A Real Statement from Albuquerque City Council Member Don Harris

There’s been a lot of back and forth here on the Albuquerque city council election between incumbent Don Harris and challenger David Barbour. Harris was re-elected, but certain issues have not yet been resolved.

In summary, Harris criticized Barbour for being an atheist and contributing to a “Charles Darwin” scholarship, among other things. He sent out the following mailing which specifically goes after Barbour’s non-theism:

harris-barbour

Several readers wrote to Harris complaining about his tactics. He sent a form letter to many of them and a short apology to at least one.

Over the weekend, he sent a statement to me. I’m printing it here in full (including the intro):

Dear Mr. Mehta:

I respect [and] appreciate public service of and involvement of all kinds, including your web site.

I have taken some time to review many things on your site. You espouse friendliness, fairness, openness, and a desire to have a real dialog with members of the faith community. With that in mind, I think you should make some concessions. In particular, (1) What you did with regard to my city council race was also a political attack. (2) It is neither objectively fair nor persuasive to non-Atheists to be hyper-critical of me while treating the other politician involved (Mr. Barbour who has run for office before) uncritically in terms of communications or motives.

I do have a statement for you to publish if you like:

Mr. Barbour first presented himself as an ultra progressive, espousing universal health care, “trams” (streetcars), global warming and publicly-financed internet. The picture of the bearded, beret-wearing radical came from his own initial campaign literature. That is who he is, a far-left, recent San Francisco transplant.

After realizing that this image was a losing strategy in our part of the City, he presented himself as a clean cut, fiscal-conservative, church-going Democrat from Pueblo Colorado. That is not who he is, and it should be expected for me, his opponent, to expose him and tell the voters who I honestly believe him to be.

I brought up Atheism and treated it merely as part of a bundle of ultra liberal attributes, and to contradict his own political messaging. I certainly did not mean to criticize or offend any thoughtful Atheists. And, I’m sorry that any took offense. I do not intend to use similar messages again. In fact, I will counsel others in political circles against similar messages if the opportunity arises.

Something as personal as religion should be left out of political campaigns. Atheists are a diverse group and cannot be accurately characterized as all having the same political leaning.

Sincerely,

Don Harris

My responses:

What you did with regard to my city council race was also a political attack.

I publicized a mailing that Harris sent out, a mailing which was already made public in a local Albuquerque newspaper. There was no attack, simply restating what was local knowledge.

My concern in this particular race had nothing with the candidates’ policies and everything to do with religion. To use Barbour’s ties to atheist organizations as a weapon against him is an offense to anyone who believes in a similar way. I’m offended that Barbour’s involvement and support of a local Unitarian Universalist church was used to instill some sort of fear in constituents who are taught that non-religious people are in some way not worthy of holding public office.

If that’s a “political attack,” then it’s one that needs to happen more often. Harris would not have gotten away with it if he substituted the word “black” or “Jew” in the place of “atheist.” We need to defend ourselves from bigoted, unreasonable attacks.

It is neither objectively fair nor persuasive to non-Atheists to be hyper-critical of me while treating the other politician involved (Mr. Barbour who has run for office before) uncritically in terms of communications or motives.

I was not criticizing Harris for his policies nor did I purposely avoid any criticism of Barbour. I don’t know their policies nor was I concerned with them at this time. As a person who lives well outside the voting district, my main concern was the way the word “Atheist” was used in a derogatory manner by Harris.

If Barbour used Harris’ faith as a rallying point against his candidacy, without good reason, he ought to be criticized, too. Did he? I haven’t heard or seen any evidence of that.

Did Barbour do anything to warrant the anti-atheist sentiment used against him by Harris? Again, not that I’ve been made aware of.

… he presented himself as a clean cut, fiscal-conservative, church-going Democrat from Pueblo Colorado. That is not who he is, and it should be expected for me, his opponent, to expose him and tell the voters who I honestly believe him to be.

If Barbour switched his positions, then Harris has a right to point that out.

But Barbour is a church-going guy: He attended a Unitarian church. It may not be Harris‘ kind of church, but it is a church. And Barbour does not contradict his church-going status when he gives money for a local science scholarship.

I brought up Atheism and treated it merely as part of a bundle of ultra liberal attributes, and to contradict his own political messaging.

Conservative/Liberal politics aside, not all atheists are liberal. If you want to go after him for his stance on the issues, then do it. There’s no need to go after a person’s faith unless it affects how he or she will vote on particular issues.

