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Editorial: Dole’s act of desperation

Sen. Elizabeth Dole’s “Godless Amerians” advertisement may well go down as a watershed moment in her bare-knuckles brawl with upstart challenger Kay Hagan.The ad suggesting Hagan is in league with atheists reflects the desperation of Dole’s campaign as she struggles to retain a seat she should have won in a waltz, rather than finding herself in a down-to-the-wire cliffhanger. After all, it was only a few months ago that Democrats were having a hard time even fielding a candidate to take on the popular incumbent. The ad also shows us, once more, the slippery slope candidates inevitably tumble down when they encourage voters to consider “religious tests” for those who would hold office. This is a test expressly shunned in Article VI, section 3, of the Constitution: “No religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office in public trust under the United States.”
That’s a point given short shrift in the furor over the campaign ad, as Hagan accuses Dole of a “vile, unbelievable” attack on Hagan’s Christian faith, and the Dole camp responds that the ad is accurate. In reality, the ad has a kernel of truth hidden within a pile of muck. Hagan was feted at a September fundraiser held at the home of Woody Kaplan and cohosted by several other people. Kaplan serves on the advisory panel to a group called the Godless Americans Political Action Committee, which represents atheists and wants to strip references to God from the Pledge of Allegiance and from U.S. currency.
That much is true. What isn’t true is the ad’s melodramatic insinuation that Hagan is involved in some sinister, secret alliance with atheists. Hagan has never advocated stripping “God” from the pledge or the county’s coinage ó and in fact opposes doing so. She has taught Sunday school and serves as an elder in her Presbyterian church. By Friday afternoon, Hagan had filed a lawsuit, as well as issuing her own ad reassuring voters of her religious bonafides.
There’s an argument to be made that Hagan showed poor judgment in attending a fundraiser at Kaplan’s house, knowing that she might expose herself to just such an attack. But that’s not the argument raised in the ad. Instead, it attempts to plant the dark seed of doubt in voters’ minds about Hagan’s personal faith. In doing so, it crosses the line into tactics that tarnish Dole and diminish the above-the-fray reputation she once cultivated.
As for what impact, if any, this will have on the race, who knows? Some negative ads are effective; others backfire on the candidate who approved them. It would be a mistake, however, to think that campaign ads don’t have an impact beyond Nov. 4. The body politic ó which includes nonbelievers as well as believers ó reaps what its politicians sow.
Individual voters are free to impose whatever religious test they wish, but the framers of the Constitution foresaw the dangers of institutionalizing such tests as part of the political process. It’s a lesson too easily lost on candidates in their hour of desperation.

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