Yesterday I wrote about Sen. Elizabeth Dole's despicable ad that accused her challenger, Kay Hagan, of accepting campaign contributions from atheists and, via the use of a voiceover at the end of the ad, suggested that Hagan herself didn't believe in God. Well, apparently, I'm not the only commentator who thought that Sen. Dole's smear went too far:
Newspapers in North Carolina have also taken a harsh view of Sen. Dole' ad. The Charlotte Observer said:
This is indecent. It is the modern-day version of the “white hands” ad, a lie born of Dole's desperation in a race in which she has trailed for weeks. It is also a deliberate attempt by Dole's campaign not just to distort the truth, but to shatter Hagan's admirable record as an elder for more than a decade in Greensboro's First Presbyterian Church, as a Sunday School teacher and a volunteer in her church's fundraising campaigns, worship services and community service programs.
Political campaigns in this state are often hard-fought, with bitter, overwrought accusations that stretch the truth, embellish the facts and attempt to confuse voters. Hagan has hit Dole hard. Dole has hit Hagan hard. That is par for the course.
This ad is something else, an attack on a Christian woman's faith against all evidence to the contrary. It is wrong. It may well backfire on Dole.
It has no place in N.C. politics. Unless she admits this egregious, shameful mistake and acts appropriately, Elizabeth Dole has no place in N.C. politics, either.
And the Greensboro News-Record said:
If Elizabeth Dole is still the gracious person North Carolinians have admired for many years, she'll pull her new attack ad off the air. It's worse than dishonest in its depiction of rival Kay Hagan as a "Godless American."
Even in a campaign long ago driven down in tone by Democrats and Republicans, this is a low blow. Making false insinuations about a candidate's religious beliefs is beyond the bounds of acceptable political disagreement.
Hagan actually had her attorneys send a cease and desist letter to Sen. Dole. The letter makes a number of fine points and hits hard on the fact that the ad is false and that the Sen. Dole's campaign new that it was false. The letter also includes the following quote from Garrison v. Louisiana, a 1964 decision of the United States Supreme Court:
At the time the First Amendment was adopted, as today, there were those unscrupulous enough and skillful enough to use the deliberate or reckless falsehood as an effective political tool to unseat the public servant or even topple an administration. That speech is used as a tool for political ends does not automatically bring it under the protective mantle of the Constitution. For the use of the known lie as a tool is at once at odds with the premises of democratic government and with the orderly manner in which economic, social, or political change is to be effected. Calculated falsehood falls into that class of utterances which are no essential part of any exposition of ideas, and are of such slight social value as a step to truth than any benefit that may be derived from them is clearly outweighed by the social interest in order and morality. Hence the knowingly false statement and the false statement made with reckless disregard of the truth, do not enjoy constitutional protection.
Hagan is now airing her own ad in response:
But you know, all of this still leaves a bad taste in my mouth. Why? Two related reasons. First, let's look at why Hagan is angry:
I believe in God. I taught Sunday School. My faith guides my life, and Senator Dole knows it.
In the cease and desist letter (and in statements to the press and emails to voters), Hagan has expounded on her church involvement. So, while I recognize that Hagan is upset that her own religious beliefs were challenged, I'm more concerned with the fact that religious beliefs (or atheist non-belief) was interjected in the first place. Recall Colin Powell's comments following his endorsement of Sen. Obama (on the subject of rumors that Sen. Obama is a Muslim):
I'm also troubled by, not what Senator McCain says, but what members of the party say. And it is permitted to be said such things as, "Well, you know that Mr. Obama is a Muslim." Well, the correct answer is, he is not a Muslim, he's a Christian. He's always been a Christian. But the really right answer is, what if he is? Is there something wrong with being a Muslim in this country? The answer's no, that's not America.
(Emphasis added.) Go back and read Powell's comments again, but simply replace "Muslim" with "atheist". I guess that I can't expect Hagan to stand up and say, "Gee, I do support atheists, even if I'm not one." But why not? She might make such a statement about African-Americans or Muslims or even criminals who have completed a prison sentence. What is so hard -- so wrong -- with supporting an atheist's right not to believe and to be a part of the political process.
This concern of mine is further exacerbated by the last line of the Hagan's response:
Sure politics is a tough business, but my campaign is about creating jobs and fixing our economy, not bearing false witness against fellow Christians.
(Emphasis added.) Um. Would it be OK to bear "false witness" against a Muslim or a Jew? What about an atheist? The problem is that, while Hagan has responded forcefully to Sen. Dole's bigoted and nasty smear, her response has actually allowed Sen. Dole to control the issue by allowing religion to be interjected into the debate. That is wrong.
I hope that Sen. Dole loses. I hope that the voters of North Carolina give her a strong message that her attack ad was way beyond the pale. But I also hope that Kay Hagan will come to realize that the right response was to recognize that religion and religious beliefs should not be issues in the campaign and that there is nothing wrong with supporting minority religious (or anti-religious, as the case may be) viewpoints. Hagan's anger is just; her response is strong; but she misses the point.