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Will a city council candidate's old tweets about atheism hurt his election chances?
Chris Gahagan's old tweets criticizing organized religion are being used against him
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Chris Gahagan is running for a position on the Kansas City Council in Missouri, but his old tweets about atheism may get in the way of that.
Gahagan has a stellar résumé for someone running for public office. He spent decades serving as general counsel for a local school district. He served on the Northland Regional Chamber of Commerce and was selected to be on the Clay County Constitutional Charter Commission (to revise and update rules for local government). Last fall, he announced that he would run for city council.
This past January, however, a conservative website called The Heartlander posted screenshots of several of his old tweets under a now-deleted account. (Other allies have tagged Gahagan under that old username, confirming it was his account.) In those tweets from 2017 and 2019, Gahagan held little back about his disdain for organized religion.
He said “religion is poison,” echoing the subtitle of the bestselling Christopher Hitchens book God Is Not Great. He wrote that the tax exempt status of churches needed to be challenged (fair!) and added, “Let’s put the crazies on the defensive.”
He also celebrated warm weather killing someone’s Christmas vibe (“Good! Death to Christmas!”), claimed “most religion is comedy,” and said, “If you have a religion, your brain is clearly not functioning.”
Let’s get the obvious out of the way: Some of those are over-the-top and, frankly, cringeworthy. There are plenty of intelligent people who are religious, and religious people aren’t automatically crazy. If you’re trying to criticize religion, there are sharper and smarter ways to do it. Painting everyone of faith with the same broad brush is a lazy approach that misses a lot of important nuance.
That said… so what? Religion is often harmful. A lot of religious institutions don’t deserve tax exemptions and openly break the rules that allow them to have those tax breaks. Religion played a huge role in vaccine denial (and mask opposition) during the worst of the COVID pandemic. And religious beliefs are pretty damn silly to everyone who’s not part of that particular faith.
These tweets seem better suited for an online atheist circa 2007—desperately attempting to be edgy—than a grown-ass adult more than a decade later. But the sentiment isn’t lost on me because I’ve been around online atheists my entire career. (Hell, I’m sure I’ve written plenty of regrettable things since 2007, and they’re all up online somewhere.)
Here’s what’s important: As a city council member, Gahagan wouldn’t be in a position to craft laws, much less take sides on culture war issues. Local governments are not where we typically hear religious (or non-religious) arguments for anything. Garbage pickup is garbage pickup. A pothole is a pothole. Your personal and political beliefs generally mean a lot less at the local level.
It’s also telling that Gahagan deleted that Twitter account before announcing his run for office. Whether he did it because it’s just a smart political move or because he feels differently these days, I don’t know. My views on a lot of religion-related issues have undoubtedly shifted since 2017, and I’m sure the same can be said for him. I’d love to know what he thinks about religion now.
More importantly, a responsible adult running for public office would hopefully set aside any personal beliefs in order to represent those who disagree. (When a transgender candidate won a State House seat in 2017, she was asked what she would say to her anti-trans opponent. Her response? “I don't attack my constituents. Bob is my constituent now.”)
It’s one thing to trash religion when you’re just a lone wolf online, but as a city council member, you would represent religious people, and they need to be able to count on you to be their voice. Deleting his old tweets and making it clear that his personal opinions wouldn’t impact his ability to represent people of different faiths is a step in the right direction.
To that end, here’s what Gahagan posted on Facebook earlier this month:
Even if that’s just a perfunctory gesture, it’s what you want to see from local politicians. Glancing through his social media, it’s clear he’s no longer using it to espouse his personal (and potentially controversial) views about things that have nothing to do with the job he’s seeking.
It’s also worth mentioning that religious candidates routinely promote their faith with no regard for how it may come across. How many times have Christian candidates for public office cited Bible verses, posted about how God is on their side, and demonized people who don’t share the majority faith? They have no problem openly celebrating a religion that believes non-Christians will be tortured for all of eternity. But right-wing outlets don’t see that as a problem. It’s the proud atheists they have an issue with.
The Heartlander spoke with Heather Hall, the term-limited council member whose seat Gahagan is now running for, and her response to this whole issue was predictable:
“Hate has no place in Kansas City,” she told The Heartlander. “The people of Kansas City deserve someone representing them who will be respectful of their religion—regardless of their religion. I don’t care what their religion is, you need to be respectful of that. And he’s basically saying, ‘I’m anti-religion, period.’ And that’s not OK.”
There’s literally no proof that Gahagan has in the past, or would in the future, treat religious people badly. Criticizing ideas is different from criticizing people. It’s entirely possible to criticize religion—which it deserves!—while still fairly representing the needs of religious constituents. That’s not hate. Gahagan is not saying he hates Christians. It’s the system he’s not a fan of.
To put that another way, while Christian city council members presumably believe an atheist like Gahagan deserves eternal punishment, Gahagan doesn’t feel the same way about them. Just because he’s not shying away from going after organized religion doesn’t make him the bad guy even if he’s been less than eloquent about it in the past.
Earlier this month, during the primary elections, the top two candidates for each city council seat moved on to the general election which will take place on June 20. Gahagan was in a two-man race, so both candidates were guaranteed to make the ballot. Still, it’s clear he has an uphill climb in June:
Will these tweets affect him? Who knows. According to a more recent post at The Heartlander, plenty of other candidates are endorsing Gahagan and donating to his campaign. They’re not bothered one bit by what he tweeted years ago.
I asked Gahagan yesterday afternoon if he’d be up for talking to me about those older tweets and where he stands now, but he did not reply to my request for comment.
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