American Atheists just put up two new billboards that go after President Obama‘s Christianity and Mitt Romney‘s Mormonism (though they never mention the candidates by name):
The billboards will be located in Charlotte, NC, where the Democratic National Convention will be held, September 3 – 6, 2012. All companies contacted in Tampa, Florida, where the Republican National Convention will be held, refused to display the billboard focusing on Mormonism.
Mr. Silverman said, “The election of our leaders in the United States is one of the most important decisions that we as citizens make. Allowing our judgment to be clouded by sheer silliness is unacceptable. We want to show the people of our country the foolishness of mixing religion with politics.”
Teresa MacBain, Public Relations Director stated, “Our great country was founded on the secular ideals of the Constitution. Allowing religion to be the litmus test of our candidates undermines the very core of our freedoms.” Ms. MacBain continued, “Article VI of the Constitution states, ‘no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification’ for those desiring public office. How can we disregard our governing principles so blatantly?”
***Edit***: Here’s video of AA’s press conference this morning:
The billboards will be up for a month at a cost of about $15,000.
You just know people are going to say that Teresa’s statements are hypocritical: “If there’s no religious test for public office, why are you attacking their religion?!”
But we’re talking about different things.
Yes, there’s no religious test for public office. American Atheists isn’t suggesting (and would never suggest) that candidates shouldn’t be allowed to run if they’re religious.
What AA is saying is that when it comes to deciding who to vote for, we ought to have some sense of what’s going on in these candidates’ minds. And if they believe in a religion that requires acceptance of the kind nonsense mentioned on the billboards, do we trust them to make good decisions in other areas?
The billboards are easy to counter, though (if the candidates — and anyone else — dare to address them at all).
Christians would just say that their God is a loving God, Jesus is the path to him, the differences between sects are not as important as the big picture of accepting Christ, and some Christians use the Bible to promote hate but they’re not True ChristiansTM. Obama, especially, can now say that he supports marriage equality, so where’s this hate you speak of?
(I’m not saying I buy any of that, but it’s pretty easy to spin.)
Mormons may have a tougher time rebutting the billboard mostly because people don’t know a lot about the faith. Suggesting their God lives in outer space may be accurate, but it just “feels” like a cheap shot — I mean, it’s not like the Christian God lives on Earth, either. Also, the baptizing of dead people (like Anne Frank and Gandhi) was done by fringe Mormon groups and was later denounced by LDS officials.
Instead of addressing those things, though, I suspect most Mormon spokespeople will just deflect the content by playing the victim card:
Terryl Givens, a Mormon professor at the University of Richmond, called American Atheists “petty and vindictive.”
“If this example of adolescent silliness is what atheists mean by being reasonable, then neither Mormons nor other Christians have much to worry about,” he said of the billboards. “When atheists organize to serve the poor and needy of the world, they will be taken more seriously.”
Actually, we do serve the poor and needy. But notice how Givens bypasses the content on the billboard entirely. You’re gonna see a lot of that.
I’ll admit this: To suggest Romney and Obama believe in everything these billboards say is unfair. Obama is no friend to the Religious Right (they’d love to see him lose the election) and even Romney seems to take the GOP platform more seriously than his own holy book.
I think it would’ve been just as controversial — but easier to defend — if AA put out a billboard that said “The Mormon Church didn’t accept black people until 1978” or “Mormons raised $22,000,000 to fight marriage equality.”
But remember: These billboards are rarely nuanced criticisms of religious belief. They’re designed to get people talking and to get publicity for AA. On those counts, these will be successful.
A couple other criticisms AA should expect:
There’s the implication that Mormons aren’t Christian — which is why two billboards are needed — but many Christians believe that, so I’m not very concerned about that one.
There’s also the issue of the Mormon underwear on the billboard, which seems like a low blow to me. It’s like criticizing Jews for believing in God and including a picture of a yarmulke. (Like, Really? That’s the part you have a problem with?)
This is the frustrating thing about atheist billboards. They’re easy to criticize and the atheist critics, at least, tend to be ones who aren’t putting up better billboards of their own. But AA doesn’t mind that. They want people talking about what Mormons and Christians actually believe because they know most people in both faiths will just try and distance themselves from what their holy books actually say.
That’s the point. Both candidates have sidestepped talking about their religious faith and the media has let them do it. It’s as if asking these candidates what they really believe about the nature of God would be rude. It’s not rude. It’s informative. I’d much rather know where Mitt Romney agrees and disagrees with The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints than what’s in his tax returns. He shouldn’t be allowed to get brownie points for saying he’s a devout man without explaining what his religious beliefs are.
At least with Obama, we’ve seen instances where good policy (marriage equality, supporting safe and legal abortion, promoting contraception in Obamacare) trumps what many religious leaders want him to do. Obama may be a Christian, but I don’t worry that he looks to the Bible or Focus on the Family for guidance.
I don’t think Romney looks to the Book of Mormon, either. But we deserve to know what’s going on in his mind.
That’s not a “religious test.” That’s a judgment call.
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