Politically Incorrect, Literally

In Orwellian fashion, some political candidates proclaim they are not "politically correct" because it's a politically correct ploy to gain political support. And that strategy seems to be working in the Republican Party.

Ben Carson received a boost for his presidential campaign when he denounced ObamaCare and political correctness at the 2013 National Prayer breakfast. However, he failed to note that attending the prayer breakfast is politically correct. How many candidates would have the courage to decline an appearance at a prayer breakfast because they don't believe in the power of prayer? Carson gained more support after saying at the Values Voter Summit this year that ObamaCare is "the worst thing that has happened in this nation since slavery," adding proudly that his presidential campaign will not be politically correct.

Not to be outdone, ever, Donald Trump told a crowd of South Carolina business leaders, "I'm so tired of this politically correct crap," and then surged in political polls.

Perhaps someone should ask candidates at the next Republican debate, "Are you politically correct?" Their attempts to outdo one another in establishing politically incorrect credentials would be fun to watch.

Politics aside, what does "politically correct" mean? It could mean opposition to language and behavior that upsets certain groups, or even attempts to prevent offending them. To be fair and balanced, I criticize politically correct liberals and conservatives who do this: liberals who give a pass to human rights violations in Muslim countries because it's part of Muslim culture, or who try to block a conservative from speaking on college campuses; conservatives who stop liberals from speaking in certain forums, or claim discrimination against Christians if they don't receive special rights not granted to those with other faiths or none.

Some Republican presidential candidates have generalized "politically incorrect" to justify any bad behavior, which includes stereotyping, offensive comments, scientific ignorance, and refusal to answer difficult questions. Some proudly consider themselves politically incorrect because they would not vote for a Muslim, or because they don't believe in scientific theories like evolution and climate change. Since when did rejecting the overwhelming consensus of scientists around the globe become a proud politically incorrect position? I suppose I'm politically correct because I like to make evidence-based and reality-based decisions.

I used to think there was at least one grown-up in the cluttered Republican presidential candidate room. John Kasich was chair of the Budget Committee in Congress, member of the Armed Services Committee, and a popular governor in the swing state of Ohio. Though religious, he seemed capable of making rational and evidence-based decisions. Perhaps his low poll ratings recently inspired him to make outrageous and easily disprovable claims about people who are not religious. He warned that a move to a totally secular society would rob the United States of its morals and complicate the fight against Islamic terrorists, adding, "The sense of right and wrong that comes from the great religions is something the West should begin to pay attention to and not continue to drive towards a totally secular society."

In equating moral behavior with religiosity, Kasich insulted the 32 percent of nonreligious Americans, most of whom live exemplary ethical lives. Our country has thrived on freedom of religion and conscience, where people may worship one, many, or no gods. We have a secular constitution, with no mention of gods. We are a country that is not supposed to favor one religion over another or religion over non-religion. In contrast, Islamic terrorists are motivated by their twisted view of right and wrong based on their religious holy text. I prefer the theological beliefs of most of our Western allies like Sweden, Denmark, and Belgium, which are among the least religious countries and have the lowest rates of violent crime as well as the highest levels of societal well being.

And now for the ultimate in being politically incorrect: politicians who say they have no religion. There are no sitting members of Congress who acknowledge being an atheist. Barney Frank, an openly gay member of Congress for many years, only came out as an atheist after he left office. While there are at least two dozen closeted atheists in Congress, they deem it political suicide to come out of the closet.

I'm president of the Secular Coalition for America, whose mission is to increase the visibility of and respect for nontheistic viewpoints, and to strengthen the secular character of our government. The best way to accomplish that mission is for atheists in all walks of life, including politics, to be openly secular.

I became an accidental atheist activist in 1990, when I learned that our South Carolina Constitution prohibited atheists from holding public office. To challenge this unconstitutional law, I did the most politically incorrect thing possible--ran for Governor of South Carolina as an open Jewish atheist. I chronicled my adventures in my book, Candidate Without a Prayer. Of course I didn't win the election, but after eight years of litigation the South Carolina Supreme Court ruled in my favor, thus nullifying the religious test clause in the state constitution.

At the top of my bucket list is to see an open atheist win a high political office. That would truly be politically correct. Probably won't happen in my lifetime, but then I used to think I'd never see an African American President of the United States. Hope springs eternal!