Christian Mayor Addresses Pennsylvania Atheist Conference

I still can’t believe Harrisburg Mayor Linda Thompson gave the opening remarks at the Pennsylvania State Atheist/Humanist Conference this weekend, but she made her way into the lions’ den and spoke to the crowd:

Linda Thompson speaks to the crowd as Brian Fields looks on (Eric Veronikis – The Patriot-News)

Thompson said she was there acting as an ambassador to the city, encouraging the crowd to get out to see the city sights and spend money in Harrisburg.

Even though she is a devout Christian who has been criticized by former employees and the public for blurring religion with state and criticizing another city official for his sexual orientation, Thompson told the group she respected its right to gather in the city despite their differences.

“I believe in prayer. I pray all the time. For me, in my personal life, I believe. But as the mayor, I have to be fair to everyone, and I do,” Thompson said during her speech.

“I believe that individually, no matter what we believe in, we should treat each other as human beings and be fair to one another and not demonize each other,” she continued.

“Not demonize each other”? I’d take her more seriously if she didn’t allegedly call one of her political rivals “that homosexual, evil little man.”

Still, for the most part, the atheists in the crowd seemed to appreciate her message yesterday:

“At an atheists convention any mention of God probably seems too religious to the atheists, but I think she represented fairly the position the mayor should have, which is that of neutrality when it comes to religion,” said Scott Rhoades, founder of the Free Thought Society.

“I respect the part (of the mayor’s speech) about respect. I respect the part about loving each other. I respect the part about getting along,” Rhoades added. “But I was a little dismayed about the number of times God came up. But she is a minister, it’s expected I guess for her to squeeze God in as much as she can.”

“I appreciate her visit,” [Claire Larson, secretary for the Free Thought Society] said. “I’m not offended by difference of opinion. We certainly know not everyone sees things the way we do as atheists. (Thompson) was simply stating her perspective as she sees it and she was using her background to explain her reasoning for wishing to be present to welcome our group to Harrisburg.”

A few atheists were upset at the number of times Thompson referred to God and prayer in her speech… but what else were you really expecting. She’s a Christian, even if she’s a mayor. You just have to let some shit slide. I wouldn’t care about her personal beliefs so much if they didn’t affect her public positions; unfortunately, Thompson has blurred those lines before. As far as I can tell, Thompson didn’t refer to any of her past instances of combining church and state in her speech.

That said, I think she did the right thing by accepting the atheists’ invitation. Let’s hope some reason rubbed off on her while she was there.

About Hemant Mehta

Hemant Mehta is the editor of Friendly Atheist, appears on the Atheist Voice channel on YouTube, and co-hosts the uniquely-named Friendly Atheist Podcast. You can read much more about him here.

  • Erik Harris

    ” Let’s hope some reason rubbed off on her while she was there.”

    Does anyone know if she stuck around for the conference? Quite often, opening/key note speakers at conferences will show up just before their appointed speaking time and leave right after they’re done speaking. When that happens, they’re likely not to pick anything up beyond any influence left by skimming the agenda.

  • Andrew Hall

    I would’ve walked out on her speach. Why would I go to an atheist conference to hear a theist bigot talk about her imaginary friend?

  • vjack

    She may have done the right thing by accepting the invitation, but I’m still puzzled by why she received one given what you said about her reputation.

  • Joe Zamecki

    Why was she asked to be there? So some reason might rub off on her? Hey, I’d be glad to speak at an event at that, and more than a little reason would definitely rub off on me…and I’m not even a Christian. lol What was the purpose of this? Seems like there ought to be a big important reason, given right up front. 

  • Good and Godless

    When a politician speaks in front of the bicycle club – they fail to mention all their cars, when they speak in front of the literary society they’d fail to mention how much they watch TV.  

    When she talks about bankrupting her city she does not mention her own wealth.  When she speaks to the farmers she does not mention the community garden she destroys.

    With a history of pandering to the audience this belligerent speech was unconscionable. 

    When were her doubts? 
    When does she feel alone? 
    When does it seem absurd?
    How does it feel to have no prayers answered after a lifetime of devotion?
    How does she close her mind to the obvious?

