Tulsans will be cruising past an eye-catching red, white and blue message at 15th Street and Broken Arrow Expressway for the month of September: “Atheism is OK in Oklahoma; Saluting Gore — First Atheist Senator.”
The billboard, scheduled to be placed on Tuesday, was arranged by the Freedom From Religion Foundation and is the brainchild of Bill Dusenberry, a member of the Freedom From Religion Foundation who is active with its new Tulsa chapter.
"To our knowledge, Thomas Gore was the first atheist U.S. senator,” Dusenberry, a retired professor, points out.
Dusenberry got the idea for the billboard after reading an interview of writer Gore Vidal, honorary president of the American Humanist Association, in which he talked about his grandfather Thomas Gore, calling him “a dedicated atheist.” Gore was Oklahoma’s debut senator (1907-1921 and 1931-1937). Gore Vidal as a child used to accompany his grandfather, who was blind, around Congress. The Foundation received an enthusiastic “thumbs up” from Gore Vidal before designing the billboard.
Vidal said his grandfather, although representing a state that was “a hotbed of the Lord Jesus,” never hid his lack of belief, but voters never found out. When Senator Gore was talked into being photographed in a Methodist Church on Sunday, young Gore asked him, “ ‘Grandpa, what are we doing in this thing?’ He said, ‘Well, my boy, you may ask what we’re doing here. I’m getting votes, I don’t know about you.’ ” Vidal said his grandfather, once publicly asked about the religious differences between himself and his wife, replied: “Well, one Sunday we don’t go to her church and the next Sunday we don’t go to mine.”
As Tulsa FFRF members have pointed out, “Atheism is OK in Oklahoma — and everywhere!”
“And that should include in Congress,” says Foundation Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor. "If 15% of the U.S. adult population is nonreligious (American Religious Identification Survey 2008) that works out to least 80 members of Congress*," said Gaylor. Yet the only member of Congress who currently is publicly out as a nonbeliever is U.S. Rep. Pete Stark, D-Fremont, Calif.
Other area freethinking groups, including Tulsa Humanist Association, and Tulsa Atheists, have endorsed the billboard via the local Coalition of Reason.
The Freedom From Religion Foundation, based in Madison, Wis., has more than 16,000 nonreligious members nationwide, including about 125 members in Oklahoma, and works to keep church and state separate.
“We thank Bill Dusenberry for a doozy of a good idea, and local Tulsans for contributions to help defer the cost of the billboard campaign,” said Dan Barker, Foundation co-president.
The billboard saluting Gore as the first atheist senator is FFRF’s first billboard placement in Oklahoma. The Foundation, which was the first freethought group to launch a national billboard campaign, in October 2007, has revved up its visibility campaign.
This week FFRF is posting a month-long display of 50 small billboards with diverse messages throughout Atlanta, and 20 throughout Louisville, joining 19 billboards up in Trenton, and five in New Orleans. Twenty billboards were posted in Tampa Bay for at least a month in early August.
FFRF’s newest message, showing "In Reason We Trust” on a shiny penny, is on display in all of the above cities. The Foundation also has placed the image of actress Butterfly McQueen in Atlanta, Louisville and New Orleans. Those billboards quote her saying, “As my ancestors are free from slavery, I am free from the slavery of religion.” Other FFRF messages which vary from city to city, include “Imagine No Religion,” “Beware of Dogma,” Praise Darwin — Evolve Beyond Belief,” and “God & Government — A Dangerous Mix."
* Credit for pointing out how many members of Congress statistically should be nonreligious goes to master of law student Andrew Seidel, who placed second in FFRF’s new essay scholarship for grad students. Seidel made this point in his second-place essay, “Wall of separation requires vigilance” (reprinted in the September Freethought Today), for which he received a $1,000 scholarship.