I’ve been asked by a few folks for the back story on the challenges to my being seated on Asheville’s City Council. Here’s the “lecture version” that I’ve delivered to a few audiences around the country.
How I shot the sheriff and nettled God’s deputies
I am here this morning in part because I have been credited with some measure of personal courage but more due to a handful of self-professed Christians whose behavior threw my non-theism into high relief. Thanks to them, my story went global, reported in The New York Times, the Chicago Tribune, the Los Angeles Times, Rachel Maddow, Bill Press and more. I was interviewed on Moscow Today and if you Googled my name last December it turned up over 550,000 hits.
I’m inclined to view my opponents’ religious justification pretty skeptically, but I may be biased since they tried to keep me from being elected and seated on the Asheville City Council. I’ll let you be the judges.
The first two attempts came in the form of a city-wide direct mail campaign after I finished first of ten candidates in a non-partisan primary race. Before that primary my supposedly religious opponents may have assumed I couldn’t possibly win. Suddenly they were worried.
In the acknowledgments at the end of my critical biography of evangelist Billy Graham, I had observed that I would probably be labeled as Satan’s helper or worse as a result of my reporting. Sure enough, one direct-mail piece called me a self-professed Satan’s helper. Another mailer accused me of saying that Billy Graham was influenced by Adolph Hitler.
On election day an angry voter confronted one of my precinct workers. He spat at her, “Bothwell said Graham was influenced by Hitler!” My worker reported accurately,”That’s true, and the source for that fact was Billy Graham’s autobiography.” The man sneered and said, “Yeah? And who wrote that?”
I guess I should have considered my source more carefully.
In addition they tossed in the usual stuff about me being a godless, socialist, communist radical, much too radical and godless to serve in city government. Thank goodness they hadn’t discovered I was an active Unitarian Universalist!
But there were other motives afoot. As an investigative reporter I exposed the criminal behavior of a very crooked sheriff named Bobby Lee Medford. North Carolina sheriffs are enormously powerful. They are elected but no one oversees them. They establish virtual fiefdoms, have hundreds of armed officers who serve at their will and pleasure and answer only to the voters. There are no checks and balances: A president is constrained by Congress, a governor is constrained by a legislature, a police chief answers to a city council, but sheriffs are able to do exactly as they please for four years at a time. Bobby Lee Medford held office for twelve.
It is difficult to convince outsiders how freewheeling our sheriffs can be: Sheriff Medford gave away guns from his evidence locker to his friends and one of my sources witnessed sales to a pawn shop. He accepted bags full of cash. He drove his official car out of state to gamble. He threatened a group of peaceful anti-war protesters with a sawed-off shotgun. And when he left office an audit of his evidence locker revealed a few missing items.
Those few items included 327 weapons, drugs from more than 1300 evidence bags, and labels on 16 rape kits – so that the evidence in those rape cases was meaningless. Oh, and $215,000 in cash had disappeared as well.
When federal authorities cracked down, witnesses told me that FBI and IRS agents showed up at their doors carrying copies of my newspaper articles about Medford’s criminal behavior. He was sent up for fifteen years for extortion, mail fraud, illegal gambling and money laundering, and he’s now sharing a prison facility with Bernie Madoff. He has not been, and presumably never will be, prosecuted for the guns, drugs and money that were missing from his evidence locker, all small potatoes compared to his multi-million dollar gambling empire.
His main source of illegal funds was a protection scheme involving video poker machines. Our laws permitted a maximum payout of $10 in merchandise per day. Operators routinely paid winnings of thousands of dollars. Medford set up a protection racket. Some of his deputies were assigned to extort Mom-n-Pop stores into placing machines in their shops, though many were happy to participate in a profitable sideline when they knew they had official protection.
When the bust went down, many small convenience stores went under. It turned out that video poker profits were the mainstay of their businesses.
When campaign finance reports were filed after the election we learned that the biggest contributor to the smear campaign against me was a video game operator whose business surely suffered because of the bust. The next-largest contributor to the smear was Medford’s single biggest supporter during his 12 years in office. She was also a gambling companion of the fallen law-man.
So you can see they had good “Chrisitan” motives for warning Asheville about my sinful ways.
After I won a seat on Council despite all those dire warnings, two more people tried to prevent me from taking office. The North Carolina Constitution includes an oddly worded prohibition. It says that no one may hold public office in the state “who shall deny the being of Almighty God.”
My opponents read that same loathsome passage in my Graham biography, in the sentence that followed my purported declaration of being Satan’s little helper, where I said that I didn’t believe in supernatural beings of any stripe. That was their proof! I was denying the being of Almighty God.
