FFRF, Tulsa nontheists salute first atheist senator

An eye-catching message in Tulsa off the Broken Arrow Expressway in September caught motorists’ attention: “Atheism is OK in Oklahoma; Saluting Gore — First Atheist Senator.”

The 14×48 ft. billboard was arranged by the Foundation and was the brainchild of Bill Dusenberry, a member who is active with FFRF’s new Tulsa chapter.

“To our knowledge, Thomas Gore was the first atheist U.S. senator,” said Dusenberry, a retired professor.

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 (1907-21 and 1931-37). 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 Gore was talked into being photographed in a Methodist Church on Sunday, Vidal asked him, “Grandpa, what are we doing in this thing?” He replied, “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 was asked once about religious differences he had with his wife: “Well, one Sunday we don’t go to her church and the next Sunday we don’t go to mine.”

The only member of Congress currently “out” is Rep. Pete Stark, D-Calif.

“We thank Bill Dusenberry for a doozy of a good idea and Tulsans for pledges to help defer the cost of the billboard campaign,” said Dan Barker, FFRF co-president.

“Atheism is OK in Oklahoma – and everywhere!” added Annie Laurie Gaylor, who co-directs FFRF.

“We want to let people know they’re not alone,” Dusenberry told KOTV Tulsa. “There are other people that are sane in the state, too. Not everyone in Oklahoma is superstitious.” The campaign netted lots of positive TV coverage, plus a news story in the local newspaper.

The Christians had to get the last word in, of course. Whistler Outdoor Advertising put up its own ads on its 10 digital billboards in response: “God Is More Than OK in Oklahoma” and “Why Settle for OK? God Promises More.”

The dueling signs stirred debate and received additional media coverage, which made Dusenberry happy. “They want to impose their beliefs on me, while I don’t want to impose anything I believe on them,” he said.

Some members of the new Tulsa FFRF chapter pose by the billboard. Photo: Keith McCartney

Freedom From Religion Foundation