It was hard to stop smiling while watching the inauguration festivities yesterday. But as hopeful as I was, one complaint I saw from a number of atheists only was the deference to religion throughout the event.
It wasn’t just the oaths on a Bible, or religious songs, or President Joe Biden attending Mass in the morning. His own inauguration speech, according to the Washington Post, had more words “relating to religion than any inaugural speech since Dwight Eisenhower.”
He referred to the U.S. as “one nation, under God.” He said “faith” (as well as reason) helped show the way of unity. He referenced St. Augustine. He talked about his “sacred oath before God.” He closed his speech suggesting Americans were united in part due to how we’re “sustained by faith.”
I’ll be honest: It didn’t ruin my enjoyment of the ceremony. It’s the way Biden talks. He’s Catholic. He’s been using that kind of language for decades. I’m used to it. But his unwillingness to even namecheck Secular Americans — indeed, a growing part of his own base — wasn’t lost on people. The Freedom From Religion Foundation said that “Pieties do not make them better leaders.” American Atheists’ President Nick Fish was hoping for more, too:
No voice for nonreligious Americans or explicit mention of the millions of us who don't find solace in prayer or have spent our lives being attacked and marginalized because of our lack of religion. Religion has been weaponized in this country and we need to acknowledge that.
— Nick Fish (@NotNickFish) January 20, 2021
They’re not wrong to point that out. In 2009, at his first inauguration, President Barack Obama at least offered us lip service. He said we were “a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus — and non-believers.” A simple gesture, no doubt, but a meaningful one.
That said, in terms of policy, Obama could have done so much more. He accommodated religious beliefs when he shouldn’t have. His administration invited atheists to the White House, but there wasn’t much in the way of substance resulting from that exchange.
All that said, I’m not sure Biden should be judged on his rhetoric from yesterday, nor should it be seen as an indication of what his administration will be like moving forward. He has the opportunity to defend church/state separation, monitor candidate-endorsing churches via the IRS, remind the nation whenever he can that religious freedom includes the rejection of faith, block taxpayer funds from going to discriminatory faith-based groups, and he can certainly stop elevating conservative Christians to positions of power where they can push their faith on others.
I’ll gladly look past the rhetoric if he delivers on substance.
There is some reason for hope. When Biden signed an executive order yesterday night to rescind the Muslim Ban, it included that more inclusive language:
Nevertheless, the previous administration enacted a number of Executive Orders and Presidential Proclamations that prevented certain individuals from entering the United States — first from primarily Muslim countries, and later, from largely African countries. Those actions are a stain on our national conscience and are inconsistent with our long history of welcoming people of all faiths and no faith at all.
We’re not asking for special treatment; we just don’t want to be left out of the conversation, something administrations from both parties have done for too long. While Biden’s rhetoric has always been religious, he has the opportunity to make sure he’s running a secular government — and an inclusive one on matters of faith. We just need to hold him to it.
(Featured image via Shutterstock)