January 20, 2009. Like many people in America, if not most of them, and along with people around the world, I watched as Barack Obama was sworn in as the 44th President of the United States. Yes, he did add “so help me God” at the end of Chief Justice Roberts’ fumbled prodding, but he made up for this just a few minutes later. Listening to his inauguration speech as I was writing, did I heard him say “and nonbelievers”?
Did I hear right? After I did a double-take and nearly twisted my head off spinning around to the television, I actually stood still. I literally did not move. A few seconds went by and I went to the DVR, to back up the live broadcast and listen to it again.
“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 nonbelievers.”
Damn! He did say it. This was monumental, to say the least. And the media was just as amazed as I and millions of atheists in America and around the world—but especially in America—and jumped on it. Nonbelievers. Atheists. Being recognized by the highest elected official in the country, when, just three presidents before, George H.W. Bush deemed us unworthy to even be citizens of this country. Definitely change we could believe in. Some were aghast at our inclusion by Obama. Some were elated. (Count me elated.) But no one walked away from that speech unfazed in some way by our inclusion.
And since his inauguration, he’s let loose a few other words of inclusion on our behalf.
From the National Prayer Breakfast, a couple weeks later: “The goal of this office will not be to favor one religious group of faith over another or even religious groups over secular groups.”
And: “There is no doubt that the very nature of faith means that some of our beliefs will never be the same. We read from different texts. We follow different edicts. We subscribe to different accounts of how we came to be here and where we're going next—and some subscribe to no faith at all.”
Also: “And the same is true for Buddhists and Hindus; for followers of Confucius and for humanists.”
As well as: “This work is important, because whether it's a secular group advising families facing foreclosure…”
Oh, and let’s throw this Obama tidbit in from the campaign trail that seemed to have been lost in his two-year run for the presidency: “We are no longer a Christian nation, if we ever were. We are a Jewish, Hindu and nonbelieving nation.”
By now, everyone knows President Obama was not raised the Christian he is now. And he openly admits such. “I was not raised in a particularly religious household,” President Obama told the Prayer Breakfast crowd. “I had a father who was born a Muslim but became an atheist, grandparents who were non-practicing Methodists and Baptists, and a mother who was skeptical of organized religion, even as she was the kindest, most spiritual person I've ever known.” From President Obama’s numerous descriptions of his mother, in all practicality she was no doubt a humanist, and probably an atheist. But for him say both of his parents were atheists would be political suicide.
(The fact that he even used the word atheist to describe his father in such a public forum is an amazing step for atheists in America. At the same time, in America’s political and religious environments, Obama got away with saying his father was an atheist—the most hated group in America—because he said his father was first a Muslim, the second most hated group in America. It’s all relative.)
Now, the quanity of “nonbelief” mentions of every type is never going to equal the religious references. President Obama’s speech to Congress on February 25th had a beatitude of godness at the end, but can we hold that against him? As much as I thought it a poor end to a well done speech, he still has to cater to a lot of groups, including the religious (especially the Christians), even as he’s outed “nonbelievers”—us damn atheists—to the country.
We may never hear the word atheist in a positive way from President Obama in any of his future speeches, alone or in combination with Christians, Jews, Muslims, and other faiths. It may be too big a step, too big a change. And even though “no faith” is linguistically equal to atheism, it would be a major step to equality in this country to hear the President include us outright. That would indeed be monumental. And nice to boot. Maybe it will happen. And then I’ll do another double-take, again nearly twisting my head off as I spin around.
Until then, I leave you with these words, from President Obama’s inauguration speech:
“We are shaped by every language and culture, drawn from every end of this Earth; and because we have tasted the bitter swill of civil war and segregation, and emerged from that dark chapter stronger and more united, we cannot help but believe that the old hatreds shall someday pass; that the lines of tribe shall soon dissolve; that as the world grows smaller, our common humanity shall reveal itself; and that America must play its role in ushering in a new era of peace.”
And atheists will be there to help make it a reality. To help make the change.
"From the Editor" column, Secular Nation magazine, April-June 2009 issue