A Nation of Believers and Nonbelievers—Second Thoughts on Obama’s Speech

President Obama’s stirring inauguration speech was a great moment for all Americans. When he said, “We are a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus—and nonbelievers.” it was an especially heartening moment for atheists, agnostics, secularists, and humanists. Treated as invisible throughout the 2008 election campaign, we were enormously cheered to hear him including us as he took office. A week later, commentators continue to be struck by the inclusion of this group—which should remind every American how important it will be to have a president genuinely devoted to reaching out to people of different backgrounds and beliefs.

But as the good feeling wears off, nonbelievers can’t help recalling how often we we were troubled during the last year.

Obama’s choice of Rick Warren to deliver the invocation at the inauguration was offensive to gays, but few Americans know how offensive it was to secularists that Warren had declared on national television that he would never vote for an atheist. Of course nonbelievers are often scorned, or treated as if we don’t exist. But on occasion recently it has been done in Obama’s name and, yes, by Obama himself. So to clear the air, we have a few issues to raise with the President.

We have heard him speak confidently as a Constitutional scholar committed to maintaining the separation of church and state while voicing his determination to bring his faith into the public square and espousing expanding government support for faith-based social services But whether or not Jefferson’s “wall of separation” is actually breeched, we worry: can’t this undermine the spirit if not the letter of America’s secular Constitution? And why did Obama submit to an informal religious test during the campaign, being cross-examined by Warren about his personal religious beliefs? Warren asked: “What does it mean to you to trust in Christ? And what does that mean to you on a daily basis?” And Obama dutifully answered. To us this seemed to be a yielding to the religious right, a possibly dangerous precedent.

In his Labor Day speech in Detroit, which was shortened to nine minutes because of Hurricane Gustav, Obama mentioned God and prayer no fewer than six times, and concluded by leading the audience in silent prayer for those in possible danger. Among the audience were thousands of people who do not pray. Perhaps he was trying to spare their sensitivities by imposing a silent prayer, but wouldn’t it have been more genuinely inclusive to acknowledge the nonbelievers in the audience? Why not say: “For those threatened by Gustav, let’s have a moment of silence, whether in prayer or meditation”?

The “values” and “unity” event that kicked off the Denver convention turned out to be a religious celebration, pure and simple. Leah Daughtry ignored the Secular Coalition for America’s request to participate. And every convention session began with a prayer. Wouldn’t it be more unifying and respectful of all people’s beliefs to reach out to nonbelievers as well, and to recast the event next time so that it’s really about “values” and not just “religious values”? And why not begin sessions with not just prayer but also meditation, so that everyone, believer and nonbeliever is made to feel at home. Further, why not add a fourteenth caucus, the Secular Caucus, to the list of convention meetings?

Each of these moments during the campaign is destructive of the principle of treating all people with respect. Each reflects the widespread assumption that religious values, norms and practices apply to everyone. President Obama now has a great opportunity to extend the spirit of multiculturalism in a new direction: to those who do not pray, who do not worship, who do not go to church. We are cheered by his inauguration remarks, and ask him to keep on.