Obama and the Unbelievers: The Future of Secularism

What can we learn from the prayers and religious references at the recent inauguration of President Barack Obama? First, and most obviously, we see that America is still very much a religious democracy.

The references to God were numerous. The presence of religious symbolism was ubiquitous. The placement of prayer was traditional. In fact, President Obama’s whole campaign emphasized his religious commitment. If you don’t believe in the biblical God, or at least in the God of monotheism, you were out of luck at the inauguration.

The second lesson of the inauguration is that the courts will not intervene to prevent this kind of public religiosity. A lawsuit to enjoin these prayers failed. Similarly, the attempt to remove the phrase “under God” from the Pledge of Allegiance failed a few years earlier. I have written elsewhere that the Supreme Court does not really know what the Establishment Clause in the Constitution means; but it clearly does not mean the removal of religious imagery from public occasions or from public expression. A substantial and judicially enforceable wall of separation between church and state simply does not exist in America, at least at the level of expression in the public square.

The final lesson, however, is that America may finally be on the way to resolving the culture war over the acceptable nature of public religious expression. It would not surprise me if President Obama is the last president whose inauguration is accompanied by expressly Christian prayer. Assuming that President Obama is reelected in 2012, a new President will be inaugurated in eight years, in 2017. By that time, America will look quite different religiously from the way it looks today, and our public expression of religion may have come to reflect that change.

The Christian prayer I am referring to at the inauguration was that of Rev. Rick Warren, the best-selling author and conservative pastor. Warren ended his invocation prayer “in the name of the one who changed my life,” Jesus—repeating the name of Jesus in several languages—and then intoning the Lord’s Prayer.

While this was classic Christian prayer, Warren was otherwise trying to be inclusive. He also spoke of our oneness as Americans and our shared responsibilities to serve and work for a just, healthy, and peaceful planet. The Lord’s Prayer itself, although Christian in use, is actually Jewish in form. And Warren’s testimony to Jesus, which of course was the most excluding aspect of his prayer, was, in a way, only personal to him—Jesus as the one who changed my life. To be fair, how could an evangelical Christian pray at all, except in that vein? Nevertheless, these Christian references represented, inevitably, a claim about the Christian tradition and its dominant place in American life.

In contrast, civil rights leader Rev. Joseph Lowery, who gave the benediction at the inauguration, while speaking similar words of unity and solidarity, ended his prayer quite differently: “Let all those who do justice and love mercy say amen”, which led to a wonderfully unifying shout by all. Lowery’s formula was straight from the Bible—Micah 6:8: “He has showed you, O man, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you, but to do justice, and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God’’—but he managed to put this reference in a way that included everyone but the most hardened atheists, and maybe did not even exclude them. I know there are atheists who do justice and love mercy.

So, Warren and Lowery engaged in two different kinds of prayer in terms of inclusiveness. Why do I say then that America is on its way to resolving this disagreement about public prayer?

Secularism is Growing

For one thing, there is the continuing maturation of the community of believers who are not Christian. This election year, the Muslim vote was not insignificant, even though rumors about candidate Obama’s Muslim heritage prevented him from openly courting it. There were political efforts to court the Hindu and Buddhist voting communities. Overall, the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life reported preliminary figures that the category of “other faiths”—representing primarily Muslims, Hindus, and Buddhists—comprised about 6% of the electorate this year. That figure has not grown in the past three presidential elections, but it can be anticipated that it will grow in the future. All of these minority religious believers, and Jews as well, are excluded by references to Jesus. Undoubtedly, these believers will eventually object to such references in a way that impresses organizers of future political events.

Even more significant in terms of cultural change is the growth this year in the “unaffiliated” religious category. The Pew Forum reported this group as comprising 12% of the 2008 electorate. It would be a mistake to assume that all of these people are nonbelievers. But most of them probably are. According to USA Today, this group—the unaffiliated—represent one of the “fastest-growing segments of the population.” Their percentage of the electorate has already grown from 9% in 2000 to 12% this year.

It may even be that the category of unaffiliated underestimates the voting power of nonbelievers. The same Pew Forum study also reported on another question in national exit polling—how often does the voter attend worship services? An astounding 16% answered “never.” Never attending church, synagogue, mosque, temple, or any other house of worship must reflect some kind of disconnection from sectarian prayer. And this group—those who never attend worship services—is the fastest growing group in the category of religious attendance.

These preliminary snapshots of the 2008 electorate are consistent with what other kinds of polling have shown. Secularism is growing in America, especially among the young. An earlier Pew study in 2007 reported that 19% of those born after 1976, that is roughly 30-years-old and under, describe themselves as “atheist, agnostic, or no religion.” That is a large percentage that may represent a kind of cultural tipping point. Nonbelief may soon be much more politically acceptable than it is today.

