Oregon lawmaker tries to walk back comment that atheists are unfit for public office
State Rep. E. Werner Reschke now says he was "grossly taken out of context." He was not.
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Weeks after saying that atheists and Muslims shouldn’t hold public office, an Oregon lawmaker is acting like he never said it at all.
State Rep. E. Werner Reschke made the comments earlier this month during an interview with Jason Rapert, the Christian Nationalist who now runs a group called the “National Association of Christian Lawmakers.” Reschke serves as the Oregon “chair” for NACL.
Rapert asked a softball question about why Christians needed to get involved in government, and Reschke’s response was telling for all the wrong reasons. Instead of saying Christians had a spiritual duty to shape society (or something like that), he argued that certain non-Christians were unfit for public life and didn’t deserve to be in positions of power.
He began by saying he admired the supposed Christian faith of the Founding Fathers before segueing into the people who shouldn’t be in government:
… “Those are the type of people that you want in government making tough decisions during tough times,” Reschke continued. “You don’t want a materialist. You don’t want an atheist. You don’t want a Muslim. You want somebody who understands what truth is and understands the nature of man, the nature of government, and the nature of God.”
“If you don’t understand those things, you’re gonna get things wrong,” he concluded. “In Oregon … we have a lot of people who are godless, unfortunately, leading the way and it’s the blind leading the blind.”
He’s not subtle about his feelings. He doesn’t believe atheists or Muslims are fit to hold public office—the former because they have no religion and the latter because they’re the wrong religion.
He also felt perfectly at ease saying that—out loud!—to someone like Rapert, probably believing that the only people listening would be Christians who fully agree with them.
Obviously, the Founders felt otherwise, which is why the Constitution explicitly says there can be no religious test for public office. Even if you make the argument, though, that Reschke wasn’t banning anyone from running for office but rather saying he just didn’t think non-Christians had the right sensibility for the job, it’s still disturbing. If a Muslim or atheist said Christians shouldn’t be in government because they were too gullible, there would be an outcry in the media.
The Freedom From Religion Foundation’s political arm, the FFRF Action Fund, sent a letter to Reschke condemning his comments. They also pointed out that the former presidents he cited by name—George Washington, James Madison, Abraham Lincoln—didn’t share his faith or at least the practice of it.
As a state representative, your duty is to support the state and federal Constitutions and to protect the rights of conscience of your constituents, not to promote your personal religious views, much less a Christian theocracy. Your oath of office has charged you with great responsibility over citizens, including those citizens who may not or do not share your personal religious viewpoints. You have shown that you are unfit for this responsibility. You should either apologize to all non–Christian and nonreligious citizens of your district, or you should resign.
Now, Reschke appears to be backtracking… or at least trying to pretend he never said the thing we all heard him say.
In a statement to Oregon Public Broadcasting, Reschke said his words were “grossly taken out of context.” But he didn’t bother clarifying what he actually meant to say.
That didn’t stop one Muslim colleague from chiming in:
“I am disheartened to see one of my legislative colleagues express views contrary to American values, the U.S. Constitution, and our collective aspiration of building a more perfect union,” [Sen. Kayse Jama] said in a statement Monday after OPB asked about Reschke’s remarks. “Our ability to live and work with our fellow Oregonians who speak different languages, pray or vote different ways, celebrate different cultures is our strength.”
To that, Reschke responded with all the sincerity of a child who got caught stealing cookies from the cookie jar:
“I believe Senator Jama is qualified to be a Senator, as well as any other currently serving legislator duly elected by the people or appointed by County Commissioners,” he said.
Well then, which is it? Was he lying to Jason Rapert or is he lying now? If you want to make an outlandishly insane statement, at least have the courage to stand by your bigotry!
Sarah Levin, founder and principal at Secular Strategies, was appalled by his language, telling me that his remarks “demonstrate how dangerous Christian nationalists are to our democracy” by treating atheists and Muslims as “inferior, second class citizens.”
Oregon State Rep. Farrah Chaichi was more blunt, saying this in a statement to Friendly Atheist:
I'm concerned for the people in my district, and across Oregon, who identify as members of the communities targeted by those remarks. We serve in the People's House, and the People need to feel welcome to come to their house to advocate for the needs of their communities. A statement like this sets back trust and goodwill that's been built with communities who have been historically marginalized.
Kristiana de Leon, a candidate for the Washington state legislature and a board member of the Association of Secular Elected Officials, also told me that Reschke’s comments were only the tip of the iceberg:
Rep. Werner Reschke's statements said the increasingly-less quiet part out loud. Not only is he poisoning the discourse on what it means to have democratically elected representation, and not only is he the tip of the iceberg of anti-Muslim and anti-Atheist bias, but actions like his are why atheists, Muslims, and essentially anyone who isn't a white Christian Nationalist have been sounding the alarm for years on how this kind of hostile language seeps into policy with serious consequences.
One troubling aspect about this story, beyond just the comments themselves, is the lack of interest in what Reschke said. It suggests that slandering atheists and Muslims is just a normal part of our political discourse.
A few years ago, after Harvard professor Adrian C. Vermeule said archaic laws banning atheists from holding public office were “sensible” because atheists “can’t be trusted to keep an oath,” another law professor ripped his argument to shreds:
… even at a university whose students detest bigotry and discrimination, a faculty member who accuses atheists of immorality bears no greater risk of being condemned than one who speaks out against, say, abusive husbands and neglectful parents.
Vermeule’s attack on atheists also implies that religious individuals can be trusted to uphold oaths. But if that is so, one must wonder how he can explain the ease with which Republican members of the United States House of Representatives and Senate ignored their oaths during the impeachment proceedings?
The hypocrisy is obvious. It’s not that atheists deserve to be in government or that devout Christians can’t be. It’s that the arguments suggesting atheists can’t hold office because they reject a higher power implies that religious believers are inherently responsible and obedient.
If we’ve learned anything from politics over the past several years, it’s that the politicians who wear their Christian faith on their sleeves are also the most immoral, law-despising people in the country. They love making public proclamations about their faith, then turning around and defending corruption and cruelty at every turn.
In a more just world, these remarks would hover over Reschke’s head for the rest of his political life. Unfortunately, it’s far more likely they’ll just be forgotten in a matter of days because trashing atheists always seems to be fair game for lawmakers who bring nothing of value to the table.