I certainly did not mean to criticize or offend any thoughtful Atheists. And, I’m sorry that any took offense. I do not intend to use similar messages again. In fact, I will counsel others in political circles against similar messages if the opportunity arises.

Disregarding the “thoughtful Atheists” comment for now, this is what we need to hear.

I appreciate that Harris will not do this again and that he’ll advise others not to do it either.

Something as personal as religion should be left out of political campaigns. Atheists are a diverse group and cannot be accurately characterized as all having the same political leaning.

Right on.

Though, like I said before, religion shouldn’t be attacked unless it affects how the person is going to vote. If it doesn’t affect that, then an elected official’s religion isn’t a major concern for me.

I could easily vote for a Christian if I knew that candidate supported my beliefs on issues like science education or stem cell research.

And I would vote against Christians if I knew their fundamentalist beliefs would guide them on issues like gay marriage or comprehensive sex education — voting against them because they think the Bible tells them to, instead of voting against them for any “real,” concrete reasons (none of which I’ve ever heard).

But to vote against a person just because of the label? And to use that label to scare people into voting for you? That’s sinking pretty low. That’s what Harris did — he capitalized “Atheist” and used that term twice in a pullout box in the mailing — and that’s what I was so upset by.

If you want to go after his “liberal” policies, so be it. If you did that, none of this would’ve been an issue.

I emailed Barbour several days ago seeking a response to Harris’ email, but I have not heard back from him.

  • http://miketheinfidel.blogspot.com/ MikeTheInfidel

    psst…

    Though, like I said before, religion isn’t off limits unless it affects how the person is going to vote.

    I think you meant religion is off-limits (etc etc).

  • http://friendlyatheist.com Hemant

    I think you meant religion is off-limits (etc etc).

    Thanks! I edited it to make it a bit more clear

  • http://religiouscomics.net Jeff

    Harris said:
    Something as personal as religion should be left out of political campaigns. Atheists are a diverse group and cannot be accurately characterized as all having the same political leaning.

    Assuming this is something he has learned in the last few weeks, then this is good news. If he knew it all along but used atheists as a scapegoat to rally the religious majority to guarantee an election win, well that strategy will hopefully have diminishing effects as time goes on as people become better educated about atheism.

  • Miko

    I publicized a mailing that Harris sent out, a mailing which was already made public in a local Albuquerque newspaper. There was no attack, simply restating what was local knowledge.

    Unless you’re suggesting that the claims made in the ad were false, this is essentially what Harris did too.

  • Erik

    I think it’s a tad disingenuous for him to state “I brought up Atheism and treated it merely as part of a bundle of ultra liberal attributes” and follow it up later in the same message with “Atheists are a diverse group and cannot be accurately characterized as all having the same political leaning.”
    You can’t claim that a group can’t be categorized with the same political leaning and also say that group is ultra liberal.

    Take me for instance: I’m an atheist, and I’m not ultra liberal. I’m only quite liberal!

  • TXatheist

    Hemant, very well done. Yes, the word liberal in many parts of the South is like saying leper. The loaded connotations behind liberal are unbelievable. We just at a meeting of a new start up AU chapter for Austin and one guy made a 30 second speech that he wanted people to know he was conservative but was for separation of church and state. I’m going to ask him what that means and our next meeting and I’m guessing it’s typical texas speak for my way is right and I hate paying taxes because I’m greedy.(but I hope I’m wrong)

  • http://hoverfrog.wordpress.com hoverFrog

    It may well be political suicide in the US but I think that raising awareness of candidates who don’t want an atheist witch hunt can only do us good. Talk about it, let the people who are frightened by the word see that they are just being silly and move on.

    Harris has done atheists a favour. He could have refused to apologise and repeated George Bush Snr’s statement that “I don’t know that Atheists should be considered as patriots, nor should they be considered as Citizens” or something equally asshat.

  • keddaw

    Not coming from a country that treats Atheist as derogatory I am struggling to see the problem here.

    As far as I am concerned anything that may make someone vote against my wishes or beliefs should be fair game in an election.

    If a candidate came out as an astrology believer would you vote for them? Should you not be able to point that out to the electorate before the election and then laws get passed saying Geminis may not marry Aries?

    Should a candidate’s belief in the Rapture not make you think twice about electing them to a position where they have access to the nuclear arsenal?

    If a candidate believes the earth is 10,000 years old should you not use that as a rallying point against that candidate?

