Elaine Curtis fully understood the risk she was taking. This live interview on conservative television would most likely make or break her chances of becoming a United States Senator. Despite the protestations of her aides and others in her campaign that she was needlessly stepping into enemy territory, she wanted to be truthful with the citizens of her state. The candidate believed that if she was going to ask for their vote, they had the right to know where she stood on the issues as well as a reasonable amount about her personal life.
Elaine sat quietly in the small studio while technicians scurried around her adjusting the lighting and the sound.
The interviewer, Vanessa Strickland, was a well-known “TV personality” who was not considered a journalist in any sense of the word; however, she was the darling of the conservative right. That was why Elaine’s campaign believed the invitation to appear on this particular program was a set-up to try to damage her candidacy.
Her Republican opponent was forty-one-year-old Preston Sloan. He had amassed a fortune by opening a chain of retail stores with locations sprinkled throughout the Bible Belt. An ultra-conservative born again Christian, he and his wife had chosen to homeschool their two daughters for reasons of faith and because they did not believe in vaccinating their children. However, the single issue that was driving his campaign was his devout belief that abortion was a sin in the eyes of God – even in cases of rape and incest.
Elaine waited anxiously for a short time and then the interviewer entered and took the seat directly across from her.
Vanessa flashed a toothy TV smile and asked. “Are you nervous?”
“Yes, a little.”
“Well, don’t worry. I want you to relax and feel comfortable.”
From out of the darkness a voice called out “Thirty seconds.”
Elaine could feel her heart pounding in her chest, but she knew if she was to win the Senate seat, she had to do difficult interviews. It was part of the job.
The two women sat in silence through the final countdown. “Three, two, one!”
Vanessa looked into the camera and said, “Good evening. My guest in this segment of the program is the Democratic nominee for the United States Senate, Elaine Curtis.”
She turned to the candidate. “Thank you for joining me tonight, Mrs. Curtis.”
Elaine nodded. “My pleasure. Thank you for having me.”
In her most pleasant TV voice, Vanessa said, “Why don’t we begin by having you tell our viewers a little bit about yourself.”
“I’d be happy to. I’ve been married sixteen years to my wonderful husband Mitchell, and I’m the mother of two beautiful children. Our daughter Alexis is eight and our son Austin is six. I’ve been a Special Education teacher for the last fifteen years; however, I stepped down from that position to run for office. But I must say I really miss my students.”
Vanessa offered her own opinion about the worthiness of Elaine’s candidacy. “Yes, people were shocked when someone with your limited background and lack of political experience managed to become the nominee of your party. Some have even gone as far as to claim that it shows the Democrats are in complete disarray and are so desperate, they are willing to field a less than qualified challenger in what has historically been a red state.”
Before Elaine could respond to the characterization, Vanessa moved on. “So, please explain to our viewers exactly why you’ve chosen to run for the Senate.”
“I believe the citizens of our state would benefit from progressive representation. I feel that for too long, conservatives have had a stranglehold on the government and that has directly led to many of the issues we are currently facing.”
Vanessa wanted her to explain. “When you say ‘progressive’ – which as we all know is a term that is used to hide from the word ‘liberal’ – what types of issues are you talking about?”
Elaine ignored the host’s attempt to label her. “I think health care is a right and not a privilege. It should be available and affordable for every citizen. Families can’t be allowed to lose everything because of the catastrophic expense associated with the treatment of a serious illness. The pharmaceutical companies must be restricted from making obscene profits. People should not be forced to go without their meds because big pharma jacks up the prices of lifesaving medications just so they can line their own pockets and those of their shareholders.”
Vanessa interjected, “But you do believe in a free marketplace, right?”
“Yes, I do. But it can’t be at the expense of those who are struggling. Everyone deserves the opportunity to live with dignity, and right now, too many are left out. Their options are limited, and they’re trapped.”
Vanessa was biding her time until she was ready to make her move. “Anything else?”
Elaine nodded. “Yes. I believe that our state and our nation need responsible gun control legislation. I do not think military-style automatic weapons belong in a civilized society. If elected, I would do everything in my power to ban assault weapons as quickly as possible.”
