A state Senate hopeful in Tennessee is testing whether voters in the deep-red state will support an openly atheist candidate.
Gayle Jordan, a Democrat running in a state that Donald Trump won by 26 points in 2016, is executive director of Recovering from Religion, a group that supports people who wish to leave their faith behind. She is a former Southern Baptist who left the denomination 10 years ago “when her then-teenagers began asking questions she could not answer.”
Jordan said her atheism is an open fact, but she does not want to make it an issue in the special election looming Tuesday.
"It's incidental to who I am," Jordan told the Tennessean.
Next Tuesday, Jordan will face Republican challenger Shane Reeves for the District 14 seat vacated by Jim Tracy, who took a job with the Trump administration.
On her personal blog, Jordan wrote last year about the campaign that, “What I’m struggling with right now is making private those blog posts where I specifically deal with my secularism. My atheism … These blog posts often use the word Atheist, and some are harsh in their judgment of religion and religious ideas.”
She said she wants to keep her campaign focused on increasing gun control, abortion rights and religious liberty.
When the question of religiosity comes up, she explains that she is an atheist and her worldview means that she cares about human suffering.
"That's what motivates me to be involved in my community. It's what motivates me to run for office," she said.
But Reeves, in tandem with fellow state GOP officials, have used the issue of religion to drive a wedge between her and the voters in the district, calling her “dangerous” and her lack of faith out of step from the rest of the district.
"I just feel like her views are radical," Reeves told the newspaper. "They’re out of touch with the district."
Reeves said one's faith shapes one's worldview and affects the decisions one makes.
“I'm a Christian and that is going to serve as a filter, serve as a moral compass and how I look at things, if I'm fortunate to get elected," Reeves said, adding that many people with whom he has spoken could not believe the Democratic candidate is an atheist.
Lt. Gov. Randy McNally, R-Oak Ridge, launched a scathing attack on Jordan’s atheism last month on social media.
“In my 40 plus years in Tennessee politics, I've seen few candidates as dangerous as Gayle Jordan. She is not just out of step with a majority of Tennessee on matters of policy. She is out of step on matters of values and faith,” McNally wrote.
“In her daily work, she directs an organization called ‘Recovering from Religion.’ Most Tennesseans, whether they are strong believers or not, recognize the strength and comfort faith provides. Gayle Jordan rejects faith as a positive force for good in the world. She believes faith is something from which people need to be rescued,” the Republican added.
Scott Golden, chairman of the Tennessee Republican Party, said in a statement that Jordan’s views were "extreme" and that she works to "lead people away from their faith."
The relentless attacks on Jordan’s lack of faith led to the endorsement by an atheist superstar, Professor Richard Dawkins, who tweeted in support of the Democrat.
“Can you believe, they think the fact that she’s an atheist is a reason NOT to vote for her? Good people of Tennessee, live down the disgrace of Scopes 1925. Support Gayle Jordan. Give Tennessee something to be proud of: an openly atheist State Senator,” Dawkins tweeted.
Seeks healthy discussions
Jordan told the Tennessean that she is not trying to end religion but merely wants people to have a healthy discussions about it. Republican attacks on her atheism, she said, have been about politics rather than genuine concern for values in the state.
"It puts them in a terrible light," Jordan told the outlet, adding that their comments make them appear unethical, childish and unpatriotic.
In terms of demographics, Jordan’s atheism appears to be a disadvantage, as only 4 percent of people in Tennessee describe themselves as either agnostic or atheist. Still, she could pull off a surprise in Tuesday’s special election.
Special elections are known for low voter turnout and Democratic voters have been energized by the Trump administration and Republicans, prompting them to get out and vote in droves. This week, deep-red Texas saw the largest number of Democratic voters since 2002.
More importantly, Republican candidates in Tennessee have seen their winning margins decline since Trump took office and a number of Republican-held seats were flipped in other states.