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“South Carolina is too small for a republic and too large for an insane asylum,” observed Congressman James L. Petigru, shortly after South Carolina seceded from the Union in 1860 and declared itself a republic. I’ve lived in South Carolina since 1976, and stories about our politicians no longer surprise me. The comedy group Capitol Steps takes its name from the escapade involving our former congressman John Jenrette, who had sex with his wife on the steps of the U.S. Capitol in the late 1970s. More recently, our former governor Mark Sanford was intimate with his “soul mate” in Argentina, which he mistook for the Appalachian Trail. Perhaps South Carolina is not too large for an insane asylum.
Some might argue that I’m also a candidate for this asylum. After all, why would a liberal, Yankee, Jewish atheist like me run for governor of South Carolina? Well, it wasn’t through blind ambition or unrealistic expectations, and certainly the devil didn’t make me do it. In 1990 a colleague at the College of Charleston, where I was a math professor, pointed out that the South Carolina Constitution prohibited atheists from becoming governor.
Since the U.S. Constitution bars religious tests for public office, I asked a local ACLU lawyer how this obviously unconstitutional provision could be removed. He said that to mount a legal challenge, an open atheist would have to become a candidate. And he added with a smile, “The very best candidate would be you-in a race for governor of South Carolina.”
After giving this surprising suggestion much thought, I agreed to run as a write-in candidate. I assumed, in my political naïveté, that state officials would consent to bring South Carolina into compliance with federal law. They didn’t. Governor Carroll Campbell said, “The South Carolina Constitution was fine as it was because this country was founded on Godly principles.”
And I soon learned that “atheist” was a very provocative word, and not just in South Carolina. The national Associated Press picked up the story, and the following day I got a call from a very distressed woman in Philadelphia–my mother! I had to admit that reading about me in the Philadelphia Inquirer was not the best way to discover that her only child was a candidate for governor, and an atheist. I never expected publicity, so I thought I could spare my mother such heartache.
South Carolina Public Television invited all the gubernatorial nominees to debate a week before the election. Incumbent Republican Governor Carroll Campbell knew he would have an easy election victory and declined, but nominees from the Democratic Party and the American Party (the old George Wallace party) jumped at the chance to debate me. Of course, afterward, friends assured each of us that we had won the debate, but one year later, there was an objective measure to determine the winner: Of the three participants, I was the only one who was not in jail. The American Party candidate was in jail for driving without a license and refusing to get one, while the Democratic Party candidate for a more traditional reason-tax evasion.
I engaged in an eight-year legal battle with my state, which finally ended in a South Carolina Supreme Court victory, nullifying the anti-atheist clause in our Constitution. South Carolina spent close to $100,000 in an attempt to keep me from holding the exalted position of notary public.
Prior to this experience, I had been an apathetic atheist, as most atheists are. During my political campaigns, I heard from many who had thought they were the only atheists in South Carolina, so we formed a much-needed local secular humanist community. I also became active in national humanist and atheist organizations, helping to form the Secular Coalition for America, a political advocacy group that allows unlimited lobbying on behalf of secular Americans.
I journeyed from Orthodox Jew in Philadelphia to atheist activist in South Carolina. Lots of people don’t understand why I “waste time” focusing on nonexistent deities. Since I used to be an apathetic atheist, I can appreciate their point. At one time I saw no more need to promote atheism than to promote a round earth. Though a Flat Earth Society still exists, its supporters don’t have the political clout of a well-organized Religious Right. I don’t want special rights for atheists; I do want equal rights for everyone. In reality, for women, blacks, gays and lesbians, and atheists, it is taking a lot of candidates with or without a prayer to achieve this.
Herb Silverman is author of “Candidate Without a Prayer: An Autobiography of a Jewish Atheist in the Bible Belt.”
The media often referred to me with what they viewed as an appropriate adjective, like “self-described atheist,” or “so-called atheist,” and even “admitted atheist.” I wondered how other candidates would react if they were described as “so-called Methodists” or “admitted Baptists.” On radio shows, Christian conservative callers often asked if I worshipped Satan, since “I had to believe in something.” However, the oddest comments came from those who thought my not believing in a judging God meant I must feel free to rape, murder, and commit any atrocity I can get away with. I’d respond, “With an attitude like that, I hope you continue to believe in God.” I was beginning to think that changing hearts and minds of some of my fellow South Carolinians was more important than changing the South Carolina Constitution. I expected the courts to eventually do the right thing; I wasn’t as confident about those who held unquestioned, Bible-based beliefs.
As a math professor, I had been more used to talking to students than to the media and the public. But after several talk show interviews and reactions by callers, I got to know the kinds of questions people would ask. Here is a sample, along with my answers.
Q: What do you think are your chances of winning the election?
A: I’m an atheist, not a fool. (Since I wasn’t going to win, I felt free to be honest.)
Q: What would be the first thing you would do if elected?
A: Demand a recount! (I had been asked many times why atheists were so angry. I wanted to show we could have a sense of humor.)
Q: What would make you believe in God?
A: Perhaps if I won the election. It would take that kind of miracle.
Q: What will happen to you when you die?
A: I know exactly what will happen. I’m going to medical school, just like my Jewish mother always wanted me to do. I want to use my body parts to their fullest while I’m alive, but I hope others will be able to make good use of them when I die.
Q: If the law were changed, do you think an atheist would be elected in South Carolina?
A: No. But fifty years ago, no woman or African American could get elected. Fortunately that has changed, and I’m hoping for the day when we will judge candidates on their positions and integrity, not on their professed religious beliefs.
Q: When was belief in the Supreme Being made a requirement?
A: At the Constitutional Convention of 1868. According to transcripts, one delegate worried that a candidate might just pretend to believe in order to hold public office. Another delegate responded, “This law is intended for a man so depraved as to come out boldly and deny a belief in the Supreme Being. Such a man has lost his reason and is unfit for any office.” The head of the Election Commission said essentially the same thing about me when he indicated I wouldn’t have been questioned about my religious beliefs had I kept quiet about them. In other words, I should have lied and deliberately violated our state constitution. We have enough ethical problems with our political leaders without formally sanctioning such hypocrisy. I think some of our politicians would profess belief in the Tooth Fairy if they thought it would help them get elected.
Q: Why are you wasting all this time on something so frivolous?
A: I find it appalling to be ineligible for an office because of my religious beliefs. And to challenge a law that gives credibility to such religious intolerance and bigotry is not frivolous.
A few days before the election, Judge Norton dismissed my case on the grounds that it was not ripe, meaning he would only rule on the merits of the case if I won the election. To the surprise of no one, I lost.
So with politics now in my blood, where could I go from there? I decided to try and fulfill my lifelong dream of becoming a notary public. Actually, I discovered that South Carolina’s Constitution prohibited atheists from holding any public office. My lawyer told me I could challenge this by applying for a notary commission.. If South Carolina were to grant me a notary public license, it would be an admission by the state that religious tests could no longer be a qualification for public office.