A Nation of Believers And Nonbelievers? – A Letter to President Obama

Mr. President, Your stirring inauguration speech
was a great moment for all Americans. When you
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 you
including us as you took office. This 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 you begin your term, we nonbelievers are
still troubled by much that has gone on during
the last year. You know how offensive to gays was
your choice of Rick Warren to deliver the
invocation at the inauguration, but do you know
how offensive it was to secularists that this man
declared on national television that he would
never vote for an atheist? Nonbelievers are often
scorned, or treated as if we don’t exist. On
occasion recently it has been done in your name
and, yes, by you yourself. So to clear the air,
we have a few questions we hope you will answer.

We have heard you speak confidently as a
Constitutional scholar committed to maintaining
the separation of church and state while voicing
your determination to bring your 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 you
submit to an informal religious test during the
campaign, by being cross-examined by Warren about
your personal religious beliefs? He asked: “What
does it mean to you to trust in Christ? And what
does that mean to you on a daily basis?” Wasn’t
answering these questions yielding to the
religious right, a possibly dangerous precedent?
Would you do it again? Would you advise future candidates to do the same?

In your Labor Day speech in Detroit, which was
shortened to nine minutes because of Hurricane
Gustav, you 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 you were 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. As President, you
have 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 your inauguration remarks, and ask you to keep on.

Ronald Aronson is Distinguished Professor of the History of Ideas at Wayne State University. His new book is Living Without God.

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