It is with a heavy (10.5-ounce) heart that I tell my millions of supporters I am ending my campaign to become the first acknowledged atheist to serve as a U.S. senator from South Carolina. While I didn’t hear from each of the 60 million people in this country without any god beliefs, I’ve heard from enough of them (and even some religious believers) to know how proud and surprised they would have been to see South Carolina take a leadership role in such political diversity. Their support helps justify my eight-year legal challenge that ended with a 1997 South Carolina Supreme Court victory nullifying the anti-atheist clause in our Constitution. This battle forms the centerpiece of my recent book, “Candidate Without a Prayer: An Autobiography of a Jewish Atheist in the Bible Belt.”
Special thanks go to the over 3,700 people who voted for me in the straw poll conducted by the Charleston City Paper. That’s a whopping 85 percent of the votes cast, which shows an increasing awareness and political engagement by secular Americans. Charleston native Stephen Colbert, who announced his candidacy on national television, finished second in this poll. As a huge fan of Colbert, I took great pleasure in highlighting his appearance at the College of Charleston and by voting for Herman Cain in the Republican primary because Colbert had endorsed him.
Before Gov. Nikki Haley made her disappointing choice, there was a plan for the top two vote getters in the Charleston City Paper straw poll (Colbert and me) to engage in a senatorial debate on Colbert’s TV show. Regrettably, I was the only one with such a plan. Colbert didn’t come right out and admit it, but he apparently chose to duck the debate because he knew he would have had little chance of winning. Here is how I would have framed my senatorial case on his show:
Al Franken and Stephen Colbert are among my favorite comedians. Franken, however, mysteriously lost his sense of humor after becoming a U.S. Senator, and he hasn’t been heard from since. Our country cannot afford to take such a risk with a national treasure like Stephen Colbert, so he needs to stay where he is. As Senator, I promise not to fall off the humor cliff—as most politicians do. I will report to my constituents every week on C-SPAN television about the many weird things I see and hear from members of Congress. I might not be as funny as Stephen Colbert, but the C-SPAN humor bar is set so low that even a mathematician like me can clear it with ease. Finally, I hope to start a much-needed trend toward shorter political speeches by dropping the standard cliché ending, “God bless you and God bless the United States of America.”
During my campaign, I was thrilled to receive the endorsement of Richard Dawkins, renowned evolutionary biologist and author of “The God Delusion.” Haley, however, was more impressed by an endorsement from Jim DeMint, so she appointed Tim Scott to the position. DeMint, as senator, wanted public school students to be taught that God created this earth and that He put Christians in charge of America.
Unfortunately, Tim Scott in many ways is a “spiritual” heir to DeMint. This fiscal conservative once insisted on posting a Ten Commandments plaque in the Charleston County Council chambers despite being told he would lose any legal challenge. Scott argued that the display was needed to remind residents of moral absolutes. But when asked to name all Ten Commandments, Scott couldn’t. The court, as expected, declared the display unconstitutional, handing taxpayers a substantial legal bill. Unbowed and no wiser, Scott said, “Whatever it costs in the pursuit of this goal (of displaying the Commandments) is worth it.”
Scott barely edged out Ricardo Montalban, who died in 2009, for third place in the Charleston City Paper straw poll. Had Governor Haley appointed Montalban to the Senate, South Carolina would have made history by having the first officially dead senator in office. I’ll not comment about our late Strom Thurmond, the only senator to reach 100 while in office.
Despite losing by only one vote (Haley’s), I’ll be a good sport and not demand a recount. And I won’t mount a campaign to see either Haley’s or Scott’s birth certificate.
Herb Silverman is founder and president of the Secular Coalition for America, and Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Mathematics at the College of Charleston.