    If the people wish to use a candidate’s religion or non-religion as a rallying point so be it. If the electorate are stupid enough to ignore the policies then they will get the elected officials they deserve.

  • Claudia

    I think it’s a tad disingenuous for him to state “I brought up Atheism and treated it merely as part of a bundle of ultra liberal attributes” and follow it up later in the same message with “Atheists are a diverse group and cannot be accurately characterized as all having the same political leaning.”

    I could be wrong but I think what he means is that he originally thought being an atheist was just one more liberal attribute (like being pro-gay or for universal health care) and has subsequently learned, because of our pestering, that atheists are not a monolith and therefore the label “atheist” cannot be used as shorthand for liberal.

    I think the test is fairly simple. Draw up your statement about your opponent. If you substitute the word “atheist” for “black” or “Jew” and it sounds like it could be a career-ending move, then don’t do it. Get used to treating atheists like all other groups.

  • http://www.dday76.net Jason

    I thought Harris’s response was perfectly reasonable. He asserted that he wanted to expose Barbour as an ultra-liberal and atheist happened to just be part of that package. In addition, the ‘atheist’ label wasn’t out of the blue, but rather was in response to Barbour’s claim to be church-going. I’m no fan of smear campaigns, but this seems pretty benign at least from the perspective of atheist discrimination.

  • http://denkeensechtna.blogspot.com Deen

    And, I’m sorry that any took offense.

    Classic nopology though. He’s basically saying he’s not sorry for what he said or did, but for how we responded to it. That’s not a proper apology.

  • http://cranialhyperossification.blogspot.com GDad

    “And, I’m sorry that any took offense.”

    Some may regard this as picking nits, but why is it that so few people any more apologize just for saying or doing a thoughtless or cruel thing? Of course you’re sorry that people took offense; they pestered you, and that was an inconvenience. A grown-up with a good sense of morals and ethics would be sorry for saying something stupid. Then the people who took offense would be free to accept or ignore your apology.

    Partial credit.

  • littlejohn

    It’s especially annoying when someone suggests that atheism and liberalism go hand in hand. One need only mention Ayn Rand, the ultra-right libertarian icon, who was a prominent atheist. She makes Dick Cheney look like a pinko.

  • Roger

    I emailed Barbour several days ago seeking a response to Harris’ email, but I have not heard back from him.

    You probably won’t hear back from him. He’s issued his nopology (and tried to take you to the rhetorical woodshed in the same breath–astonishing!), so he’s likely to move on and ignore your more thoughtful analysis.

  • Claudia

    Hell, John “Blow up the U.N” Bolton is an atheist. So is Christopher Hitchens, who is liberal on some social issues but a neo-con hawk otherwise.

    There is some merit to the association of atheist-liberal, just as there is some merit to ultrareligious-conservative. Much like gays tend to be liberal because many conservatives routinely malign and marginalize them, atheists tend to be liberal because conservatism has so aligned with religiosity and anti-secularism (with the implied bigotry against us) that most of us can’t bring ourselves to identify as conservatives even when we may agree on a whole host of non-religion related issues.

  • Siamang

    Interesting.

    I felt I bent over backwards in my email to him (which I posted here) to separate his actions from the main issues of the election, and who was a better candidate. I also sought to clearly differentiate Harris’ actions from any guessed-at attitude or motive on his part other than to win his election.

    Perhaps I gave him too much benefit of the doubt.

    In the end, he turns out to be more politician than man, which is to be expected, I suppose.

    He made more of a statement than I thought he would, so I have to give him credit for that. But it’s half-credit, only because my respect for politicians is so low that I didn’t expect even a half-hearted one. For a normal human being, this is a non-pology. But for a politician, it’s almost a damned miracle.

  • Colin

    Well played, Hemant. Maybe, just maybe, Mr. Harris has learned something out of all this. We should keep an eye out for him and see how he acts in future elections…

