The “issues” in the Hagan-Dole U.S. Senate race, such as they were, consisted of whether Republican Sen. Elizabeth Dole had backed President George W. Bush to the hilt (she had) and whether she’d paid enough attention to the state she supposedly represents (she hadn’t).

Whereas Democratic challenger Kay Hagan promised to do things “the North Carolina way,” whatever that means, and to represent the people, not the special interests. Plus stand for “change,” especially to the economy.

In the context of a statewide Democratic sweep, such differences were sufficient to put Hagan solidly ahead in the polls by the end of October. Her election would help boost the Democrats’ total number of Senate seats toward the filibuster-proof 60 out of 100.

But then, in the last week, a real issue was raised. Dole charged, in a pair of attack ads, that Hagan had consorted with “godless Americans.” Not to mention that the alleged consortingat a Hagan fundraiseroccurred in Boston. Boston, Mass., not Boston, Va.

Which put the question squarely on the table: If you don’t believe in God, are you less than a full-fledged citizen?

At least that’s how Kristen Douglas took it. She’s a Durham artist and health-care agency administrator who describes her brand of non-belief as “realism” and “borderline agnostic.” That is, she’s seen no evidence of a god, she says, though she was raised in a charismatic Midwestern church and was for years an ordained minister in it. On the other hand, she hasn’t closed her mind to the possibility that such evidence might present itself some day.

Until then, however, Douglas says she “taught myself away” from her fundamentalist roots to the point that she doesn’t believe in a god at all. So when she heard Dole’s charge against Hagan, she wondered about her own status in the country.

“Are godless Americans less American than religious Americans?” she asked.

Actually, the issue was muddled a bit at first by the way Dole’s ads misrepresented the fundraiser and Hagan’s faith. And even after it emerged that the voice crying “There is no god!” in Dole’s first ad wasn’t actually Hagan, and that Hagan is a Presbyterian elder who believes in God with a capital G, Dole persisted with a second ad that again bollixed the fundraiser.

When the facts were sorted out, though, what remained of Dole’s “charge” was that Hagan had sinned politically by attending a fundraiser at the home of a couple, Woody Kaplan and Wendy Kaminer, who are avowed atheists and active in groups espousing church-state separation. “If godless Americans threw a party in your honor,” the second Dole ad asked, “would you go?”

What frightens Douglas is, first, that Dole obviously thought she’d gain by smearing atheists; and second, that Hagan “defended” herself without ever mentioning that the Bill of Rights protects the free exercise of religion and of non-religion and also bars the establishment of religion by the government.

By way of comparison, Douglas asks, what if Dole’s ads had said that Hagan went to a fundraiser hosted by a Jewish couple? Attacking someone’s faith tradition is out of bounds, but attacking their lack of faith is OK?

In her former fundamentalist sect, religion served often as an excuse not to worry about the inequities in society or the condition of the planet, Douglas says.

“Why recycle?” she jokes. “Because Jesus is coming soon to rapture us all away.”

But establishment figures like Dole, she says, though they’d never bring up the rapture, also use religion as a proxy for whose “values” should count and an excuse to discriminate against some folksgays, for examplebased on some passage in the Bible.

The unfortunate truth, Douglas says: “Anybody running for office had better belong to a church, had better go to Sunday school, and had better at least pretend to be religious, or they won’t make it very far.”

Even so, Douglas thinks that Hagan’s victory “makes a big difference” on the religious freedom issue. Dole, she says, “[was] gunning for anyone who’s not a Christian, and that doesn’t bode well for anyone’s civil rights in this state.” Maybe Hagan didn’t speak up for atheists, but she did go to the Kaplan-Kaminer house knowing their views.

“And that bodes better,” Douglas says.