Now the first of these would-be enforcers of the hallowed North Carolina Constitution is the long-time head of a group called the Sons of the Confederacy which is essentially a white-supremacist group. Their ties to the KKK are widely alleged. They do whatever they can to further the goal of reestablishing states’ rights to the exclusion of federal law working in tandem with that good Christian group Focus on the Family.
But the second character, and the one who brought the issue to a head publicly, is named H.K. Edgerton. He is an African American gentleman. Normally I am inclined to view race as irrelevant in discussion of politics and beliefs, but I make an exception here because H.K. is an exceptional character. H.K. Edgerton is the former head of our regional chapter of the NAACP but these days is a devoted member of the Sons of the Confederacy. He maintains that slavery was a benign partnership between whites and blacks in the old South. He dresses in a Confederate uniform and stands on highway bridges or in other public places holding aloft the Confederate battle flag. He has his own nonprofit organization called the Southern Heritage 411 Foundation which shares an address in Georgia with a printing company that sells white supremacist and hate-filled anti-Obama bumperstickers and tee shirts. H.K. advertises that he will make personal appearances in Confederate drag with prices starting at $500.
This is the man who was going to save Asheville from my heathen ways.
So, H.K. contacted the city attorney and the North Carolina Attorney General and insisted that I could not be seated on Council, citing the state Constititution and the fact that his father had been a Christian minister and that he was opposing me in order to uphold his father’s faith.
It further infuriated my pious opponents that when I was sworn into office, despite their best efforts, I simply affirmed that I would uphold the U.S. Constititution and the N.C. Constitution insofar as it did not conflict with the federal one. Affirmation is permitted under our constitution, in lieu of taking an oath. I didn’t lie and say “so help me God” and I didn’t put my hand on a holy book. Consequently, H.K. threatened to perform a citizen’s arrest of all the other council members for doing business with me.
In April I was named the most Courageous Elected Official of 2010 by the American Atheists organization, but I feel compelled to say that I feel more courageous as a reporter than as an elected official. That is to say, I ran for office as who I am, I didn’t pretend to be a believer in imaginary beings, and I ran on my record as a community activist, as a newspaper reporter and editor and as an author. Whatever courage I exhibited came well before the election.
When I decided to write about Billy Graham I knew I was taking on a local hero, in addition to a national figure and one of the most respected religious leaders on the planet. He lives fifteen miles down the road from me, his education center is half that distance and the highway that runs a few blocks from my front door is the Billy Graham Freeway. Two weeks before publication of my biography of Graham, I was fired from my job at a newspaper where I had been published for 18 years, where I had garnered national awards for investigative reporting and commentary and had served as managing editor and senior reporter—a newspaper I had represented on the national editorial board of the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies for five years. In fact I was fired from that paper just a few days after being named the best print reporter in Asheville for the second year in a row in a citizen’s poll. They never said why they fired me because North Carolina is a right to work state, which is the Orwellian term used to describe states where you can be fired for no cause. They even offered me ten hours of work per month in the aftermath, so they could deny my claim for unemployment benefits. No reason given. That was two weeks before the book came out.
I guess we criticize famous religious figures at our peril.
But I thought people had a right to know who Billy Graham is and what kind of advice he’s given the Presidents. Most of the books written about him are published by his organization. They tend to not be critical.
Briefly, I read a two paragraph Associated Press story in 2002 about a then recently released Nixon Whitehouse tape in which Graham derided the Jews. Graham apologized to the Jewish people, his spin machine went into high gear and the story faded. But I knew that there had to be more. I obtained the transcript and found that the conversation had lasted an hour and a half, and that far from simply agreeing with the sinister Nixon, Graham had led the discussion about all the evil the Jews were doing, even suggesting that “we might be able to do something about it after the election.”
We had always been told that Graham only gave spiritual advice to the presidents, but this didn’t qualify. So I dug around in presidential libraries and the Billy Graham Archives at Wheaton College.
Five years later, I reported on my research in a book I called The Prince of War: Billy Graham’s Crusade for a Wholly Christian Empire, because Graham had urged war on every president since Truman.
I learned that Graham fabricated facts to suit his agenda, claiming to Truman, for example, that there were more Christians per capita in Korea than anywhere else in the world. That wasn’t true then and isn’t true now. He tried to convince Eisenhower to go into Vietnam, then called French Indochina, without success. Graham’s efforts to keep a Catholic out of the White House chilled his relationship with Kennedy, but he had great success with Lyndon Johnson.
Johnson’s carpet-bombing campaign in Vietnam was dubbed “Rolling Thunder”- taken directly from Graham’s revival theme song.