  • Vas

    Wow a post from Don Harris, good for you Mr. Harris. It seems, as I stated before, that we were not being dismissed at all. The guy needed time to think and reflect, it can take a lot to reassess a position, as I said a little time a few letters = a little result, a bit more time a few more letters = a bit more result.
    A quick note to keddaw, the problem as I see it is that Mr. Barbour never claimed to be an atheist, I wrote to him and asked him point blank and he never confirmed he was an atheist or suggested that he was an atheist. Mr. Harris may be in possession of facts that I am not, however he never presented them to me or anyone at this site to my knowledge. To this day I don’t know that Mr. Barbour self identifies as an atheist, and when asked did not say he was. Mr. Harris’ leaflet was presenting “facts” not in evidence, and “facts” still not supported. He refers to a well established religious faction, (UU) as a “church” complete with quotation marks, I think that indicates that he discounts “churches” of which he is not an adherent and a belief that only his Church is the one true religion, while other “churches” are misguided to say the least. If a candidate for office self identifies as a adherent to a particular belief system go ahead and have at it, say how you feel, argue your point, have a field day. If someone proclaims they are running on an atheist platform feel free to criticize that platform. But at least let them make it an issue, and don’t just point at them and say, “hey vote for me because that other guy is a Jew”, (to use Jew an example of a statement of fact used as and intended as a derogatory slur). In that case the intent seems clear, Jews are creepy and intent on undermining your, (the voters) way of life, fear them, elect me instead. Add to this the fact that the opposing candidate may not even be Jewish and the whole thing gets even creepier. It is the use of the word atheist as a derogatory, as a slur that upset me.
    Back to Mr. Harris. He seems to have come a long way in a short time. From my brief correspondence with him I believe him to be thoughtful and capable of introspection. I believe he is capable of changing his position when presented with evidence that is compelling. He could have easily stonewalled us and It most likely would have been to his advantage to do so. He puts himself at risk by posting on this site and his political opponents may be able to now present evidence that Mr. Harris is sympathetic to atheist causes and attack him as he did Mr. Barbour. As for the “nopology” I think that is a bit harsh, it’s not as though he left it at the first two attempts to apologize, he kept at it, and went public, and they got better. Really it is rather hard to apologize to a group you vehemently disagree with. I have information that leads me to believe that Mr. Harris is an attorney, this may in some small way explain his dodgy apologies, it could be as simple as training. Please encourage Mr. Harris, remember that he now visits this site and will likely read your comments. Be generous, be kind, and don’t give him reason to regret making a public statement here. This may be just a single step on a journey for Mr. Harris, be supportive and encourage him to make the next step, we won’t be with him for the entire journey, but I for one hope he continues down this new path and wish him well. I think there has been a fundamental change in Mr. Harris’ views on the subject of atheism. On a final note I hope one day Mr. Harris comes to believe that religion has not only no place in political campaigns, but no place in politics either.
    VAS

  • Vas

    And one more thing for Mr. Harris,

    I brought up Atheism and treated it merely as part of a bundle

    Really? Is that what capitalizing, bolding and italicizing, (twice) infers, merely?
    Keep reflecting Mr. Harris, I really want you to “get it”. No need to respond to me but keep reflecting for your own good, at least be honest with yourself.
    V

  • Polly

    Like Barbour, “draught” used to worry me, too. Then I closed my window and it was fine.

  • Vas

    uh… Fact check. It was drought Barbour was talking about in the newspaper interview, not draught. I don’t think closing your window would help much unless your room was half full of water and you wanted to put a damper on evaporation. Or maybe you were worried about your boat running aground if the water went out the window and became too shallow. Or maybe it’s a beer thing as in “man all those drunks from the bars down the street worry me… better close the window”. Or maybe a fear of checkers. Or maybe just the creepy sight of me beating a dead horse, (guess what kind of horse). Ah crap I’m WAY off topic and kind of joking around a bit. forgive me, sometimes I just start down a path and… start all my sentences with conjunctions. But I mean well. And I do kind of have a point even if it is on the top of my head.
    V

  • beckster

    I brought up Atheism and treated it merely as part of a bundle of ultra liberal attributes, and to contradict his own political messaging. I certainly did not mean to criticize or offend any thoughtful Atheists.

    It seems he is saying that someone who is liberal and an atheist is not thoughtful.

  • http://ottodestruct.com/ Otto

    Harris would not have gotten away with it if he substituted the word “black” or “Jew” in the place of “atheist.”

    Have you *seen* some of the campaigning in this country?

    This one happened a year ago here in Memphis: http://www.moonbattery.com/archives/2008/08/postracial_poli.html

    Now, admittedly, the person whom this ad was for, Nikki Tinker, did not release it herself, but then she was also clearly insane. And not just of the racist variety, but of the holy-heck-she-needs-padded-walls variety. But that didn’t stop a local church reverend from outright agreeing with her: http://bruindemocrats.blogspot.com/2008/08/tn-09-racist-and-anti-semitic-ads-from.html

    On the scale of things, his use of “Atheist” was pretty light, although along the same lines.


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