Nontheist, Atheist, Humanist

Kay Hagan And The Specter Of ‘Godless Americans’

  Rob Boston

Kay Hagan, a former U.S. senator from North Carolina, died earlier this week. She was only 66 but had been ill for three years with encephalitis caused by a tick-borne illness.

Here at Americans United, news of Hagan’s death took us back to 2008 and an ugly incident of bigotry that occurred during her first Senate campaign.

Hagan, a Democrat, ran against Republican Elizabeth Dole for a seat once held by the notorious Jesse Helms. With polls showing Dole running behind in the closing days, her campaign decided to go negative and cast aspersions on Hagan’s faith.

The Dole campaign aired an ad attacking Hagan for attending a fundraiser in Massachusetts hosted by a businessman who also had ties to a political action committee (PAC) for non-religious people. The fundraiser was not sponsored by the PAC, but the Dole campaign went on the attack anyway. Dole’s people produced a commercial accusing Hagan of consorting with “godless Americans” and hinted that Hagan had cut some sort of political deal with these radical secularists.

A voice-over ominously said, “Godless Americans and Kay Hagan – she hid from cameras. Took ‘Godless’ money. What did Kay Hagan promise in return?” The ad concluded with a woman’s voice saying, “There is no God.”

Hagan, however, was not “godless.” She was a Presbyterian and former Sunday school teacher. During an interview on a Raleigh radio station, Hagan blasted the ad, saying, “I think Elizabeth Dole has just gone to the lowest of the lows. This is an attack on my Christian faith.”

The ad was obviously designed to reverse Dole’s fortunes and put her over the top in a Bible Belt state, but it failed badly. On election day, Hagan won handily, 53 percent to 44 percent. Hagan served one term in the Senate before losing the seat to Thom Tillis in 2014.

There was a sad coda to the ad, however. The man who engineered it, Marty Ryall, later told a political magazine that he had absolutely no regrets about airing it – despite its bigoted themes.

“We had polled the issue in mid-September and found that it tested very well among the key groups that we needed to win,” Ryall said. “We needed to raise intensity among Republican voters, as well as shift the focus of Independents and conservative Democrats from our negatives to Kay Hagan in an unfavorable way. We needed something that had some shock value and would also generate an earned media component – and that was the ‘Godless’ issue.”

Putting aside the fact that the ad simply wasn’t accurate, it was appalling because it demonized millions of Americans. Dole’s campaign used “godless” Americans as a foil, a group of people to fear and overcome. Thankfully, the voters saw through her mean-spirited attempt at division.

Even in the rough and tumble of American politics, Dole’s “godless” ad was a low blow. Hagan handled it with dignity and aplomb. May she rest in peace.

Photo: Screenshot from C-SPAN.

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