Inaugural Prayerfest No Godsend

Americans may disagree about whether God was actually at President Obama’s inauguration, but His name was omnipresent. Bishop Gene Robinson … Continued

Americans may disagree about whether God was actually at President Obama’s inauguration, but His name was omnipresent. Bishop Gene Robinson delivered an invocation at the inaugural concert on Sunday. Tuesday’s events began with a morning worship service, and then Reverends Rick Warren and Joseph Lowery book-ended the inauguration itself with an invocation and benediction. Wednesday’s inaugural prayer service included many religious denominations, with Reverend Sharon Watkins becoming the first woman to deliver the sermon at this event.

Like every incoming U.S. president before him, Barack Obama repeated the constitutionally prescribed one sentence oath to “preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution of the United States.” Chief Justice John Roberts, on behalf of the government, prompted President Obama to recite the words “So help me, God.” Whether Obama wanted to say these words is beside the point. After taking the official oath, he was free to ask for help from Jesus, Allah, Zeus or any other gods that may or may not exist. (To understand how some atheists might feel, just substitute “Zeus” for “God” in public ceremonies.)

I’m delighted that the new president offered a token mention of atheists during his eloquent address (“We are a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus – and non-believers”), something our secular community isn’t used to hearing from politicians, but he ended with the more traditional plea of politicians for God to bless the USA.

In anticipation of all this godliness, I became one of the plaintiffs in Michael Newdow’s recent lawsuit to prevent both the addition of “So help me, God” to the presidential oath and the inclusion of religious invocations and benedictions. Although I didn’t expect our side to win this year, and it didn’t, I was stunned to learn that the ruling judge gratuitously opined that “dislike for atheists is of their own making.”

Perhaps atheists are a little too uppity for U.S. Dist. Judge Reggie B. Walton, reminiscent of when African-Americans, Jews, women, and gays began asserting their right to be treated fairly. Now many of the more than 30 million nontheistic Americans are visibly and vocally coming out of their closets, and working to end this type of discrimination. We are demanding a place at the table of public opinion, forming special interest groups, and lobbying for political and social change.

Like most Americans, I felt a wonderful and profound chill watching Barack Obama become the first African-American president. I’m guessing that most nontheists voted for Obama and that we helped him win. With so many historical firsts this week, I wish I had seen a place on the inaugural program for one of the many patriotic Americans without religious belief. And since President Obama aligned himself so much with Abraham Lincoln, I would have been thrilled to hear anyone deliver this Lincoln quote: “When I do good, I feel good; when I do bad, I feel bad. That’s my religion.”

This week, we atheists have the audacity to remind President Obama of our founding as a secular nation, with a godless Constitution to protect the freedom of conscience and belief–or non-belief–for all people. We hope this religious inauguration does not portend an administration infused with religious advisers and events. We hope President Obama will include our perspectives as he recalls his non-religious parents and grandparents who raised him with good secular values. Though we do not believe in any gods, we do look for change we can believe in.

Herb Silverman is a professor of mathematics at the College of Charleston and a former South Carolina gubernatorial candidate. He is president of the Secular Coalition for America and on the board of directors of the American Humanist Association and Atheist Alliance International.


Herb Silverman Herb Silverman is founder and President Emeritus of the Secular Coalition for America, author of “Candidate Without a Prayer: An Autobiography of a Jewish Atheist in the Bible Belt,” and Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Mathematics at the College of Charleston.
  • DAN46

    Great piece! Obama’s nonreligious upbringing is proof that children don’t need religion to be raised with values. There was no reason for the inaugural to be so filled with religious rhetoric. His reference to nonbelievers was nice, but he still used way too much religious language.

  • bobbiek1

    The selection of Rick Warren demonstrates why public prayers during the ceremonies is a bad idea. While many Americans can write off the feeling of betrayal we freethinkers have when “our” government denies us, most of Obama’s supporters are likely sympathetic to the gay community’s outrage at Rick Warren, who likens homosexual acts to pedophilia, as a choice in Obama’s “reaching out.”Suppose instead, he had asked Mike Huckabee to say a few words. Huckabee is a Baptist minister, and his views on almost everything, including gay marriage, are similar to Warren’s. But if he were asked, as a politician, he would have spoken as a politician, with a stake in reaching as many people as he can. A minister who has 50,000 followers is a huge success; a politician with 50,000 followers can’t get elected. This is the reason religious rites do not belong in government, while the expression of opinion that may be based in religion must be permitted in a democracy.

  • srspost

    Your letter exactly echos the sentiments that I was feeling yesterday as I watched the day’s events unfold.Not only was the inauguration saturated with religious references, but the lunch following it also had similar prayers. Most articles I have read praise the “inclusiveness” demonstrated by Obama in his referencing of other religions and non-believers. However, that notion further highlights the fact that religion – and specifically the Christian religion – is very much not only an included but an expected part of our government. As many have said with the election of Obama, African-Americans will have reached true equality in the eyes of all when electing one as president is no longer news. Similarly, once reaching out to minority religions and atheists is no longer considered praiseworthy but standard, then we can start to feel that these beliefs have also taken their place as mainstream American beliefs, equal to and not inferior to any other belief. Only then will references to any God be able to be minimized. I have a feeling we’ll be stuck with the status quo for a long long time still.

  • Dean6

    Insightful. I especially like the notion that someday including minority religions and freethinkers–or not mentioning religion at all–may someday become commonplace enough not to be remarked upon.

  • spidermean2

    Separation of church and state was established to avoid religious persecutions. It was primarily the baptists who fought for that Ammendment.We all have a God including Obama (a Christian)and atheists who worship their “god of IGNORANCE”.So who did Warren or Obama persecuted when Jesus Christ was mentioned? The IDIOTS?Atheists should start realizing that their views undermine the First Ammendment. They should shut up so religions can be practiced FREELY.

  • mwest04

    Responding to the posts about religious freedom: Obama certainly practiced his freedom,in choosing ministers for his inaugural and in choosing to attend the prayer breakfast service; but (note to Spiderman) atheists have the right to exercise the freedom to comment on his choices, and on why we object to or agree with them.Here’s why I object to Obama’s choices for his inauguration: they were all Christian. The U.S. has a great variety of religions, and it has people who are atheists, humanists, and those who would self-identify as spiritual but not religious. I do think that having one particular religious viewpoint elevated above all others is undemocratic, and just one reason why religion should not have a place at an inaugural ceremony.

  • bobgordon100

    I still cannot say “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance. I resent having the government force those words down my throat.

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