  • Paul Iannacone

    I believe it is customary to ask the mayor to open with remarks at these sort of conventions.  This one, though, seemed a little odd, but they still threw out the invitation, and I am actually happy she accepted.  Given the fact that she prayed hard for the city not to go bankrupt (worked out well–see Hemant’s link), and the controversy with the “slaves obey your masters” billboard in the city, I thought she might have something good to say.  But, no.  Whatever–she was a sport, I guess.

  • Renshia

    Maybe it was the right thing to do. I would think  the organizers had their reasons. I think if nothing else, it offered an olive branch, maybe it gave her enough interaction that it will spur her to question her beliefs. It is amazing how a small gesture can have a tremendous impact.

  • Michael

    When David Cameron spoke at a bakery he mentioned that he makes his own bread.

  • dangeroustalk

    I was there and I thought she did a pretty good job… all things
    considered. She spoke longer than I expected and talked about our
    religious differences more than most mayors would, but she wasn’t
    negative toward us and acknowledged that we are probably on the same
    page with her politically citing statistics that most atheists are
    pretty liberal. She did end the speech with “God bless you,” but I think
    that was more out of habit than malice. I was glad she came. Here is my
    article from last year about her praying the budget problems away –  

  • dangeroustalk

    She’s the sitting mayor of the city hosting the conference. If she is willing to speech to atheists and not insult us, then that’s great. I said the same thing when Senator Harkin was invited to the Reason Rally. 

  • dangeroustalk

    She’s the sitting mayor of the city hosting the conference. If she is willing to speech to atheists and not insult us, then that’s great. I said the same thing when Senator Harkin was invited to the Reason Rally. 

  • newavocation

    Hopefully, if anything she had a chance to find out atheists really do exist in her community and they are real human beings.

  • mobathome

    That sounds more like invoking common ground.

  • Octoberfurst

     I was there but did not attend to opening ceremony–mainly because I can’t stand Mayor Thompson. She was there because it is customary to have the mayor come to such events to welcome attendees. (Frankly the organizers were suprised she accepted.)
      I heard about all her references to God and prayer and while she has the right to state her opinion I found it rather offensive that she had to keep mentioning God–especially at an atheist conference!  I’m like: Ok we get it! You’re a Christian!  It’s like going to a vegetarian convention and repeatedly saying how much you love meat.
      By the way, the conference was great and we had many wonderful speakers. I plan to go again next year.

  • Joe Zamecki

    Yeah with all the God talk, I would’ve felt insulted. Thoroughly. 

  • Joe Zamecki

    It’s customary to ask the mayor to give opening remarks at a Freethought conference? Since when? Who said so? I’ve never heard that, and I’ve attended lots of Freethought conferences, and volunteered at a lot of them too.

    The person who gives the opening remarks should be one of us. Hello??

  • Joe Zamecki

    When you say it is customary to have the mayor come to such events to welcome attendees, are you talking about events held by that one group only? Or just groups in that city? Or just groups in that state? I’ve never heard of such a tradition, and I’ve attended lots of Freethought conferences. 

    What is the purpose of that? Especially given the nature of this mayor, I have to ask, where on Earth is the logic in inviting anyone other than a Freethinker….to open the conference?? That’s just plain nuts, imho.

  • dangeroustalk

    She wasn’t preaching too us. She was just acknowledging that she believes in God
    and we don’t and that was okay because we are a diverse country. I
    didn’t have a problem with it at all. She is a really unpopular mayor
    who bankrupted the city and she talked about how great it is that we
    came to her city to spend money. She was polite and respectful. I’m glad
    she came. 

  • Joe Zamecki

    Please. To me it sounds like throwing a bone to the opposition. A big one too. Again I have to ask….WHY did they do this?? What was the purpose, when placed side by side with the fact that a member of the opposition got to open one of our conferences? Am I missing some donation somewhere? Or a statue to a Freethinker? What gives?

  • Joe Zamecki

    I wish someone from our side would ask her that. “Did you learn anything new about us?”  Real nice and simple. 

  • Joe Zamecki

    The God talk. That’s preaching. I know, a lot of non-religious folks don’t see it that way, but I’m sensitive to it.

    So why was she asked to speak? I mean other than it was a tradition…?

  • dangeroustalk

    I was there and it wasn’t preaching. They probably invited her because she is the sitting mayor of the host city. 

  • freemage

    Honestly, the reason for all the God-bothering in the speech is pretty obvious.  If it were absent–if she left more than a few paragraphs worth of speaking without bringing up faith even once, she’d catch hell for it (so to speak) from the Faitheads.  She probably figured that she needed to armor-plate her ass before showing up at the conference at all.

