Cecil Bothwell, atheist elected to Asheville City Council. Photo by sweetashvegas.
The difference between here and Asheville is: We could NEVER elect an atheist candidate. The national news-blogs reporting, "An openly atheist candidate has actually been elected to office, and in Asheville, North Carolina, of all places," (italics mine) let us know that these national writers don't know Asheville; it is a very liberal area, the counterpoint to ultra-conservative Greenville. They are like yin and yang, but parts of a whole. We all watch the same TV stations and listen to the same radio stations.
The hoopla over atheist Cecil Bothwell (well-known in the area) being elected to City Council, has gone viral, covered by Rachel Maddow on MSNBC last night. What the national news-media keeps missing is what this represents.
Last week, quoting JG Ballard, I talked about the colonizing of the inner-cities by the affluent. The locals who grew up here resent this phenomenon, as well they should. What does it mean to be priced out of the neighborhood you grew up in? What does it mean to have tourists all over your hometown, who sneer at you as if you don't belong and haughtily classify you as a redneck? REDNECKS BUILT THIS PLACE, is the overriding sentiment. The Carolina freak-out over Bothwell is much bigger than Bothwell, dramatizing locals' fears of "outsiders" coming in and transforming the values of Western North Carolina.
Note: I am not saying that Bothwell is an outsider--I don't actually know where he is from. (I'm from Ohio myself; not criticizing outsiders, she quickly clarified!) I am saying that he comports himself like an educated person, blogs about culture, has published books, etc. He is the New South, bringing in gonzo, scary ideas like atheism and frightening the horses.
The tension between these two forces is formidable. But it isn't as simple as Old vs New; it is also class-based, and represents local anxieties about increasing gentrification and residential displacement. People like Bothwell get caught in the fallout.
And then, of course, there is the issue of how atheists are systematically shit on, here in the Heartland. I'm sure atheism is utterly passe on the coasts and in the big cities. But not in the south; at least, not in this neck of the woods. It is enough to get you fired (if three people have to go, the atheist will get the sack) and enough to keep you unemployed, if you are honest about it. As I said here, "Which church do you go to?" is routinely (and inappropriately) asked of politicians running for office. And no way Cecil Bothwell could get elected here in Bob Jones University-land.
The discriminatory idea that an atheist isn't as morally upright as a believer, ANY believer, is even covered in North Carolina's constitution:
Opponents of Cecil Bothwell are seizing on that law to argue he should not be seated as a City Council member today, even though federal courts have ruled religious tests for public office are unlawful under the U.S. Constitution.And so, the conflict is evident--national values or North Carolina values? (I'm proud to say that atheists are now eligible to run for any office in South Carolina, thanks to Herb Silverman.)
Voters elected the writer and builder to the council last month.
“I'm not saying that Cecil Bothwell is not a good man, but if he's an atheist, he's not eligible to serve in public office, according to the state constitution,” said H.K. Edgerton, a former Asheville NAACP president.
Article 6, section 8 of the state constitution says: “The following persons shall be disqualified for office: First, any person who shall deny the being of Almighty God.”
Rights enshrined in the U.S. Constitution trump the restriction in the state constitution, said Bob Orr, executive director of the N.C. Institute for Constitutional Law.
“I think there's any number of federal cases that would view this as an imposition of a religious qualification and violate separation of church and state,” said Orr, a former state Supreme Court justice.
In 1961, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled Maryland's requirement for officials to declare belief in God violated the freedom of religion guaranteed by the First Amendment.
Additionally, Article VI of the U.S. Constitution says: “no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States.”
Of course, Bothwell's atheism should not even be an issue.
I hope you will join me in supporting Cecil Bothwell's right to serve the voters, as he was properly elected to do.