Vanessa’s lips curled up in a smug smile. “You are not concerned about alienating those who believe the Second Amendment is sacred?”
In an even tone, Elaine replied, “I believe the lives of our children are sacred. An assault weapon is capable of killing thirty human beings in ten seconds.”
Vanessa sighed. “I’m sure there’s more.”
“I think that whoever is the next Senator needs to understand that climate change is real and must be addressed now. We can no longer ignore the scientific facts because it’s our children and grandchildren who will ultimately pay the price.”
Playing to the camera, Vanessa cocked her head and in a condescending voice asked, “And what about the immigration issue?”
“The immigration issue is actually a humanitarian issue. We have to decide whether we are going to show compassion and respect for those who are seeking safety and asylum, or are we going to turn our backs on those who are desperate to save their families.”
“And let’s not forget liberals’ favorite subject; gay rights. I’m sure you have an opinion about that issue that is not in sync with the average voter in this state.”
Ignoring the host’s patronizing tone, Elaine answered as clearly as she could. “I support the rights of the LGBTQ community because what they are asking for is nothing more than human rights.”
“So, you support gay marriage?”
“Absolutely. I don’t feel I’m in a position to judge what is in someone else’s heart. Every person has the right to love and be loved. We all want someone to share our lives with.”
“I can see why you are currently the favorite flavor of the month for ‘the radical left’. You seem to espouse everything on their extreme agenda, so I must assume that you are also pro-choice, which means you believe that anyone should be able to get an abortion at any time for any reason.”
Carefully, Elaine chose her words. “I am pro-choice. I believe that women have the right to control their reproductive lives without interference from the government. However, I would not personally choose abortion. I would deliver the baby, and then, if necessary, put the child up for adoption. But I believe each woman has the right to make that decision for themselves.”
Displaying little sensitivity for her guest’s personal privacy, Vanessa asked, “Is that why you chose to adopt two children with disabilities?”
Elaine was surprised by the question, but it was not a secret that she and her husband, after discovering they couldn’t have children of their own, had specifically chosen to adopt their daughter with cerebral palsy and their son with a developmental disability.
The Democratic nominee answered honestly. “My husband and I wanted to start a family by bringing children into our lives who are too often passed over in the adoption process. Most of all, we wanted to experience the joy of giving and receiving unconditional love. And because my background includes working with children who have a wide range of disabilities, it was felt completely natural to make that decision.”
Sneaking a glance at her watch, Vanessa decided it was time to get down to business. In recent days, Preston Sloan’s campaign had managed to unearth some writing that Elaine had done in college, and they immediately passed it on to Vanessa, confident that she would know exactly what to do with it. Sloan and his aides were certain that this kind of shocking news would clinch the election for him. It was time for Vanessa to deliver the knockout punch.
The host looked intently at her unsuspecting guest and innocently said, “Let’s change gears now because there is another topic I would like for you to address.”
Elaine had no idea what was coming. “Okay.”
In a dramatic voice, Vanessa said, “Mrs. Curtis, I would like to pose a simple yes or no question.” After pausing for effect, she asked, “Is it true that you are an atheist? And that not only do you not attend church – because you have no religious faith – but that you do not even believe in the existence of God and therefore you do not trust in our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ?”
Elaine was completely blindsided by the question, but now it all made sense. Just as her campaign had suspected, the interview was nothing more than an elaborate trap.
Vanessa continued. “At least those were your thoughts when you were in college, and I’m sure the voters of this state would like to know if that is still your opinion.”
As her mind raced, Elaine tried to think clearly. She knew the election hung in the balance. The latest polls showed her within the margin of error of Sloan and there were still two weeks to go. But there was only one option she would even consider and that was answering truthfully.
Elaine spoke slowly and clearly. “It is correct that while I was in college, I wrote several different papers about what it was like to be an atheist in a nation that is not always tolerant of individuals who do not share the prevailing point of view on any given subject.”
Vanessa was impatient to get her guest to commit political suicide. “But what about today? Are you still an atheist?”
Elaine did not hesitate. “Yes, I am.”
Vanessa struggled to hide the feeling of glee that was sweeping over her. “So, for the record, at this point in your life, as you run for the United States Senate, you are confirming that you are an atheist?”
