Mike Smith lives in the Bible Belt. Which makes everything I’m about to tell you a bit of a shocker.
He is an out atheist, the president of LaGrange Humanists. Just a few days ago, he qualified as a Democratic candidate for the District 69 seat in the Georgia House of Representatives. He’s running on a campaign of marijuana legalization, campaign finance reform, and opposition to war (including the war on women, he specifies).
His opponent, Randy Nix, is the Republican incumbent, a Methodist pastor, and a former chaplain’s assistant. In his five years in office, Nix has voted to ban abortion after 20 weeks and require an ultrasound, to require English-only driver’s license exams, and to prohibit health care mandates. (You can see Nix’s full voting record here). Needless to say, they’re polar opposites.
So does Mr. Smith have a snowball’s chance in hell of winning this thing?
Recently, I had a a chance to ask him. (Links have been added by me for the sake of clarity.)
Tell me about yourself, in your own words, and why you decided to run.
I have always been an atheist. I graduated from high school here, joined the army, went to Vietnam, came home, and worked my way through college and law school. Meanwhile, I married and we had a son who now has a son of his own. In 2000, my wife was diagnosed with breast cancer, and I took her to all of her treatments. While she sat in the chemo chair, I would read about Buddhism because I had planned to take a class on Buddhist Psychology. I came to consider myself a secular Buddhist. In 2002, my wife of over 31 years died, and Buddhism helped me understand that I have no control over anything, especially death. I rode a motorcycle from here to Alaska and back in 2003 and it gave me a lot of time to think. In 2004, I married my second wife, and we have two daughters, ages 3 and 5. In 2006, I also had surgery for cancer, but that seems to be in remission.
9-11-2001 was important because it showed me the deadly side of what I had always considered a backward and hateful institution: supernatural religion. I read all of the New Atheist books and agreed with most of what I read. In 2008, like many Obama supporters, I was asked by the Obama campaign and by MoveOn.org to write letters-to-the-editor of my local paper to discuss issues suggested by those groups. When my letters were printed, there were many letters in response calling me a left-wing/fascist/liberal/Communist/atheist, and I soon realized that I could write my own letters about the things I cared about, mostly atheism.
Meanwhile, I was elected to the local Democratic party as a voting member and recruited others in an effort to strengthen the party. One of our goals has been to have as many Democrats as possible on the ballot. We now have about four local candidates, and I had planned to be one of them, possibly a county commissioner candidate.
This past winter, the Georgia general assembly went crazy, passing all kinds of oppressive laws designed to punish women, the poor, and union members. The Republicans also legislated their right to force the Ten Commandments into all public buildings. At that point, I decided to run for the legislature rather than the county commission. I also joined protests against actions of the legislature and helped form the Occupy LaGrange group in support of the Occupy movement.
As coincidences happen, a reporter at the local newspaper is the wife of a preacher that asked the City of LaGrange for a $10,000 gift for a Jesus/Winshape summer camp. I wrote a letter to the city, and couple of days later, the city decided to decline the donation to the church. At about the same time, the editor of the newspaper retired, and the new editor seems to be under the influence the preacher’s wife because they stopped printing my letters. As a result, the political campaign will give me a new venue to express my atheism.
You’re an out atheist. How did you come to identify as such, and how do you feel it shapes you and your decisions?
I answered most of this above, but atheism is clearly the most reasonable way to view the world. By another name, it is Humanism, the philosophy of living with compassion and reason, but without gods. I am reading The Righteous Mind by Jonathan Haidt, who seems to argue that we are motivated by emotion more than by reason, but I can see that some emotions are fostered by reason. For example, I have strong emotions against being forced to do or believe things that do not make sense. That emotion is the sense of freedom.
What values of Georgians do you feel that you best represent?
Fairness and Freedom.
Georgia remains very conservative. How do you plan to convince traditionally conservative voters to support you?
Freedom may be the most conservative American ideal. To address atheism, I will have to emphasize freedom, freedom of religion, and the freedom of all Americans to not believe in supernatural things. Voters who understand that it is fair for atheists to be freed from religion should support me.
What do you see as the toughest battle of your campaign?
My toughest battle will be to convince those conservative voters to support me. It will be difficult to overcome their irrational prejudices.
First, I will have to win the Democratic primary on July 31st. I plan to do that by participating in as many Democratic events as I can find in the District. There are three county parties here: Troup, Heard, and Carroll. I talked to my Democratic opponent and he does not seem very motivated to participate in discussions or debates, although I think that would be a very good way to get the public engaged in the process. Since I have a disinterested opponent, the challenge will be to overcome the prejudice that many have against atheists.
One solution might be to not emphasize my worldview until after the primary. However, the largest city in the district is LaGrange and many people here already know I am an atheist because of my frequent letters to the editor about atheism over the past few years. So, the primary may be my only opportunity to make the voters aware of atheism.
What do you think your chances of election are? [Emphasis mine.]
A political consultant told me from the beginning that he expects the Republican incumbent to raise about $70,000, and that a Democrat might be able to raise about $40,000 but would be lucky to receive about 30% of the vote in this district. He said the benefit of running for the House was that I would receive enough exposure to possibly win a county school board seat the next time.
Another obstacle is the fact that I have decided to not accept contributions because I think money corrupts politics. We should make all political contributions illegal and publically finance all election campaigns. I have enough money to do basic campaigning, but I will not be wasting my funds. So, the financial odds are also be against me.
However, I think that elections should be about ideas, not about money. So, it may be more realistic to believe that my chances at winning depend on the level of voter excitement about the issues I have raised, including: ending legalized bribery of legislators by lobbyists, making the rich [pay] a fairer share of taxes so that we don’t have to keep closing our schools, and legalizing and taxing marijuana. If I am the candidate in November and there is interest in these issues, I think I have a reasonable chance.
EDIT: In the first interview question, Mr. Smith originally said that the preacher was married to the general manager of the paper. The preacher is actually married to a reporter at the paper. The post has been updated to reflect this.