Funny how three little words can make a difference.
I watched President Barack Obama’s inaugural address today, very much moved by his message of dizzy hope balanced by sober acceptance of responsibility, of grim acknowledgment of our flawed past balanced by inspired resolve to build a better future.
When in his speech he addressed the rest of the world, talking to friends and foes, to the great and the small, I was very happily surprised to hear myself included in a more specific way than simply being an American. He said: (emphasis mine)
“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.”
Obama has used such similar phrases a couple of times in speeches in the past,…
…but as the campaign wore on to its crescendo and the rhetoric about religious issues became more polemic, that kind of inclusive language for faith-free people disappeared. A discouraging low point was reached on Oct. 29, 2008 during the “Presidential Forum” at the Christian Life Academy in Pennsylvania, when two of Obama’s high-ranking campaign officers, Don Miller and D. Paul Monteiro made dismissive and derisive remarks about atheists.
“Given the increasing diversity of America’s population, the dangers of sectarianism have never been greater. Whatever we once were, we are no longer just a Christian nation; we are also a Jewish nation, a Muslim nation, a Buddhist nation, a Hindu nation, and a nation of nonbelievers.”
“Democracy demands that the religiously motivated translate their concerns into universal, rather than religion-specific, values. It requires that their proposals be subject to argument, and amenable to reason. I may be opposed to abortion for religious reasons, but if I seek to pass a law banning the practice, I cannot simply point to the teachings of my church or evoke God’s will. I have to explain why abortion violates some principle that is accessible to people of all faiths, including those with no faith at all.”
–June 28, 2006 Washington
But three little words this morning have made me feel hopeful again.
Some cynics may say that I am grasping at straws or being too easily satisfied by being tossed a bone, but I am encouraged by “and non-believers,” because of the historical unlikelihood of any leader mentioning and thereby validating non-believers as a legitimate part of the nation’s makeup. When in the past have we ever been invited to the party during the one of the most important speeches of a President? I think such mention has never been included in an inaugural speech before.
So I am unabashedly grateful for those three little words, and renewed in my determination to continue to work for more positive, practical and effective inclusion for non-believers in this amazing, on-going experiment that is America.