  • Octoberfurst

     It’s just a welcoming thing for the Mayor to address conventions and conferences in the city.  A “Welcome to Harrisburg, I hope you have a great time” speech.

  • Drew M.

     Are you going to keep asking the same question until you get the answer you like?

  • PA_Year_of_the_Bible

    I will post more about our invitation to her later today when I have time.  But to answer a few things, no she didn’t stick around for long after her remarks, but she was most gracious to us and we knew her press secretary(communications director) prior to him taking that position.  And when we told her to call us to invite  us (along with the usual plethora of churches) when she has community cleanups and other initiatives, she was practically thrilled.  More later.

  • Brian Fields

    re: “Why did we invite her”

    When Hemant asked me the same question before the conference, this was my answer (Which he covered then):

    It’s standard for the mayor of a city to be invited to conferences
    and other events.  We decided that it would be entirely appropriate to
    invite her, for many reasons.  First, she is the mayor.  Second, if she
    did accept, it would signify that the atheist community was being
    treated like everyone else – Which is a good thing.  Third, perhaps we
    will have the opportunity to share our point of view.  Fourth, the press
    doesn’t hurt.

    We didn’t expect her to accept, but it’s because of her history most
    of all that we are glad she did.  It’s one thing to get people who agree
    with you, quite another to be recognized by those who don’t.

    It is our understanding that she intends to give a standard mayoral greeting.  We hope she sticks around when she is done.


    Unfortunately, she did not stick around.  She did mention “God” more than I was comfortable, but otherwise I think it was gracious of her to accept, and to come.  I did get the feeling though that it was because she was trying to make light of what for her had to be an uncomfortable situation.

    Our community consistently polls far below other groups – And to get the sitting mayor of a city to attend is indeed a special occasion – Not because organizers don’t try to do it, but because the organizers of conferences rarely succeed.  American Atheists tries it each and every time they can – And have only succeeded in Des Moines, and in Washington DC.  If we want to have any credibility (which we need to accomplish our goals of maintaining the separation of church and state), we need to act like we are part of the larger community in which we exist.  Remaining insular because we disagree with someone is stupid, and cultural suicide.

  • Brian Fields

     Exactly how inviting a Christian politician to welcome an Atheist conference throwing a bone?

    One would think that accepting such an invite is political suicide, according to political wisdom.

  • Joe Zamecki

    Because she got to open a conference of her opposition? I’d love to do that. The other side isn’t about to let us do that to them, right? There’s a very good reason. That’s okay, I don’t have to understand or agree. To each their own.

  • Joe Zamecki

    No, I’m not getting any answer, so I’ll stop asking. Good point.

  • Joe Zamecki

    Well all that sounds nice. That’s good.

  • Joe Zamecki

    Sheesh, that reads quite a lot into the simple question of why. Well thanks for the answers. But I stand by my ideal that inviting the other side to open one of our conferences ignores the many people on our side who should be doing that. To avoid that, we don’t need to be insular or commit cultural suicide, we just need to remember our own people first. 

    Thanks for the clarification. I do like our diversity of opinion and approach. :)

  • Andrew Hall

    I can’t help but think of what Deval Patrick (Governor of MA) said at the Dem convention: People need to grow a spine. The woman rattles on about prayer and has a history of spreading idiotic faith-based rhetoric. Look, if convention goers need information about the city or where to go or what to do, then just Google it.   

  • Andrew Hall

    Why? Because some atheists love selling their own kind out. That’s why.

  • dangeroustalk

    What if she went to every other convention and conference to give a
    welcome address, but didn’t come to ours? What would we say then? The
    fact is that she is the sitting mayor and she gives a welcome address to
    all or most conferences in the city. I don’t have a problem with it. If
    she was rude or insulting, that would have been a different story all
    together. But she wasn’t and we all got a good chuckle out of her being
    there. Besides, our position isn’t so weak that we can’t stand to have someone who doesn’t agree with us present.   

  • dangeroustalk

    She wasn’t presenting opening arguments, she was presenting a welcome speech. 

  • dangeroustalk

    I agree with Brian 100%

  • Andrew Hall

    I hear the Democrats are going to be bringing in Karl Rove to speak at their next Presidential Convention.

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