It seems the only place people aren’t shouting about this week’s swearing in of new Asheville City Council member Cecil Bothwell is Asheville. Blogs, including that of the Washington Post, have lit up about the “controversy” over Bothwell, a “post-theist” who earlier identified as an atheist, taking his seat.
The controversy began with Asheville Citizen-Times stories on Monday and Tuesday. The latter was titled, “Critics of Cecil Bothwell Cite N.C. Bar to Atheists.” It quoted only one opponent, H.K. Edgerton, a former president of the Asheville NAACP best known locally for walking around town brandishing a Confederate flag, as saying that the state constitution would keep Bothwell, a builder, author and former Xpress writer and editor, from holding office.
While article 6, section 8 of the North Carolina Constitution does deny office to “any person who shall deny the being of Almighty God,” such state bans have been routinely trumped by Article VI of the U.S. Constitution, which explicitly prohibits any religious tests for public office. A similar ban in Maryland was ruled unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court back in 1961.
Since the articles came out, the proverbial Internet flood gates have opened, with national blogs from across the political spectrum weighing in, including such varied groups and viewpoints as Americans United For Separation of Church and State, Hot Air, Thought Crimes, Atheist News and Views, One Good Move, the Baptist Joint Committee for Religous Liberty and the interestingly named House of Zot. USAtheists even declared that Bothwell was denied his seat, which he wasn’t.
For all the hubbub elsewhere, Bothwell, who came in third in the November election, took his seat in City Hall on Tuesday without event, choosing to affirm his oath of office instead of swear on a copy of the Bible. No one shouted, no one tried to seriously challenge his right to do so, and he got an enthusiastic round of applause.
Besides, says Bothwell, he doesn’t really consider himself an “avowed atheist,” as the original article tagged him.
“That word’s become loaded. It carries a sense of being evangelical about your atheism. In that sense, I’m more agnostic,” Bothwell tells Xpress. “I prefer the term ‘post-theist.’ The key issue here is that there is no religious test for public office.”
“I’m definitely surprised: It’s right on the verge of being created news,” he says about the Internet reaction. “The way the Citizen-Times has presented it — talking about ‘critics’ when they only quote one person, for example — they really seem to be trying to stir up the blogosphere.”
As for the characterization of Bothwell as an atheist, that too has its roots online: a now-defunct MySpace page for his 2008 County Commissioner campaign listed him as an atheist.
As for Edgerton, he’s listed in most of the blog posts simply as “a former president of the Asheville NAACP.” While that’s true, Edgerton is better known around Asheville for the Confederate-flag waving and his support for the so-called Southern Heritage movement (something the original Citizen-Times stories did mention).
While Bothwell’s getting most of the Internet spotlight over the issues, Edgerton’s own public activities have inspired a satirical Xpress forum post, H.K. Edgerton: A Life Devoted to Performance Art, by forums administrator Steve Shanafelt.
— David Forbes, staff writer