Appeals to Religious Hostility from the Texas Republican Party:

Here's an item from the Texas Republican Party's Web site:

Candidate for the Sixth Court of Appeals, Ben Franks, is reported to be a professed atheist and apparently believes the Bible is a "collection of myths."

During debate over a plank in the State Democrat Platform, members of the Platform Committee debated dropping "God" from a sentence on the first page of the document. The plank stated: "we want a Texas where all people can fulfill their dreams and achieve their God-given potential."

According to an article published in the El Paso Times, Ben Franks states: "I'm an atheist..." [For Franks' response to this, see here.]

All elected or appointed officials in Texas must take the oath prescribed by Art. XVI, Section 1(a) of the Texas Constitution:

"I, _____, do solemnly swear (or affirm), that I will faithfully execute the duties of the office of _____ of the State of Texas, and will to the best of my ability preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution and laws of the United States and of this State, so help me God."

Should Franks be elected in November, one would have to conclude that he will hold true to his out of touch "atheist" belief system and ignore the laws and Constitution of Texas. Mr. Franks is a personal injury trial lawyer practicing in Texarkana, Texas and is the Democrat nominee for the 6th Court of Appeals.

As I've argued before, the theoretical case for ignoring candidates' religious beliefs when deciding whom to vote for is not open-and-shut: Religious beliefs (whether atheist, fundamentalist Christian, Catholic, Muslim, Jewish, Hindu, or whatever else) are at least in theory pointers to how a person is likely to act, and the similarity between your beliefs and a candidate's might in theory be a good predictor of the similarity in your moral values and your views on what the government ought to do. But in practice, it seems to me that the correlation is low enough, and appeals to such a correlation are dangerous enough in a religiously pluralistic country that they ought to be eschewed and condemned.

But for now, let me just stress how, if such criticism of atheists is accepted, similar calls to vote against candidates with other beliefs about religion would become legitimized as well. After all, it's not just atheists who believe that the Bible is myth (I take it that the belief is about the Bible's claims of miracles, not about all of the Bible's historical assertions, some of which may be accurate, or about the Bible's moral teachings, to which the label "myth" can't be applied). Most Buddhists, Hindus, and other non-Christians/Jews/Muslims likely believe the same. Jews believe that the New Testament's claims of Jesus's miracles and his resurrection are myths (that's why they're not Christians). Many denominations of Christians believe that many of the claims of miracles in the Bible are myth (for instance, Methuselah didn't actually live to 969, the world wasn't actually covered in water during the Flood, Noah didn't actually fit two of each animal on his ark, and so on) or at least metaphor.

More broadly, if the Texas Republican Party can properly say "don't vote for the atheist, because he believes the Bible is myth and is therefore out of touch with the majority," then a party can equally legitimately say "don't vote for the fundamentalist Christian, because he believes the Bible is literally true and is therefore out of touch with the majority that don't believe such things," or "don't vote for the Catholic, because he recognizes the spiritual authority of a foreign leader, and is therefore out of touch with true blue Americans who bow their heads to no foreign potentate." Do we really want that sort of political argument to resurface?

Just to mention what should be obvious, I think the Texas Republican Party has a perfect First Amendment right to put out such arguments; I'm also not persuaded that the Religious Test Clause actually prohibits (even in an unenforceable way) voters from voting based on a candidate's religiosity. But I think arguments like the Texas Republican Party's are corrosive to American religious tolerance, and to American democracy more broadly, and we should exercise our First Amendment rights to condemn them.

Incidentally, the "so help me God" argument doesn't work: The laws of the state of Texas are subject to the U.S. Constitution, which bars the disqualification of officeholders who don't believe in God (or who refuse to engage in religious oaths, as quite devout Quakers and others do). See, e.g., Torcaso v. Watkins (1961); Lee v. Weisman (1992). In light of these federal precedents, the Texas Constitution has to be read as providing people who don't want to swear, but who instead want to affirm without reference to God, the right to do that. It's the Texas Republican Party's legal analysis that's ignoring the constitution of the United States, which is the fundamental law of Texas as well as of all other states.