There are countless congratulatory messages for President-elect Obama this morning, all well-deserved. The most remarkably gifted presidential candidate of our time managed somehow to negotiate an unimaginably grueling campaign, and we, despite ourselves, managed to elect him. Shout-outs all around.
But I wanted to take a moment to recognize one of the people who by his own account helped make him what he is -- his nonreligious mother, Ann Dunham.
It should be a matter of no small pride to nonreligious parents that the next President -- a man who has been praised for his ethics, empathy, and broadmindedness -- "was not raised in a religious household."1 It's the other, undiscussed first in this election -- the first black President is also the first President with a completely nonreligious upbringing.
"For all her professed secularism," he wrote in The Audacity of Hope, "my mother was in many ways the most spiritually awakened person that I've ever known." And even as she expressed her deeply-felt outrage over those aspects of organized religion that "dressed up closed-mindedness in the garb of piety [and] cruelty and oppression in the garb of righteousness," she urged her children to see the good as well as the bad. "Jesus, she felt, was a wonderful example," said Barack's half-sister Maya. "But she felt that a lot of Christians behaved in un-Christian ways."2
Ann recognized the importance of religious literacy and saw to it that her children were exposed to a broad spectrum of religious ideas. "In her mind," Obama wrote,
a working knowledge of the world's great religions was a necessary part of any well-rounded education. In our household the Bible, the Koran, and the Bhagavad Gita sat on the shelf alongside books of Greek and Norse and African mythology. On Easter or Christmas Day my mother might drag me to church, just as she dragged me to the Buddhist temple, the Chinese New Year celebration, the Shinto shrine, and ancient Hawaiian burial sites. But I was made to understand that such religious samplings required no sustained commitment on my part--no introspective exertion or self-flagellation. Religion was an expression of human culture, she would explain, not its wellspring, just one of the many ways -- and not necessarily the best way -- that man attempted to control the unknowable and understand the deeper truths about our lives.3
Maya remembers Ann's broad approach to religious literacy as well. "She basically gave us all the good books — the Bible, the Hindu Upanishads and the Buddhist scripture, the Tao Te Ching — and wanted us to recognize that everyone has something beautiful to contribute."4
In this and several other respects, Ann Dunham was a nonreligious parent raising a child in the 1970s according to the exact philosophy of Parenting Beyond Belief -- educating for tolerance and empathy, lifting up those religious ideas that are life-affirming while challenging and rejecting those that are life-destroying, and seeking the human foundations of joy, knowledge, and wonder of which religion is only a single expression -- "and not necessarily the best."
Barack went on to identify as a Christian. Whether this is a heartfelt position or a political necessity is less relevant than the kind of Christianity he has embraced -- reasonable, tolerant, skeptical, and non-dogmatic. His examined and temperate faith is something he sees as deeply personal, possibly because he had the freedom to choose and shape it himself -- precisely the freedom I want my children to have. It is difficult to picture this man forcing his religious opinions on others or using this or that bible verse to derail science or justify an arrogant foreign policy. It's not going to happen.
It is impossible for me to picture this man claiming God has asked him to invade [insert country here] or that ours is a Judeo-Christian nation. In fact, when he lists various religious perspectives, there is an interesting new entry, every single time:
Is it a coincidence that a child raised with the freedom and encouragement to think for himself chose such a moderate and thoughtful religious identity? Surely not. And if my kids choose a religious identity, I'm all the more confident now that they'll do the same. Just like Ann Dunham, I don't need to raise kids who end up in lockstep with my views. If our kids turn out anything like Barack Obama, Becca and I will consider our contribution to the world pretty damn impressive, regardless of the labels they choose to wear.
Neither do I think it's a coincidence that the man who has inspired such trust, hope, and (yes) faith is the product of a home free of religious dogma. This is what comes of an intelligent and broadminded upbringing. It's one of the key ingredients that have made him what he is.
So thank you, Ann, from all the nonreligious parents following in your footsteps. We now have a resounding answer for those who would question whether we can raise ethical, caring kids without religion:
Yes We Can.
________________________ 1Audacity of Hope, p. 202. 2Ariel Sabar, "Barack Obama: Putting faith out front." Christian Science Monitor, 06/16/07. 3Op cit, 203-4. 4Op. cit.