Again, Elaine showed no hesitation. “Yes. That is correct. I am an atheist.”
Vanessa sat back and wondered why her guest was so willing to hand the election to Preston Sloan – but, whatever the reason, it was not her problem. Vanessa’s job was to drive home the point that Elaine was hopelessly out of step with the voters. “Do you realize that in a recent poll, 79% of the residents of this state identified themselves as Christians?”
“Yes. I am aware of that poll.”
“Then let me ask you a very simple question. How can you represent the Christians in this state when you don’t believe the way they do?”
Elaine thought the answer was obvious. “Christians represent atheists, don’t they? I would represent them the same way I would represent people who are Jewish, Muslim or any other faith.”
Vanessa said, “You are an intelligent person. Surely you realize that being an atheist is going to cost you this race.”
“It might, but I’m not going to pretend to be something I’m not. I have to be true to who I am.”
Vanessa asked haughtily, “Don’t you think you owed it to your party to let them know before you became their nominee that you are an atheist?”
“No. It does not make any difference on whether or not I am qualified to hold office.”
Vanessa couldn’t resist piling on with a cheap shot. “Mrs. Curtis, you couldn’t possibly be that naïve.”
Elaine attempted to defend herself. “It shouldn’t matter because we all share the same hopes and dreams. We all love our children and want them to have the best lives possible. We care about each other, and we’re willing to assist those in need and those who are vulnerable. We all want to keep our communities safe, we all want to earn a decent wage so we can provide for our families, and we all want affordable health care. When it comes to those basic issues, I don’t see why it should matter whether or not I’m sitting in a church on Sunday morning.”
Vanessa wasn’t buying it. “Well, it may not matter to you, but I think that it matters to more than enough of the electorate to send Mr. Sloan to Washington as the junior Senator from this state.”
Elaine was fully aware that Vanessa could be right. “That is a determination the voters will have to make. I can only say that if I am elected, I will do my best to represent every person in this state regardless of age, gender, ethnicity, disability, sexual orientation, economic status, political affiliation, or religious beliefs. I believe that every person should be treated equally with dignity and respect.”
Vanessa shook her head in disagreement. “That is a lovely sentiment, but I think you have alienated far too many voters with your comments here tonight and with the unconventional positions you hold.”
“I understand that my positions are unacceptable to some. Because of my stance on a woman’s right to choose, the fact that I believe all children should be vaccinated, and for many other reasons, we frequently have fundamentalist churches that protest at our rallies. Not surprisingly, one of their favorite targets is science. They often point out that, in their opinion, scientists are godless, wicked people doing the devil’s work.
“But I can’t help but notice that those same Christians are more than willing to take the lifesaving medications that are developed by science. They do not hesitate to take advantage of the latest high-tech surgical techniques or the newest improvements in medical treatments. They will refuse to vaccinate their child but then turn around and depend on science to save their son or daughter when they get sick.”
Vanessa tried to slow her down. “That is an unfair depiction of Christians.”
Elaine responded, “I’m not saying that is true of all Christians. I’m just describing the groups that I encounter when I’m campaigning. They are willing to benefit from all of these incredible advancements in healthcare, but they refuse to acknowledge that they are the direct result of the hard work of dedicated men and women who have devoted their lives to the various branches of scientific endeavor.”
Vanessa saw an opening. “So, it comes down to the fact that you believe in science instead of God?”
“If my child was critically ill, I would take him to a doctor – not a faith healer.”
Vanessa could no longer hide her contempt. “I don’t think you could be more wrong to believe that you don’t need God in your life.”
Unfortunately, Elaine was used to this type of attitude. “You are certainly entitled to your opinion; I just wish people of faith would be as tolerant of atheists as we are expected to be of them. If we are to work together to solve the problems that society faces, tolerance needs to be a two-way street.”
Vanessa was incredulous. “You expect us to be tolerant of people who are trying to destroy everything we believe in? How can you even say the Pledge of Allegiance? One nation under God?”
“I embrace Thomas Jefferson’s thoughts regarding the separation of church and state. But the fact that I’m an atheist does not mean that I don’t love my country.”
