Mike Smith, an Atheist, is Running for a Seat in the Georgia House of Representatives

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.)

 

Mike Smith, out atheist and Georgia congressional candidate.

 

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.

About Kate Donovan

Kate is a junior studying psychology and human development at Northwestern University. She is the president of Northwestern's Secular Student Alliance and a writer at Teen Skepchick, Heresy Club, and various other places around the internet. Sometimes she sleeps.

  • Renshia

     Way to go mike. I hope you make a strong impact in your area not matter the outcome.
    If I could vote for you I would.

  • Fsq

    I dont live in Georgia, but I just sent his campaign fund $50. We need more of him!!!!!

    Give this guy some money and some love!!!!

    • Annie

      How did you send him money?  I couldn’t find a way to contribute on his website. 

      • Fsq

        Call the campaign headquarters..

        They can take donations in a variety of ways. And yes!!!! Another person donating!!!!

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=750428174 Paddy Reddin

    Even of he doesn’t win, just by running he is giving others the courage to run.  This is why we need the Out campaign.

    Of course I guarantee this doesn’t get wide spread media coverage, so back to the social networking folks.

    • Bob Becker

      “Even of he doesn’t win, just by running he is giving others the courage to run. “
      Exactly. First step on the long road to the day when it won’t be news that an atheist is running for office in Georgia.   Every time an atheist wins a nomination and runs for office, it “normalizes” the situation just a bit.  Long way to go, but every step helps.

      Though I agree with the poster [below I think] who said it would be good to have GOP atheist candidates running as well.   And important.

      That said, I like that Mr. Smith is running on issues, and not so far as I can tell from his statements, as “the atheist candidate.”   He holds certain policy positions [with which I agree] and is running on them, and happens to be an atheist.   Right emphasis.  Not hiding the fact in the least, but not making it the, or even a, central issue of his campaign.  Exactly right. 

  • markookoo2001

    No, not unless it’s a very liberal democratic congressional district. He needs to become a lil more moderate/conservative to win.  

    no on legal mary J
    talk about family values 
    and take lots of family pictures

  • advancedatheist

    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.

    Too bad he decided to run as a Democrat. We need more secular Lakoffian Strict Father Republicans. 

  • http://electmikesmith.com/ Mike Smith

    Hey, Folks.

     

    Thank you for your kind comments. I am
    not accepting contributions because I think there is too much money in
    politics. Large donations are wrong, and all political
    donations should be illegal. It would be hypocritical for me to accept money
    and be against all the money in politics. As a practical matter, if I accepted
    small donations, that would never match the contributions to the Republican
    incumbent. This district is small enough for me to talk to people, so I will do
    that. I have enough money to do the basics, and since I will use my own money,
    I will uses it wisely and not be obliged to any person if I am elected.
    Besides, campaigns should be about ideas, not money. See more of my positions
    at electmikesmith.com. Maybe you could help
    get people in your areas interested in pursuing these issues. 

     

    Thanks.

     

    Mike Smith 

     

    An unknown Buddhist said that it is
    better to be kind than it is to be right.

    • judith sanders

      Best of luck, Sir.  I’d like to suggest that you add more issues that are specific to your district to your platform.  Your stance on national issues is great, but you might get votes even from people who don’t like you if you address District 69′s specific problems with water, transportation, development, etc. 

  • Tinker

    Never thought I would want to vote for a Dem, but considering the Republican party is dead to me and both parties have put rules in place to ensure the two party system I probably would vote for Mr. Smith if I could. 

    I was not a fan of public funds for campaigns but it admittedly is better than any alternative, from a two party view. In a perfect world candidates would put up their websites, the states would link to them and that would be the only campaigning allowed.It is interesting how many people read the article and then commented that they would send money. Or did you just read that he was an Atheist Democrat and not read any farther?

    • Annie

      Tinker wrote, “It is interesting how many people read the article and then commented
      that they would send money. Or did you just read that he was an Atheist
      Democrat and not read any farther?”

      Umm… Many?  You mean two?  I inquired how to send money, as I read on Mike Smith’s website that he isn’t seeking donations (under the tab, “Why I don’t Want Your $”).  That was after I read about the issues that Smith thinks are of the greatest importance, as well as reading Randy Nix’s voting record.  So yes, I read the article and the helpful links provided.

      I wish I could do something to help this candidate, but I live in a neighboring state.  The fact that he is an atheist, I won’t lie, is certainly a plus for me, but not the most appealing aspect of his platform.  I do, however, think that his humanist views are perhaps what brings our thoughts on many issues to similar conclusions.  The political climate in Georgia is downright frightening… unless, of course, you happen to be a right-wing Christian who believes our founding fathers intended for Christianity to be our nation’s religion.  Many argue that the reason it was left out all together was because it was so obvious (I know, I know).  Smith seems like a strong candidate and I wish him the best. 

  • http://northierthanthou.com/ northierthanthou

    I hope he scores a win.

  • http://twitter.com/nora_anne Nora

    Very cool, I always think it is good to get more of us out there and help people realize that we are normal and all around them!

    Couldn’t help but notice this typo:  I think that would be a very good way to get the pubic engaged in the process

    • http://twitter.com/donovanable Kate Donovan

      eek. Definitely fixed that.

      Thanks for catching that! :)

  • http://twitter.com/Buffy2q Buffy

    “So does Mr. Smith have a snowball’s chance in hell of winning this thing?”

    In Georgia?  I don’t see it happening. 

  • Keulan

    Well, he sounds like a great candidate. I’m not optimistic about his chances of winning, since he’s in Georgia. I’d love to see more candidates like Mike Smith running for political office all over the United States.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Scott-Rhoades/100000175617377 Scott Rhoades

    Let’s hope that there are many partaking of Mary Jane in his district that will look past his atheism in hopes of marijuana legalization.  Mike, have you contacted marijuana advocacy groups,  publications, and websites? A recent poll showed that 56% of Americans favor the legalization of pot. (http://www.rasmussenreports.com/public_content/lifestyle/general_lifestyle/may_2012/56_favor_legalizing_regulating_marijuana). I think it’s a smart move to make it part of your platform. A true GRASS roots movement (sorry couldn’t resist). If you succeed in showing these people that your beliefs will not influence your politics I think that this issue alone could get you much support.


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