Rick Saccone, the Republican candidate for the special election for Pennsylvania’s 18th district on March 13th, has a habit of saying some very doubtful things. A hardcore member of the religious right, Saccone once even claimed support he did not have for a controversial proposal from a group called Pennsylvania Atheists. That is odd, but even more odd is the fact that the group he has claimed support from does not in fact exist.
In a previous article on this website we discussed how the former counterintelligence official was happy to conflate keeping a suspect up past his bedtime with waterboarding in an attempt to argue that the latter, despite widespread condemnation, was not in fact torture.
But Saccone’s attempt to co-opt a fictitious group of Pennsylvania atheists is even more bizarre. In 2013 Saccone introduced the “National Motto Display Act” to the Pennsylvania state House of Representatives, where he has served since 2010. This bill would have forced all public schools to prominently display “In God We Trust,” and as might be expected met with stiff resistance from several organisations.
While appearing on the local political show “Face the State,” on January 19th, 2014, on Harrisburg’s CBS 21, Saccone claimed a broad coalition of support backed the measure, including not only believers from many faiths, but also nonbelievers as well. He said:
“Atheists… can either interpret that as whatever God that they worship, in the form of, maybe it’s materialism, or something else in life that they look at.
“I actually talked with the head of the Pennsylvania Atheists who came to me after my last rally and said, ‘You know what, Rick? I support the bill. I see that it’s historic. And I don’t really have a problem [with it]. I don’t believe in God, but I support the bill. It’s a good thing.'”
This statement is riddled with problems. It indicates not only a strong tendency to overreach when making arguments, but a startling display of ignorance of basic facts by someone seeking high office.
What if Pennsylvania Atheists did not exist?
Atheists do not worship anything. That is, by definition, what makes them atheists. Saccone’s assertion that Atheists might worship “materialism” is also nonsensical. An “-ism” is a system of belief, not an object of worship. There are no religions that worship “-isms.”
A generous interpretation might be that Saccone believes everyone must worship something, that the act is somehow hard-wired into the human brain, and that if atheists are not worshipping God they are worshipping Mammon. This is not only sloppy Christian apologetics, but highly insulting to the atheists Saccone was so eager to claim support from.
But the bigger problem with Saccone’s statement is that his claim of atheist support appears to have been entirely false.
As Hemant Metha explained in his Friendly Atheist column in 2014:
1) There’s no group called the “Pennsylvania Atheists.”
2) Even if Saccone got the group’s name wrong, not a single atheist group leader in the state says they told him they support the bill.
This second point was proven true by a group of Pennsylvania atheists called Pennsylvania Nonbelievers. In a statement released to the media a few days after Saccone’s televised remarks, their president Brian Fields wrote:
“During this program, Rep. Saccone claimed that ‘the head of the Pennsylvania Atheists’ (a non-existent group) came to him after his last rally offering support for his bill. However, he never identified this person by name and no atheist group leader, to our knowledge, attended that event. We ask Rep. Saccone to name this leader, as we cannot imagine an atheist group leader supporting this clearly divisive bill.”
Speaking to Saccone’s claims that atheists worship materialism, the statement says:
“This shows an ignorance of atheists generally and is offensive to us specifically because of the misrepresentation of our community as ‘materialists’ or the assumption that we would feel worship is a positive activity. None of us have a ‘God’ to trust, thus this motto does not represent us.”
The statement was also signed by eleven other leaders from the Pennsylvania atheists and sceptics community. Despite their please for Saccone to explain who he claims to have received support from he appears to have not responded.
In Saccone we trust?
Saccone’s attempt to claim non-existent support for his bill was not the only questionable attempt at justification he employed. In the text of his bill, HB1728, Saccone sites two historical justifications for this motto:
- “It was first introduced to the nation by Francis Scott Key in 1814 as words that would be included in our national anthem.”
- A Pennsylvanian, former governor James Pollock, suggested the motto be added to coins in 1864.
The first of these is problematic. Most Americans would struggle to say where exactly “In God we trust” appears in the national anthem. The main reason for this is it does not.
A somewhat similar phrase does appear, “In God is our trust.” This is in the closing lines of the fourth stanza – a stanza very few Americans even know exist.
It is a minor point, but indicative of Saccone’s habit of massaging facts to fit his argument. The bill would have been just as strong if he had identified the Star Spangled Banner line as being very close to the national motto, but he could not resist the overreach.
Saccone the scholar
Rick Saccone is unusual among aspiring congressman. Besides being a former counterintelligence agent, he spent a year living in North Korea – being the only US citizen living in the country at that time. He has also written nine books in total, including one called Living with the Enemy about his time there, and one entitled “God in our Government,” where he argues that America’s founding was not a secular event and that our history is “rich with the influence of God’s hand and God’s word.”
Whatever one thinks of Saccone’s beliefs, he certainly is not speaking from ignorance. When he claims, falsely, to write into Pennsylvania legislation that Francis Scott Key wrote “In God We Trust” into the poem that became our national anthem, he does so knowingly.
And after living in North Korea for a year, one of the few officially atheist regimes in the world, it is hard to argue he lacks direct and extensive knowledge of atheists.
In the heat of an argument sometimes statements slip out that we later regret. Rick Saccone appears to prize his integrity – if he has he should apologize and come clean.