Mass-Market Atheism

Another indication of the growing cultural power of nonbelief is the list of best-selling atheist books. During the period 2004-2007, a new phenomenon emerged in America, what The Atlantic Monthly would later call “mass-market atheism.” Beginning with, though with many precursors, Sam Harris’ The End of Faith in 2004, to Daniel Dennett’s Breaking the Spell and Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion, both in 2006, to Victor Stenger’s God: The Failed Hypothesis in 2007, to the culminating blockbuster God is Not Great by Christopher Hitchens, also in 2007—this period saw the establishment of a muscular and assertively anti-religious atheism that began to reach a popular market.

Actually, the inauguration already contained a symbol of the growing political power and influence of nonbelievers. In his inaugural address, President Obama described America as “a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus, and nonbelievers.” He added, “We are shaped by every language and culture, drawn from every end of this Earth.” Thus, the category of nonbeliever has now been added to the presidential electoral list and I don’t think it will be removed by any future president.

This was not new rhetoric for President Obama. He described himself in the book The Audacity of Hope as not having been raised in a religious household. And he also wrote that “we are no longer just a Christian nation; we are also a Jewish nation, a Muslim nation, a Buddhist nation, a Hindu nation, and a nation of nonbelievers.”

God of the Free

Given all this, and given eight more years of growth in minority religious communities and among secularists, I think that references to Jesus in public prayer will begin to fade. This will be more or less a natural response to these demographic changes. In an inauguration, there is not an opportunity to address religious pluralism by having a lot of speakers. The Warren and Lowery prayers, for good or ill, were the exposed bookends of a national event. In the future, those prayers will have to become more inclusive.

In fact, this change might have been ushered in already if the United States Supreme Court had not been so insistent on a secular model that the Court then, ironically, refused to enforce. In a 1992 case, Lee v. Weisman, the Court struck down prayers at a high school graduation as a violation of the Establishment Clause. The prayers involved in Lee had been an attempt at broadly acceptable worship. The School Board had provided a clergyman—fittingly a rabbi—with a pamphlet entitled “Guidelines for Civic Occasions.” This pamphlet had been prepared by the National Conference of Christians and Jews. It recommended that prayers “be composed with ‘inclusiveness and sensitivity.’” The rabbi was told by school officials that the prayers—there was an invocation and a benediction—should be nonsectarian and the rabbi complied. The prayers were addressed to “God of the Free, Hope of the Brave” and basically gave thanks. Though obviously addressed to God, the prayers were pitched to minimize anyone’s discomfort.

Of course, even nonsectarian prayer contradicts the secular paradigm of government neutrality toward religion and the wall of separation. But as we saw at the inauguration, the courts are not going to enforce that secular paradigm. Given that reality, if the Supreme Court had upheld the prayer in Lee, we would already have a model of inclusive public prayer. I venture to say that if the prayers in that case had been upheld, the prayers at the inauguration might have resembled them.

That change to allowing nonsectarian public prayer may yet occur. Establishment Clause doctrine today is very much up in the air. There are four votes on the Supreme Court to overturn expressly the whole notion of a “wall of separation.” And there does not seem to be a strong majority to confirm the government neutrality approach. Given the care with which President Obama reached out to Rick Warren, and the many other approaches he made to the evangelical community, it seems unlikely that any Obama nominee to the Supreme Court will be committed to the strict separation of church and state.

I realize I am describing trends that are moving in opposite directions. On the one hand, the inauguration was more religious than ever. On the other, secularism was visible for the first time and is growing. The Supreme Court might be surrendering the wall of separation just as secularists are beginning to achieve real political power. In other words, if in eight years, sectarian prayer might begin to seem out of place at a national event like an inauguration, when might prayer itself, especially prayer to God, seem equally out of place? After all, some of those minority believers are not theistic, and none of the secularists are.

In contrast to a Rick Warren-type prayer, I do not think that future references to God at public events will come to be viewed as exclusionary. The basic reason for the difference is that the word “God” has resonance much broader than the biblical creator. Students of comparative religion, such as Huston Smith, have often made the point that considering religions like Buddhism to be atheistic is misleading and simplistic. Most religions have concepts akin to some of the theological treatments of God that have been proposed even within the monotheistic tradition. Imagine trying to decide, for example, whether “God” in the process theology of Alfred North Whitehead is or is not consistent with Buddhist teaching.

This is also the case with regard to nonbelievers. C.S. Lewis, the great Christian apologist, argued that the real distinction between belief and nonbelief lies not in dogmas about God but in the acceptance or rejection of the objective nature of values, including right and wrong. But objective values is a position most secularists accept. Sam Harris, for example, in a Newsweek debate with Rick Warren a few years ago, insisted that he believed in objective right and wrong.

As secularism grows, its unthinking resistance to terms like God may wane. A recent book by the noted French atheist Andre Comte-Sponville illustrates this tendency. The book is entitled The Little Book of Atheist Spirituality. In it, Sponville rejects the notion of God, but willingly embraces terms such as “the Absolute” and “Spirit”. In fact Sponville’s description of the human condition is one with which C.S. Lewis would readily concur: “we are finite beings who open into infinity.”

One day, perhaps at an inauguration in 2021, we will hear prayers that pay tribute to the enduring power of justice in history and to the enduring need for love and compassion. And if on that day those realities are referred to as God, perhaps no one will object.