“Well, what about placing your hand on a Bible to take the oath of office?”
“Has placing their hand on a Bible kept other politicians from lying, cheating, and breaking the law? That does not guarantee that a person will faithfully execute the duties of their office.”
Vanessa glanced at her watch and saw that they just had a minute left. She wanted to eat up as much time as possible so her guest could not make any more points. “I must say that I can’t remember our state ever having such a clear choice between two candidates. Preston Sloan is a man of God devoted to his faith and his family. He loves this state and our country, and he embraces the morals that have made America the greatest nation on earth. On the other hand, you are an atheist who does not have God in her life and whose liberal beliefs are so far out of the norm that it is impossible to see how you have any path to winning this election.”
Elaine knew that, after this interview, it was probably true, but she refused to give in. “My candidacy offers hope to those whose voices are not heard. To those who are marginalized and forgotten. To those who are ignored by our elected officials because they have no political clout. I believe all disenfranchised groups have the right to participate in democracy. And if elected, I would do my best to represent them along with every other citizen in our state.”
At that moment Vanessa received the signal that she had fifteen seconds to wrap up. She looked into the camera and smiled in a way that made it clear that she believed she had succeeded in derailing the political future of the former Special Ed teacher.
“My guest tonight has been Elaine Curtis, the Democratic nominee for the United States Senate. I’m glad you could join us, and I hope our candid conversation will be helpful as you make your decision at the polls two weeks from today. Thank you for watching.”
Elaine heard the producer call out that they were clear, and then a technician stepped over and removed the microphone that was clipped to her blouse. She and Vanessa both stood up at the same time. Facing each other, Elaine extended her right hand to shake, but Vanessa turned and walked away.
Two weeks later the voters made their decision, and, by a significant margin, they elected Preston Sloan as their Senator.
It did not come as a surprise to anyone. After Elaine’s interview on conservative TV, she steadily declined in the polls. Almost every word she had uttered in her answers were turned into vicious attack ads that distorted all meaning from her responses.
Choosing not to take the low road, she refused to attack Sloan personally and continued to campaign strictly on the differences in their positions. But, in the end, that was not what motivated people to vote. Most made their decisions based strictly on emotion, and the interview with Vanessa had stirred up fierce opinions that were not necessarily grounded in logic.
But although the defeat hurt, Elaine felt good that she had not compromised her values. She had run a campaign based on facts, and she had done it with basic decency. She was proud of those who had the courage to support her, and she was thankful for all of the hard work of her staff and volunteers. She assured them with confidence that, in the long run, her campaign had made an important difference.
Eighteen months into his term, Preston Sloan, who had so willingly placed his hand on the Bible when he took the oath, was brought down in a shameful fashion. It was discovered that the Senator had engaged in a long tumultuous marital affair. That news might have been survivable, but when it was learned that he had paid for his mistress to secretly have an abortion, it was game over. His marriage, along with his reputation, was destroyed, and one year later his retail business declared bankruptcy as the religious right passed judgment and promptly deserted him.
Elaine also paid a heavy price for her Senate run. For months after the election, she received death threats over her lack of faith, and her children were asked to leave school because the district did not want to spend the money on the extra security needed to protect them. Eventually, the Curtis family was even forced to move, after their home was repeatedly vandalized. Not surprisingly, it had always been Elaine’s plan that if her campaign was unsuccessful, she would return to teaching, but she was unable to resume her career because everywhere she applied, parents organized and vehemently protested. They could not tolerate the idea of a self-proclaimed atheist interacting with their children.
At this crucial time, when our nation should be focused on critical issues and who offers the best solutions to deal with them, we remain obsessed by the erroneous assumption that our point of view is the only one that is valid. That leads us to ignore facts in favor of beliefs, and it causes us to refuse to consider political candidates that do not look like us or think exactly like us.
America’s diversity should be our greatest strength, but, unfortunately, we continue to allow it to divide us. Until we are willing to practice tolerance and inclusion so that all thoughts, ideas, and opinions are respected, our nation is doomed to keep repeating the same mistakes for the same narrow-minded reasons.
It is time to open our hearts and our minds so that we can begin to understand and accept those we don’t agree with.