Graham advocated genocide to Nixon, urging him to bomb dikes in North Vietnam, which would have killed perhaps a million people. We hung Germans who ordered the bombing of dikes during WWII. It is a war crime.
The strangest item has to be Graham’s conversation with George Herbert Walker Bush, as reported in that president’s White House Diary. The week before the first Gulf War Graham phoned Bush to tell him it was his historic mission to kill Saddam who he averred was “the Antichrist itself.”
I also revealed that despite Graham’s later recollection that he had worked in alignment with Martin Luther King, Jr., Graham actually worked against racial integration or simply kept silent on the issue until he was certain that it would be reasonably popular and very profitable to his cause. King’s Letter from Birmingham Jail was essentially directed at Graham.
The other book that had about as much to do with the election brouhaha as my Graham reporting, was my summation of my efforts to expose the sheriff: Pure Bunkum: Reporting on the Life and Crimes of Sheriff Bobby Lee Medford. While the readership of the newspaper I wrote for only ran to about 35,000, my association with his trial and then the book, made it more evident to more people the role I’d played in his downfall. His supporters were not happy campers.
I described some of Medford’s crimes earlier, but I didn’t mention he threatened my life on at least two occasions, as reported to me by his deputies. When he said he would “take care of” the reporter, it was pretty clear what he meant. Other problem people had disappeared or died under unusual circmustances like being arrested, jailed and found dead in the jail cell an hour later. I was encouraged by some security people and some fellow reporters to wear a kevlar vest. I figured that anyone with expertise in shooting could probably hit my head.
But when I staked out a casino to check out his habits, I wore a disguise and used a borrowed car and when I went to his department offices to examine records, I wore a wire. I decided to have regular drug tests because some bad cops will entrap a person by knocking on the door and tossing a bag on the floor when you open, then bust you for drugs. At least I had a track record of clean tests if I ever faced that problem.
What infuriated me about Medford was that everyone in local government knew he was crooked. If they didn’t know from their own sources they knew from my reporting, and in many cases from conversations with me. And none of them would do a thing. A demand from a County Commissioner or City Councilor for investigation by higher up law enforcement at the state or federal level could not be easily ignored. They were all scared or complicit or both, and in my view, their failure to act made them complicit whether they were actually involved in his schemes or not. It seemed a perfect illustration of Edmund Burke’s observation, “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.”
Finally, I took it to the U.S. Attorney in Charlotte. Several months later the federal arrests began, culminating in the arrest and conviction of the Sheriff, some of his lieutenants, and numerous game operators and employees in several counties.
A side-by-side comparison of my letter to the U.S. Attorney and the federal bill of indictment doesn’t admit much light between them. After the trial one of the federal prosecutors told me, “You had it before anyone else.”
So, yes I guess I have shown some courage. I reported on the most famous person in my county and the most powerful, and the reports weren’t pretty. But the core of what others have called my courage doesn’t feel like courage to me at all, it is simply a practice of living up to my beliefs, being as honest as I can be about who I am, and recognizing that there are limits to my knowledge, that belief is ultimately just a matter of opinion.
As I note in my latest book, Whale Falls: An exploration of belief and its consequences, Francis Bacon said it almost 400 years ago: if you begin in certainty you are likely to end in doubt, but if you begin in doubt you can gradually build to certainty.
Also in my new book I write:
“It’s often said that there are no atheists in fox holes, an idea I have no basis to contest. But I know for certain that if I were a Private in a fox hole I would ‘pray; that there were atheists in the company headquarters. If I thought I were likely to be sent to my ‘just reward’ by a commander who believed in never-never land, I would be forced to abandon my post. It seems to me that such religious beliefs are what permit generals and presidents, congresses and parliaments, kings and queens, in the good of their own consciences, to treat privates as cannon-fodder.
“In this regard it is disturbing to reflect on the report by French President Jacques Chirac that George W. Bush, told him: ‘Gog and Magog are at work in the Middle East … The biblical prophecies are being fulfilled … This confrontation is willed by God, who wants to use this conflict to erase his people’s enemies before a New Age begins.’ So it seems that a politician’s religious fervor rather than illusory WMDs was the rationale for ousting Saddam. Atheists might take their nations to war, but at least they don’t delude themselves concerning divine guidance or assuage themselves with pleasant illusions about the outcome for the deceased. “
My biggest take-away lesson so far is that those of us who eschew theism don’t need to apologize. We don’t need to back off, even here in the Bible belt. Ethics matter, the source of our ethics do not. About 20 percent of Americans no longer embrace theism, no matter what we are told by those with religious axes to grind, and our numbers are growing.
If we don’t kill ourselves first, I think there’s a fair chance that rationalism will eventually guide human affairs.