“I’m Actually An Atheist”: Revisiting Rebecca Vitsmun’s CNN Surprise

Five years ago this week marked a victory for atheists.

It wasn’t a group of newly elected politicians affirming that they didn’t believe in God; those representatives are still few and far between. It wasn’t a handful of states finally purging anti-atheist rhetoric from their constitutions; we still have seven to go. And it had nothing to do with the Supreme Court; Greece v. Galloway would be decided the following year.

This victory came in the form of approximately 12 seconds of incredible television.
A tornado had just ravaged Moore, Oklahoma — 24 dead, more than 200 injured — and CNN had dispatched anchor Wolf Blitzer to the scene. In an interview with survivor Rebecca Vitsmun, Blitzer congratulated her on her decision to grab her child and evacuate her home before the twister came.

“You gotta thank the Lord, right?” he asked. Vitsmun inclined her head down toward the toddler in her arms and said nothing. Blitzer pushed: “Do you thank the Lord for that split-second decision?”

“I’m actually an atheist,” she responded.

 

That little clip of post-disaster footage has been viewed more than 2.6 million times — and that’s just one version of it. I’m sure I’m not the only atheist to have watched it more than once. It was thrilling. The assumption of belief upended! The nice Oklahoma lady who isn’t a Christian! The glib reporter thrown off his game! The ritualized post-disaster piety popped like a balloon by one sharp-edged word!

When I first saw it back then it made me yelp in triumph.

When I watch it today, however, it makes me a little sad.

Vitsmun said later in an interview with Seth Andrews (a.k.a. The Thinking Atheist), “I had this moment where I just stopped for a second and I realized, you either lie or tell the truth. And I, just, I’m not a liar.” But it doesn’t look that simple in the clip. When the big moment comes — “Do you thank the Lord…?” — she pauses, smiles, and shrugs apologetically. “I–I’m–I [laughs], I’m actually an atheist,” she finally manages to say. She and Blitzer share an uncomfortable laugh. And then Vitsmun immediately seeks to reassure the television audience that she’s still a nice person. “We are here,” she concedes (meaning her and her son) “and you know I don’t blame anybody for thanking the Lord.”

I still thrill at Vitsmun’s honesty, but almost exactly five years later, I find myself focusing on the way she seems to have to apologize for it. Maybe it’s because, in the midst of the #MeToo movement, I’ve been thinking about the pressure women face to play along. To avoid saying “no” out of concern for other people’s feelings. Maybe it’s because I have felt my own cheeks burn when saying the A-word (in Upstate New York, no less), or more often, chosen not to say it at all.

Because it’s easy not to. The comments following the clip include really helpful post-interview advice on how Vitsmun should have responded, snarky comebacks along the lines of “Yes, I thank the Lord he killed 24 neighbors and destroyed my home.” But I keep thinking what most of us would have said. What I probably would have said to deflect the question so as not to offend.

“Do you thank the Lord…?”
“We’re so, so thankful to be safe.”

“Do you thank the Lord…?”
“Right now I’m just worried about my friends and neighbors.”

“Do you thank the Lord…?”
“Honestly, Wolf, I’m just in shock.”

That’s how many of us avoid the uncomfortable truth, all the time. And, maybe, that’s why there are so many more atheists in America than people think. It’s surprisingly hard to brave the awkward moment, to overturn the easy assumption, to stop a friendly conversation in its tracks.

But Vitsmun did. She managed to stammer out the truth about herself on national television, embarrassing a celebrity (male) reporter in the process. Despite the fact that her parents didn’t know that she was an atheist. Despite the fact that, as she has said, she’d been “in the closet” for 10 years and didn’t intend to come out.

Watch that clip above. Marvel at how little it takes to be an atheist hero — and how much it clearly took. Resolve that if you’re ever asked, “Do you thank the Lord…?” you find the courage to say, “No.”

***

Many thanks to Hemant Mehta for allowing me to join him at The Friendly Atheist his blog at Patheos.com.

 

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Take the Statues; Leave the Pedestals

pedestal“It’s Wrong to Erase History” is the title of an angry letter to the editor of the Baltimore Sun complaining about the swift and stealthy removal of four Confederate statues Tuesday night.

That’s the gist of much of the argument for leaving intact commemorative statues of Confederate leaders. 

I agree. It’s wrong to erase history.

