Obama’s Speech: I Believe in Non-Believers/God Isn’t Going Anywhere

Barack Obama’s use of the word “non-believers” in his speech was progress.

JEFF MORROW: Thank God for Obama’s inclusion of “non-believers” in his list of Americans.

Like many others, I spent last Tuesday surviving the cold, the inaccessibility of bathrooms, and the sheer madness of sitting in the same spot for 8 hours waiting to watch a Jumbotron. I confess to not having seen substantially more than you might have on television, and to filling the gap between my experience and yours largely with physical punishment. But I went to be with crowds. I went to experience the collective unity of spirit and patriotism and purpose I had never known before.

As the concert said, “We are one.”

Then Pastor Rick Warren had to remind me that I’m not part of “us” at all. I’m Jewish. And, frankly, that’s more a cultural identity for me than a spiritually felt theology. So when Rick Warren pointed out that “Yeshua, Esa, Jesus . . .  taught us to pray,” he was doubly reminding me that I could stand in this crowd as long as I like, I would never be of it.

Barack Obama would not have it, and delivered the necessary palette cleanser. His inaugural speech gave his own, broader definition of America’s first person plural composition, noting that “we are a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus, and non-believers.” (Apologies to Buddhists, Zoroastrians, Sikhs, and others who didn’t make the cut.) Did he just say “non-believers”?

The American political discourse has constructed the absence of theistic belief as the absence of a moral rudder. Survey after survey shows deep public skepticism of putting nonbelievers into public office (even if I imagine many already hold those offices, professing a faith to which they are largely indifferent). The consistent implication is that America is for worshipers; progress means adding news faiths to the list.

With a single word, Obama rebuked that notion.

There are many, myself included, who think the desired endpoint is not having to list religions in public ceremony at all. But when the Rick Warrens of the world insist to millions of Americans that our plural identity is presently Christian, it’s hard not to be grateful to President Obama for clarfiying.

Obama’s inclusiveness did little to satisfy Christians–or “non-believers”.

STEPHON JOHNSON: Obama’s message of pragmatism and compromise is already lost on religious and non-religious fundamentalists.
“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.”
- Barack H. Obama

On paper, those 27 words uttered by President Obama during his inauguration speech should not have upset anyone But it’s those last three words, which were purposely separated from the previous 24 by Obama vocally for dramatic effect, that have people of faith (particularly Christian) and non-faith similarly disconcerted.  Extremists on both sides were upset at our new president for either throwing a “condescending” bone to atheists and agnostics or acknowledging non-believers and other non-Christians in the first place.

This is not progress.

If you want the change Obama says we should believe in, you should also understand that change requires compromise. Compromise allows you to hold the principles and beliefs that are dear to your heart. It also allows you to practice those principles, even if the majority of our country doesn’t share them.

If you are in the majority that believes that Jesus Christ is your savior, you have to acknowledge that Hindus, Muslims, Jews and non-believers make this country go just as much as you do. In a story by Melinda Hennenberger on AOL.com, many Christians, particularly Black-American Christians, expressed concern regarding what Hennenberger called Obama’s “religious inclusiveness.”

Bishop E.W. Jackson of the Exodus Faith Ministries in Chesapeake, Va, said “The overwhelming majority of Americans identify as Christians, and what disturbs me is that he seems to be trying to redefine who we are.” Redefine who we are? We are a nation of various faiths, religions and non-faiths. We have always been and will continue to be despite what hardcore Christians like Bishop Jackson tell you. Sorry, but Obama isn’t attempting to “redefine” America. He’s defining what we already are. But that doesn’t register in the heads of people like Jackson. He also said “Jewish heritage is very much a part of Christianity; the Jewish Bible is part of our Bible. But Hindu, Muslim, and nonbelievers? I don’t think so.” Not only is Jackson refusing to erase the lines that Obama wants to disappear, he’s drawing new ones. And he’s not the only one.

Rev. Cecil Blye, pastor of More Grace Ministries Church in Louisville, Ky., feels the same way. In the same AOL story, Rev. Blye said “It’s important to understand the heritage of our country, and it’s a Judeo-Christian tradition.” Last time I checked Obama’s a Christian and doesn’t need any further education on what this nation is and it isn’t. He is after all the President of the United States.

Having read that display of ignorance, you still have to admit that one of the good things that came out of George W. Bush’s presidency are his faith-based initiatives. Those initiatives heavily affected black churches, which tend to be cornerstones of the community. Through those initiatives, work is done in the spirit of education, finding employment and hopefully improving the lives of the underprivileged. Would it make some of us more comfortable if those programs didn’t go through the church? Sure. But sometimes, in order to get the best results, you must compromise. However, Christian fundamentalists aren’t the only ones jumping on the letter-of-the-law uncompromising bandwagon.

Some atheists aren’t happy with any bit of religion thrown into the inauguration’s proceedings. Their beef originated with the use of the first person plural by the likes of Rick Warren and Pres ident Obama himself, particularly in lines like “Jesus taught us how to pray.” While many atheists can lay claim to leading a rational life based on their understanding of what’s around them, some have remained dense as to what was really going on last week in Washington.

While acknowledging that there are over 16 percent of Americans who don’t subscribe to any religion, Obama had to bring it back to Jesus in order to satiate the majority who felt uncomfortable with the words “and non-believers.” But our president also understands that pragmatism, along with a religious-like passion, is an asset to him and to his administration. He really believes in what he’s doing. When’s the last time you could say that about a politician? If you’re looking for a ceremony that doesn’t make mention of religion, you’re going to wait for a long time. What Obama began with those three words are baby steps. That’s all you can hope for. Ed Bucker, of American Atheists, understands this.

“President Barack Obama did what many before him should have done, rightly citing the great diversity of America as part of the nation’s great strength, and including ‘nonbelievers’’ in that mix,’” he said. Notice that he didn’t express any concern over how many times Jesus was mentioned in the name of our fellow citizens.

Yes, Obama, and Rick Warren used the first person plural when expressing American Christian faith, but we must concede that it’s all semantics. Standing staunchly on one side without compromise makes you no better than Jerry Falwell.

Apparently people thought Obama was giving lip service to the word “compromise” in order to attract more votes.

Here’s hoping that true compromise exists in the flesh and not just in practice. During an interview on National Public Radio’s All Things Considered, singer Melissa Etheridge spoke about having no problem with Rick Warren delivering the invocation during Obama’s inauguration. “It is about reaching across,” she said. “We cannot say this is us and this is them. Barack Obama wants to be president of the whole United States.” She also said that distancing ourselves from the Americans that believe in a deity and approve of Proprosition 8 “makes us no better than the last administration.”

Any sensible person could agree with that.

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