An Iowan asked Vivek Ramaswamy how he'd appeal to atheists. The answer was awful.
Justin Scott has a long history of asking presidential candidates about church/state separation
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As someone who lives in Illinois, I rarely get the opportunity to see presidential candidates in person. (Why would anyone bother coming to a state where the outcome in November is fairly predictable?) It’s a completely different story in Iowa, of course, where candidates may spend months leading up to the caucuses visiting every county in the state, holding town halls, and doing whatever they can to win over possible delegates.
For the past few election cycles, Justin Scott, who lives in Iowa, has been taking advantage of that opportunity to ask candidates from both major parties about their positions on church/state separation and other issues that may impact atheists.
On Thursday, with Republican Vivek Ramaswamy visiting the town of Waverly, Justin decided to pop in to ask a question. He was specifically thinking about a list Ramaswamy had posted at various events describing 10 “truths.”
Number one on the list? “God is real.”
That led to a question of how Ramaswamy planned to win over non-theistic voters—the sort of people he’d need to attract if he really wanted to get elected in some swing states. Why should they vote for him when he wasn’t even trying to appeal to them?
Ramaswamy himself later tweeted out their exchange:
Here’s a transcript of their conversation:
JUSTIN SCOTT: The question I have that's bigger is: … What actual line could you tell an atheist, secular, a Satanic voter that would appeal to them, that's not a kitschy conservative catchphrase…
VIVEK RAMASWAMY: Okay. I'll tell you this...
SCOTT: … the “wokism” and all that. No, what we see is a government that is propping up Christianity, that is excusing Christianity's bad actors, that isn't doing anything to fight Christian Nationalism...
RAMASWAMY: So here's what I believe. There may be points in our history where that would be applicable. Respectfully, I don't think that's actually a major threat in this country compared to the threats that I named.
SCOTT: Christian Nationalism. You don't feel that’s a...
RAMASWAMY: … I don't feel like that's a major threat right now…
SCOTT: January 6…
RAMASWAMY: … I feel like wokism… and transgenderism is. But you asked me to say something that will allow [me] to speak to people who are atheists... Let me actually just address your question. You are free to live your life and practice your faith, or absence thereof, freely, without anybody standing in your way, because that's what the First Amendment of the Constitution ensures.
And if I have one job as your next president, it is to swear an oath to that Constitution and to keep it. Here's how you'll know that I know what I'm talking about: This was modeled on Thomas Paine's work: Common Sense. People are familiar with that. That was actually the leaflets they handed out to start the American Revolution. I'll tell you… one thing about Thomas Paine: He was an atheist, actually.
So one of the men who started the American Revolution—Most of our Founding Fathers were Christian. Thomas Jefferson was a Deist. He's my favorite Founding Father, probably my favorite president… Less so with Thomas Paine, but I respect the hell out of him, because he, too… Without him, the American Revolution wouldn't have happened.
So I recognize that about our history, and I recognize that about our Constitution. And I recognize that even people of diverse faiths in this country were bound together by the ideals enshrined in that Constitution. And I will fight to the death for actually reviving those constitutional ideals in this country. And what's in that First Amendment is: You may not agree with what I have to say, but I will defend to the very end your right to say it. That's America. That is what makes America great. That is what makes America itself.
And so, yes, can we disagree on some questions and still have you support me as your U. S. President? Not as your pastor, but as your president? I think, darn right you can. That's my answer.
SCOTT: This might help you—yes or no, just to finish—do you believe our rights come from God or from man?
RAMASWAMY: I believe that our… natural rights, outside of a government, come from God. Our natural rights. In the context of a constitutional republic, the rights that we enjoy are the ones enshrined and codified in our Constitution. And I recognize the difference between being a president and a pastor.
That response was (predictably, for Ramaswamy) rambly as hell. He injected the right-wing rhetoric of “wokism” and transphobia and denied the threat of Christian Nationalism, proving yet again that he lives in some alternative reality that only exists in conservative fever dreams. Nothing Ramaswamy said would ever make me want to vote for him; he’s a smooth talker with horrible ideas. He’s all style, no substance. Justin’s excellent question was ultimately ignored. (It’s been said by many political commentators that Ramaswamy may come off as an entitled asshole on the debate stage, but he’s usually fine and genial in smaller settings. This is a perfect example of it.)
Still, somewhere in that word salad, Ramaswamy acknowledged the importance of religious pluralism and shared values… even if he couched it in a way that made clear those shared values were Christian values and that religious pluralism was acceptable as long as the government promoted Christian values.
It’s a horrible response if the goal is to win over atheists.
Later that day, Ramaswamy stopped into the town of Waterloo.
Justin had already planned to go to this event with his kids so they could witness a presidential candidate in person. He wasn’t planning on asking any questions this time around. But toward the end of the event, someone else in the audience asked Ramaswamy a question: Will you fight to put the Bible first in the public school system? (You can hear the full exchange here around the 55:00 mark.)
Ramaswamy didn’t answer the question. He pivoted to discussing his own faith and (again) talked about the importance of pushing Judeo-Christian values in schools.
At one point, he even alluded to his earlier conversation with Justin—not realizing Justin was in the audience in the back of the room:
There was a guy who came—he seemed to be a good conservative, but he came to an event earlier and he challenged me on this. He was an atheist, and he was upset that I said “God is real.” But we worked it out, to say that we will still stand for the same set of values that we want Americans to share in this country…
(Justin, who’s not a conservative, was surprised to hear Ramaswamy say they “worked it out.” He told me in an email, “We did?! That's news to me, Vivek.”)
At the end of that lengthy monologue, after Ramaswamy said he hoped his response addressed the young man’s question, Justin shouted out from the back of the room, “I’m interested in his answer, and I don’t feel like you gave it! Would you push to have Bibles in the public schools?”
This time, Ramaswamy offered a real answer: “No, is the answer. I’m not gonna push it, because it’s not the job of the U.S. president to push it.”
Whether you believe him or not is a different story. But at least there was a straight answer.
Justin told me that after that exchange, which Ramaswamy praised immediately afterwards as a healthy dialogue, he was kicked out of the room. The owner of the restaurant told Justin he needed to get out: "I have five undercover Waterloo police officers here,” the man allegedly said, adding, “the tension is rising in the room so we just need you to leave."
The owner did not offer further comment to a reporter and Ramaswamy’s team was apparently unaware there was any issue at all.
It’s ironic that, despite all the times Justin has asked presidential candidates a question and gotten into some slightly heated exchanges, this was the first time he’s ever been kicked out of a town hall meeting… and all he did was request clarification to an important question.
He took it all in stride: “I told my kids that it was a fun learning experience for us that they'll probably laugh about one day when they're older!”
Even though this event ended in bizarre fashion, the fact that Iowans have a chance to directly address these candidates is a golden opportunity to pin them down on issues of church/state separation in a way that goes beyond sound bites. Kudos to Justin for recognizing that and getting these candidates to answer the kind of questions a lot of “real” reporters never ask.
It may not change the outcome of the Iowa caucuses, but if any of these candidates ends up on the ballot, it’s important to have them on the record on these matters.