Three Little Words January 20, 2009

Three Little Words

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,…

“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 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.

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.

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What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • It was great to hear him say that. My roommate (also an atheist) said “thank god,” not thinking about it and simply using it as the phrase it is. I had a good laugh at that.

  • Catherine

    I too was moved to hear myself included in a presidential speech for the 1st time! I made mention of it to those who were in the room with me at the time (none of whom share my status as a “non-believer”) and they could tell it meant alot to me

  • Yeah, that was neat. Still way the hell too much religion and God for what’s supposed to be an inclusive event for a secular nation. But the “non- believer” line was cool.

    Question: Do you know if this is the first time an inaugural address has referred to non-believers in an inclusive, positive way?

  • Katsu

    I think it says a lot about the political and social climate that those little words left me teary-eyed with gratitude. Okay, yeah, maybe he’s just throwing us a bone. Maybe it’s a nod to get some of the people who have been bitching up and down about Rick Warren off his back. But it strikes me… would any amount of protesting and suing and what have you have gotten a darn thing out of Bush? Out of McCain, if he’d gotten elected. I don’t think so. So yeah, it’s just a few words. It could be a hollow attempt to seem inclusive, to placate. (While at the same time giving the foamy wing nut conservatives another reason to loathe him, like they needed one.)

    But right now, I don’t think any amount of examination or second guessing changes the fact that it does mean something. It means a lot. It means that the President of the United States of America took the very moment when he has the undivided attention of America and the world (perhaps more today than he ever will again), and he said “Yes, these people are part of the nation too.”

    So if nothing else, it means a heck of a lot to me.

  • Siamang

    You know… Part of me thinks that he did more for atheism in that moment than anyone ever has in our lifetime.

  • Epistaxis

    Is that three words or two? Either way, it’s serious progress.

  • I was also touched by those words, as was my father who was sitting right next to me. It almost (not quite) made up for the cringe inducing prayer by Pastor Warren. Nothing will quite make up for witnessing the raging cynicism of extolling “inclusiveness” when he has compared being gay to being a pedophile.

    Still, I’ll admit to happily picking up that bone that was tossed. It seems like such an obvious thing to do, when acknowledging Muslims and Jews, who together are still fewer than us, to recognize atheists, and yet he is the only political figure who I’ve seen salute our silent millions. Lets hope others follow his example.

  • Nightowl35

    I almost cried when he said those three words. I rewound it and called my kids into the room to hear it, too.

  • John

    Isn’t that two words?

  • Nancy

    I was in class with my 8th grade newspaper class. When I heard him say it I threw my hands up and said “YES!!!!”

  • cuckoocoffin

    I was sitting all alone, Heard it, jumped up, screamed “YES!”, Changed my facebook status, and called all my pals.

  • I have to say those three little words made me smile. Thank you, President Obama!

  • I agree with the ‘not-just-a-bone’ comments. As the saying goes, large avalanches can start with a single pebble. He could have said nothing, but he chose to say those words. It has to start somewhere.

    @ John, I think he’s counting the ‘and’ 🙂

  • Ryot

    I was giddy all through French after hearing him say that. I really wish I could have been there, especially now as he and Michelle are walking in the street to the White House.

  • We atheists have to take this as a call to action and not just rest on our laurels beaming happily “mission accomplished.”

    There is still a lot of work to do. This is just the beginning.

    If we truly want change we have to keep on demanding change. That is what will enable Obama and all the rest of our leaders to continue building the world we really want to live in. If the people will lead, the leaders will follow.

  • PrimeNumbers

    I’d have preferred “atheists” to “non believers”, but hey, at least we made the list. Now he needs to start putting his money where his mouth is.

  • Siamang

    @ John, I think he’s counting the ‘and’ 🙂

    And counting non-believers as two words. Which it isn’t.

  • I definitely appreciated those words by Obama.

    I was quite underwhelmed with Rick Warren’s oratory. Even from a Christian perspective, his oratory pales next to Obama.

  • Dave Huntsman

    I’m also on the ‘it does count’, side.

    As I posted over on Phil Plaits blog:
    The line including nonbelievers was not an afterthought; it’s word for word out of his book, The Audacity of Hope”.
    Generally, ‘nonbelievers’ is not meant to be positive; but at least he included folks (like me!) in some way that most American politicians would not. I prefer the way Tony Blair always said it; something like, “…Christians, Jews, Muslims, people of all religions, or people of no religion”.
    After the 2004 election, btw, when NPR played a clip of Blair saying that, the NPR person said something like, you know, no American politician would ever say anything like that. But, it happened today- and the sky didn’t fall! Of course, he had it surrounded during the speech with lots of references to god….but it is a step forward.

  • Kate

    I actually prefer non-believers over atheists – that way it includes agnostics, humanists, etc.

    Although non-religious would’ve been the BEST but hey, I’m thrilled with what we got!

  • Kate

    Hahah whoops…meant to say that I prefer the WORDING of “nonbelievers” over “atheists”. 😉

  • Rob

    There’s a speech Gerald Ford made shortly after he took office — it might have been his inaugural speech. He made a reference to atheists, but not in a good way.

    He named various groups of Americans and encouraged them to come together and heal, ending with “and atheists — if there are any atheists left in these troubled times.”

    Thanks for nothing, Gerald.

  • Dallas

    When we heard him say “nonbelievers,” my husband and I looked into each other’s eyes and smiled, even as I wiped away a tear. What a relief to finally, finally feel included! What a huge contrast to when Bush Senior (then a V.P.) said we should not be considered citizens or patriots:

    I will remember this day for the rest of my life.

  • I was watching the speech in a conference room at work, and I said (quietly) “woo hoo!”

    I got a few laughs…

  • I was at the Paramount Theater in Seattle with about 3000 other people and quite a few people let out a cheer when he included non-believers. It was heartwarming.

  • Kc

    It felt good hearing it. When he first started listing religions, I held my breath. Then when I heard “and non-believers” I began breathing again with a smile.

    Then I overheard some of my classmates talking before class about that line saying that it was good to hear him include everyone. I couldn’t help but smile again.

  • The Unbrainwashed

    I’m not a fan of Obama (would’ve voted for McCain until the Palin debacle). But this was a fantastic event. In the midst of such a huge moment, with the entire world watching, he actually included the heathens! We exist!

  • What would happen if a president listed off all the various faith groups including non-believers but neglected to include Christians? Its nice that non-believers were finally recognized in this setting. Maybe, just maybe, the “tyranny of the majority” is starting to give way.

  • I think it’s also very significant that Roberts offered “so help me/you God” in the form of a question, as though it might have been an acknowledgment that it was optional. More here:

  • zoo

    I didn’t quite take it that way Paul, but thinking about it, it actually did sound that way. I was imagining after that what would have happened if he (or someone) had responded “no”. That would be quite interesting. I didn’t get too far with that when my logical side kicked in and told me they would have just left it out if he didn’t want to accept that part.

  • Well, I don’t mean to imply that Roberts didn’t know what Obama would say, but I do think it may have been a nod to the inherent conflict that perhaps even a conservative like him might recognize.

    More on “nonbelievers” news is up on my blog, if y’all are interested:

  • «bønez_brigade»

    Paul, that’s exactly how it sounded to me when I first heard it — as a question.
    Mewonders how a response of “So help me Constitution” or “So help me American people” would go over.

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