With the lines, "Don't believe in God? You are not alone," on the side of a bus, the Iowa Atheists and Freethinkers association was trying to combat some of the taboos and subtle coercions faced by those who don't belong to a church or believe in a supreme being. But the responses of the Des Moines Area Regional Transit Authority and Gov. Chet Culver further marginalized non-believers from the rest of society.
Their ad is no less reasonable than one placed by a church seeking members. It was timed to coincide with an influx of people to Des Moines for the Iowa State Fair. DART initially accepted it, then pulled it after some riders complained, then decided to reinstate it after the Iowa chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union raised constitutional questions. Culver weighed in when asked, saying he was offended by the ad and its message.
The whole embarrassing debacle projects an image of a confused and self-contradicting DART leadership, and a governor who has deliberately chosen not to represent one segment of Iowa society: the non-church-going. This makes it hard to claim we're a welcoming and pluralistic state where debate and discussion on a variety of issues can thrive.
What could possibly be offensive to Culver about someone else not believing in God and saying so? Even if the governor is deeply religious himself, he can't expect all Iowans to share his beliefs. The ad didn't put down anyone else's faith. Its goal, according to the association's president, was to let non-religious people know "that they too have a community if they want to join it."
Granted, Culver was responding to a question rather than issuing a statement of his own accord. But why even take an adversarial position on such a local issue? Was it to please some political constituency?
Coming from a former high school government teacher, his response suggests a disregard for the American right to live and let live, to worship or not to.
I asked Culver's communications director, Phil Roeder, to explain Culver's remarks, and whether the governor regrets making them now that the ads are on again. Roeder said he'd get back to me with the governor's response. I'll let you know what he said when he does.
Meanwhile, the Atheists, a chapter of a national social and educational organization, wrote in a letter to Culver: "We are disappointed that you chose to take sides in a free speech issue, offended by your choice of words regarding our bus ads, and also frustrated that you ignored an opportunity as the senior representative of Iowans to ask your constituents to open a dialogue with each [other]. Instead we believe you chose to be divisive and deliberately offensive to non-theists and those who believe in free speech for all people."
The group invited the governor to attend one of its meetings or activities, saying that, "you will find that despite our nonbelief, we are just like other Iowans and that there is nothing to be disturbed about."
Culver should do that. In fact, he could do what President Barack Obama did after infuriating some people by saying a Cambridge police acted stupidly in arresting Harvard Professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. Obama apologized and called the cop and the professor together on the White House lawn for a beer.
Everyone makes mistakes. What matters is how you deal with them. Culver should apologize, declare this a teachable moment and give the atheists a hearing. Their place or his, beer optional, open mind essential.