voters. So, while I openly solicited support for my candidacy from other nonbelievers, I did not tell any of the voters in my district that I was an Atheist. A poll conducted for me by Fairbank, Maslin, Maullin & Associates, the official pollsters for California Governor, Gray Davis, and, at the time, the official California pollsters for Al Gore, showed that my Atheism would be the most damaging single threat to my candidacy, if the voters of my district ever found out about it.

About a third of Long Beach, currently California’s fifth largest city, was in the district in which I was running. I was interviewed by the major Long Beach newspaper. Their political writers informed me that they had conducted a Web search on all the candidates and that they discovered the Secular Humanist and Atheist references to me on the Internet. They asked me if my being an Atheist made me the wrong candidate for a district with so many religious African Americans and religious Hispanics. I responded that so long as I am pledged to preserving the equal rights of everyone, regardless of a person’s views on matters of religion, my personal nonbelief should be irrelevant to the campaign.

The interviewers then asked me whether I thought their newspaper should reveal my Atheism in the upcoming story about the candidates in my race. I reiterated that since I was pledged to preserving the equal rights of both believers and nonbelievers, my personal views on how the universe is structured should not become an issue in the campaign. I then told them that I hoped we would soon reach a level of maturity in society wherein voters in any election would not reject a candidate just for being an Atheist, but, we were, quite frankly, still very far from that point. I further said that whether I won or lost, considering the high level on which I was conducting my campaign, considering the in-depth issues I was raising, and considering that I was also going to the voters directly by knocking on thousands of doors, it would be tragic if my chances of winning were sabotaged by the voters’ finding out about my Atheism, thus making me the victim of one of the most horrible prejudices held by voters throughout the nation. Consequently, I did ask the Long Beach Press-Telegram to refrain from making any references to my Atheism. They did as I requested, and their coverage of us candidates in the 55th Assembly District made no mention of my being a nonbeliever.

I would also like to acknowledge the honorable conduct of the campaign consultant, Parke Skelton, who ran the winning campaign for Jenny Oropeza. He could have easily done a campaign hit-piece on me, informing all the voters about my Atheism, that would have given his client a much more certain chance of defeating me in what turned out to be somewhat of a close race. Yet, he refrained from doing so. To her credit, Jenny Oropeza herself, though she had publicly said that she believes her god put her on earth to serve the poor, never brought up my Atheism in any of the public candidate forums in which the four of us would either speak or debate. I am thus grateful to now Assembly member Oropeza.

I make no apologies for being a stealth candidate in the district in which I was running. I believe my not revealing my Atheism directly to the voters was morally justified. As I pointed out earlier, prejudice directed against someone, for nothing more than rejecting belief in unproven supernatural claims, is a grave threat to human progress. Society’s elevation of people who believe in some fabricated god to the highest plateaus of power, and concomitant literal demonization of those of us who apply the rule of reason to outlandish supernatural stories, is horrendously perverse. The denigration of the free thinker is one of the most uncivilized affronts to the human intellect in our world today. Moreover, since I truly would have never done anything to diminish the legal freedoms and equality of religious believers, I believe it was right for me to refrain from revealing to these voters something about myself which would trigger in them such a terrible prejudice against me.

As an analogy, I argue that if I were a very light-skinned African American, who could pass for being white, running for election in a district that I knew was racist, I would feel justified in concealing my true racial status, if such concealment would serve to get a black person elected in an area that needed to learn to abandon its racist attitudes.

Well, virtually every state legislative district in the United States needs to learn to abandon its bigotry against Atheists. Also, please remember that many now-prominent gay elected officials concealed their homosexuality not only during their initial successful runs for office, but until they had been reelected a number of times.

So, if we are to stop being mere armchair theoreticians, if we nonbelievers are going to master the art of actually electing some of our own to significant political office, we must be willing to support our own candidates, even if, in order to have realistic chances of winning, these Atheist candidates at this juncture in American history will not openly reveal their nonbelief during their campaigns. After we have elected some of our own to office, and the voters have had the opportunity to see how capable these Atheist politicians are, then, maybe, the prejudice against us will begin to erode, and our candidates will be more readily able to acknowledge their Atheism without jeopardizing their chances of winning their elections.

However, until that time arrives, considering how completely unjustified society is in hating and shunning those of us who don’t believe in any god, I believe we are justified in attempting to make an end-run around this monolithic edifice of prejudice that we nonbelievers face, by strategically downplaying our personal views on matters of religion during an election cycle, if and when we run for office.

• If a candidate’s Atheism does become known during an election campaign, we must always remind the public that, unlike many religionists, we are not trying to jeopardize the legal rights of those who believe differently from us. We must always say – and mean – that we stand for the preservation of religious liberty for everyone.

If, however, a candidate’s Atheism does become a campaign issue, we must always remind the voters that, unlike many religionists, we are not trying to curtail the legal rights of those who believe differently from us. We must always be ready to defend the constitutionally guaranteed rights of religionists to practice their faith. We only want to ensure that we nonbelievers have equal rights. Further, just like religionists have the right to declare, in the marketplace of ideas, why they believe a supernatural god exists, we have every right to publicly articulate our reasons for believing that such a god does not exist. We must, however, never slacken our vigilance in assuring society-at-large of our commitment to preserving legally protected religious freedom for everyone. Our candidates must always reassure voters that while Atheists want to perpetuate equality for ourselves, we don’t in any way want to jeopardize the liberties of religious believers or spiritual seekers generally.

• Considering how religious dogma causes so much damage in the struggle for human progress, it is essential for the achievement of a better world for the Atheist message to be disseminated as widely as possible, and for Atheists to begin to attain positions of real political power.

I have been urging nonbelievers to try to give as much priority as they can to electing other nonbelievers to political office. One of the reasons why this is so important is because of the overall desperate need for the Atheist message to become more widely disseminated in our nation and in our world. There is, in my view, no task more urgent than trying to help rescue humanity from the deleterious impact of religious dogma. By definition, we Atheists are the best situated to assist humankind in the process of growing beyond superstitious beliefs.

Human history, down to the present day, is a kaleidoscopic display of never-ending horrors that people perpetrate against each other, in the name of promoting one partisan concept of god over another. Religion and spirituality are the last holdouts in which all the now commonly accepted rules of science and empirical testing are generally excluded from participation in assessing whether a claim is true or not. Who better than Atheists to point out to our brother and sister human beings the folly and defects in belief systems that rely on purely mythological assertions?

The amount of carnage caused by religious tyranny throughout history has been so horrendous; the number of atrocities committed because of religious disputes has been so staggering; the degree to which religion has caused otherwise intelligent human beings to abandon the most basic principles of logical, empirical, and fair thinking, has been so extensive; that there is no greater service a person could do for our world than to help spread the message of Atheistic naturalism as widely as possible.

However, in order for our voice of reason to be heard, we must preserve our legal right to express our views and we must achieve a social climate in which the general public will at least give us a fair hearing. In order for this to be achieved, particularly in the realm of preserving our equal rights under the law – as there are many religionists in our nation, today, who would forcibly silence us, if they could – we Atheists must start electing some of our own to major political offices.

• Let me be the only Atheist candidate, at the dawn of the 21st century, who was a major candidate for office – and lost.

In closing, I would like all of you to help me achieve a unique position in history. I would like to be remembered as the only Atheist candidate, among many, at the dawn of the 21st Century, who was a major candidate for political office, and who did not win.


Copyright © 1996, 1997, 1998, 1999, 2000 by American Atheists.