An Atheist's Perspective on the Inauguration: Enough With all the God Stuff
Yes. Sure. Absolutely.
But also this.
I was watching the Inauguration, with pride and hope and history and joy and relief. And the message I kept hearing was, "We are one country. This country belongs to everybody in it. Everybody has a voice. Everybody has a part to play. Everybody's experience matters.
"Everybody -- except you.
"Everybody except you and the roughly 15% of Americans who don't believe in God.
"Not you. You're not part of this. This isn't for you."
Yes, yes, I know. I know what you're about to say. Yes, Obama said the word "non-believers" in his speech. He said, quote:
"For we know that our patchwork heritage is a strength, not a weakness. We are a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus — and non-believers."
And yes, that was pretty neat. As far as I know (does anyone know for sure?), this was the first time that a President's inaugural address said anything about non-believers in a positive, inclusive way. I'm not going to underestimate that. He said it, and it was pretty darned cool. A milestone, even.
He said it once... in a speech, one of a series of speeches over the inaugural ceremony, that over and over again hammered home the message, "This is God's country."
"Almighty God, our father, everything we see and everything we can't see exists because of you alone. It all comes from you, it all belongs to you. It all exists for your glory. History is your story.
"The Scripture tells us Hear, oh Israel, the Lord is our God; the Lord is one. And you are the compassionate and merciful one. And you are loving to everyone you have made."
"...when we forget you [God], forgive us. When we presume that our greatness and our prosperity is ours alone, forgive us."
"I humbly ask this in the name of the one who changed my life, Yeshua, Isa, Jesus, Jesus (hay-SOOS), who taught us to pray, Our Father who art in heaven hallowed be thy name, thy kingdom come, thy will be done on Earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread and forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us, and lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil, for thine is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever. Amen."
Do I need to point out what's wrong with this? Do I need to point out how grotesquely inappropriate it is -- in a massive and public government ceremony, addressed both to and on behalf of a secular nation populated by people of many faiths and many people of no faith -- to assert that everything that happens comes from God and belongs to him? To assert that there's something wrong/ needing of forgiveness about "forgetting" God and claiming our achievements for ourselves? To not only invoke a prayer on behalf of the whole country, but to do so in a specific prayer that comes from his particular religious tradition, in the name of his particular god?
Okay. Moving on. We have the closing benediction from Rev. Joseph Lowery. A much, much better speech than Warren's, and one which, when you take the God stuff out of it, I have little to argue with and a tremendous amount to be inspired by. But we still have this:
"Thou, who has by thy might
Led us into the light,
Keep us forever on the path, we pray.
Lest our feet stray from the places, our God, where we met thee;
Lest, our heart drunk with the wine of the world, we forget thee
Shadowed beneath Thy hand,
May we forever stand
True to thee, O God, and true to our native land."
"We pray now, oh Lord, for your blessing upon thy servant Barack Obama, the 44th president of these United States..."
"We thank you for the empowering of thy servant, our 44th President..."
"Let us take that power back to our homes, our workplaces, our churches, our temples, our mosques, or wherever we seek your will."
(Yes, I know that those words are from "Lift Every Voice and Sing," the song considered to be the Negro National Anthem, with an important and powerful history in the African American community and the civil rights movement. I get the value and meaning of using this song in the inaugural ceremony. But there are plenty of other lyrics from this song that don't frame the United States as a Christian nation, and that don't chastise non-believers for their non-belief.)
Plus we have the unsettling notion that Obama is God's servant. Sorry, but no. Obama is our servant. Yours, mine, ours. He is the public servant of the people of the United States of America. It is to us, and to the Constitution, that he owes his allegiance. Not to God.
And plus we have the very unsettling message that "we" includes people who go to churches, temples, and mosques, people who seek God's will in an assortment of places... but "we" does not include people who don't seek God's will at all. "We the people" does not include people who don't believe in God.
And then. Most importantly. From Obama's own Inaugural address:
"...the God-given promise that all are equal, all are free, and all deserve a chance to pursue their full measure of happiness."
"This is the source of our confidence -- the knowledge that God calls on us to shape an uncertain destiny."
"...and with eyes fixed on the horizon and God's grace upon us, we carried forth that great gift of freedom and delivered it safely to future generations."
No, no, no.
The promise of equality and freedom and opportunity was not given to me by God. My confidence is not given to me by God. God's grace is not upon me.
Finally, of course, the enormous elephant in the room:
We have the very fact that this inauguration was opened and closed with a prayer. The fact that Sunday's inaugural concert was opened with a prayer. The fact that the oath of office was sworn on a Bible, and concluded -- unrequired by the Constitution -- with the words, "So help me God." The fact of the insistent repetition of the phrases "God bless you" and "God bless the United States." The fact that God was all over this inauguration like a cheap suit; the examples I've cited here, while the most egregious, were really just a drop in the bucket.
Completely regardless of the content of these prayers and invocations, we have the unquestioned assumption that religion and prayers and repeated references to God and faith should have a significant part -- indeed, any part whatsoever -- in the ceremonies of our government. We have the unquestioned assumption that the prayers of a church belong in the single most important ceremony of our state.
Look. You can't spend all day talking about how God's grace is upon the nation, and how everything that happens comes from God, and how equality and freedom and opportunity are promised to us by God, and how the elected leader of a democratic country is God's servant, and how forgetting God is a sin that requires forgiveness -- and then mention once that some of the people making up the strong patchwork of this country are non-believers -- and call that real inclusivity and recognition of non-believers.
Any more than you can spend all day talking about how same- sex couples shouldn't be allowed to marry, and non- discrimination laws shouldn't be expanded to cover sexual orientation, and LGBT people shouldn't be allowed to serve in the military -- and then say, "Oh, no, I'm not homophobic."
Am I being churlish?
Should I just be happy about the mention of non-believers? Should I just be happy about this little baby step towards full recognition of atheists as actual citizens of this country, citizens with the same rights and responsibilities, the same expectation of respect and passion to contribute, that everyone else in this country has?
Maybe. For the record: I am thrilled that Obama is President. I've said it before, and I will say it again: Thrilled. I'm thrilled because I care about torture, and global warming, and the economy, and the war, and education, and science, and our standing in the world at large. I'm thrilled because I care about our country's history and future, and I'm awestruck at what Obama's election means about who we've become and what we can be. And I am thrilled because I care about secularism; because Obama is a Constitutional scholar, and I think he has potential to be one of the best advocates for secularism and separation of church and state that the White House has seen.
But I am done with this. I am done with repeated references to God and religion in official government events.
I'm not just done with it because this is supposed to be a secular, non- sectarian country, founded on (among other things) the idea of the separation of church and state. I'm not just done with it because I think the very presence of religion in politics makes for a toxic mess, with policy debates based not on observable evidence, but on unsubstantiated dogma.
I'm done with it because, when Presidents and other official representatives of our country and our government insist that this is God's country, the implicit -- if unintentional -- message is that, if you don't believe in God, this is not your country.
This is my country, too.