But statues aren’t history. They are present. They are now.

Just think about their function: what does a commemorative statue do? It makes a statement about our communal values. It expresses our ideals. Just by standing there in a park or near a courthouse or government plaza, it is doing its job. Not in the past — right now, today. And tomorrow. And every day that it continues to stand.

We should not erase signs of our historical past, even when — especially when — that past is ugly. We shouldn’t pave Gettysburg and put up a parking lot. But Gettysburg does not continue to produce the horror for which we remember it. Gettysburg is no longer the site of bloody battle; it’s a historical site complete with Visitor Center, Museum, Ranger-Led Tours, and a Cyclorama.

Of course, even though these statues aren’t history per se — even though they are all currently at work valorizing leaders of the Confederacy — they are the site of a historical event: the erecting of the statue itself.

That history, as Zack Beauchamp at VOX has pointed out, is often repugnant: a doubling down on the myth of white southern nobility in response to the fight for civil rights.

That’s why many of these statues went up. And the history of municipal approbation of white supremacy is history we should not erase. 

I can think of two good options for accurately representing the historical record:

(1) Erect another statue next to the first statue as commentary. I’m thinking maybe Martin Luther King, Jr., head in hands, sobbing. Or a black mother looking askance at Lee while covering her child’s eyes. Or a mob of Klansmen in full costume giving Lee a thumbs up.

That might get pricey. A cheaper option would be

(2) Remove the statue, but leave the pedestal, complete with a new commemorative plaque. For example:

Here stood, from 1924, a statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee on horseback.

For almost a century this 26-foot-tall bronze likeness expressed civic admiration for a man who fought against the United States and for the cause of slavery.

In 2017, the people of Charlottesville, Virginia, decided it was time to take it down.

 

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Dear Mr. Miranda: A Thank-You Note

hamilton-castDear Mr. Miranda,

The morning after the election I made my husband get up with the kids. I couldn’t face them. They were not innocents: they knew about North Carolina’s bathroom law and the dangers of driving while black. But they are children of the Obama era: they’ve grown up believing that the forces of progress win.

As their mom, I had let them believe that, had even encouraged them to. A parent is supposed to do two basic things: protect her kids from harm and prepare them for the future. I had failed on both counts. On top of the shock and sorrow I felt shame.

Days passed. I couldn’t read the paper. I couldn’t look at Facebook. I couldn’t even go into my closet, lest I see the suit jacket I had bought for Election Day. (Then it was a lovely shade of blue; now it was the color of confidence kicked in the gut.) 

But I couldn’t work either. So I scanned my NYT Morning Briefing email to find something to distract myself. A book review. A recipe. Arts news. Wasn’t there something about Lin-Manuel Miranda? There’s always something about Lin-Manuel Miranda.

Sure enough: the kerfuffle about the Hamilton cast’s post-show statement to audience member and future VP Mike Pence. Trump’s expression of outrage and demand for an apology. And finally his supporters’ call to #boycotthamilton.

Ha!

I laughed out loud for the first time in 10 days. Boycott Hamilton? That’s like attacking a mountain with a Wiffle Ball bat. Taking aim at the sun with a squirt gun. With that one hashtag, the forces of regress revealed themselves to be puny, to be losers who would, eventually, lose. It will be awful in the meantime: we’ll be fighting for health care and reproductive rights; we’ll be hiding undocumented immigrants while praying for China not to take seriously our thin-skinned tweeter-in-chief.

But in the long run, he doesn’t stand a chance against Hamilton—against art that speaks to people. That’s where progress will not just live but thrive. Art that both six-graders and Broadway snobs are obsessed with; art that cites Shakespeare and the Notorious B.I.G; art that springs from all kinds of crazy knowledge about music and musicals and history and politics and rhyme; art that’s based on a fucking 832-page book.

And if Hamilton-the-work-of-art triumphs over Trump, so too does Hamilton’s vision—your vision—of an America where immigrants are necessary, where talent and brains can make things happen, where culture is treasured but skin color is irrelevant. My 11-year-old, who knows your show by heart but has not seen it, confessed recently that when she saw a portrait of the actual Alexander Hamilton, she was a little disappointed. “I mean, I knew he wouldn’t look like Lin-Manuel Miranda, but I was kinda hoping he would.”

Our kids are children of the Hamilton era. We’re going to be OK.

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