President Barack Obama’s inauguration last week marked many firsts, among which was a president mentioning “nonbelievers” as part of the United States’ makeup. “We are a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus—and nonbelievers,” Obama stated during his speech last Tuesday on the National Mall in Washington, D.C.
Although the reference was undoubtedly a first, whether it signifies a monumental cultural shift—or even a nod to atheists and secularists—isn’t as clear. “This inclusiveness is a signature moment in American inaugural history,” commented David Domke, a University of Washington professor who has analyzed religious language in seven decades’ worth of inaugural and State of the Union addresses.
Many analysts expected Christian leaders to criticize or object to the reference, yet even the most conservative leaders believe the new president was simply stating the facts, not peppering his speech with coded language. “It struck me as accurate,” said Richard Land, president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention. “We are a nation of Christians and Jews, and Muslims and Hindus, and Bahai and agnostics and atheists—although proportionally the vast majority of Americans claim some kind of affiliation with a Christian faith.”
Land also pointed out that, despite Obama’s inclusion of nonbelievers, “radical separationists couldn’t have been very happy with the religious allusions and biblical quotations.” Indeed, Obama wove a few biblical allusions throughout his speech and, according to Domke, referenced God more than Ronald Reagan’s inaugural speech and fewer than George W. Bush’s. “[Obama] clearly was not playing by their rules,” Land added.
Elmer Towns, dean of the Liberty University School of Religion, agreed, while also noting the difference between Obama’s speech and previous inaugural addresses. “It was a statement that George Washington could not have made,” Towns said, “and probably a statement that Abraham Lincoln could not have made. It was a statement that, probably Teddy Roosevelt could not have made. But it is a description of where we are today. … If Obama is setting an agenda of tolerance, let’s make sure that the tolerance extends to the majority as well as the minority.” [cnsnews.com, 1/22/09; usatoday.com, 1/22/09]
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