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.