Godless Gaffe: North Carolina Candidate Dole's 'Faith-Based' Attack Backfires

The Dole ad reeked of desperation and oozed sleaze.

Barack Obama's historic election as president has dominated the news, as pundits pour over the results in an effort to explain what went right for Obama and wrong for John McCain.

Several Senate and House races remain too close to call, meaning we may not see the dust settle from campaign '08 for a few more weeks. There's a lot to chew over here.

But some results were decisive. Some candidates flat-out lost by unexpectedly large margins. Among them was U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Dole (R-N.C.). Dole was ousted by Kay Hagan, a North Carolina state senator, for the seat once held by the infamous Jesse Helms.

In the closing days of the Dole-Hagan race, religion became an issue, in a most unfortunate and unacceptable way. Dole, realizing that her lead in the polls had evaporated, authorized a commercial attacking Hagan for attending a fund-raiser that was hosted by Woody Kaplan, who sits on the advisory board of the Godless Americans Political Action Committee.

Kaplan held the fund-raiser for Hagan at his home in Boston, but it was not a Godless Americans PAC event. Lots of people attended, and the event was endorsed by U.S. Sen. John F. Kerry, a Roman Catholic.

Nevertheless, Dole's campaign put out an ad accusing Hagan of consorting with "Godless Americans" and hinting darkly that she had promised them something. The ad concluded with an impersonation of Hagan's voice saying, "There is no God."

Hagan is not "godless." She is a Presbyterian who once taught Sunday school. But even if she were a religious skeptic, so what? Does that somehow disqualify her for public office? Article VI of the U.S. Constitution bars "religious tests" for public office, and Dole seemed to be urging voters to violate the spirit of that provision by applying one of their own. (Voters are free to do that, of course, but a lot of us think it's not a good idea.)

Dole was criticized for the ad, but much of the media comment focused on whether it would work. It did not. Hagan defeated Dole handily, 53 percent to 44 percent.

It's unlikely the ad alone sealed Dole's defeat. There had been some grumbling in North Carolina that Dole wasn't spending much time in the state, was out of touch and was taking the seat for granted. At the same time, the ad reeked of desperation and oozed sleaze. The fact that it failed even in a conservative and religious state is cause for celebration.

In the spirit of full disclosure, I should point out that I know Woody Kaplan and am proud to consider him a friend. He's a passionate supporter of church-state separation and the rights of non-believers. He never deserved to be dragged into this mess.

Here's hoping other candidates pay attention to the Dole debacle and learn from it: Crude attacks on a candidate's faith (or even their lack thereof) have no place in civilized political discourse.