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President Obama acknowledged me in his first speech as president. He looked up from the podium on the steps of the capitol of this country and he seemed to look right at me, in my living room hundreds of miles and thousands of feet of television cable away. In one phrase he included me and made me feel part of the country I live in, the country I was born in, my country: The United States of America.
“For we know that our patchwork heritage is a strength, not a weakness,” Obama said. “We are a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus — and non-believers.” Including the words non-believers was a first. Never before has a president recognized people like me in the many others, sub-groups or factions that they might mention so as to be inclusive of all who call this country home. Never.
So January 20 was a big day. Not only did I watch as our first ever black president sworn in, not only did I feel immense happiness that the guy I voted for made it all the way, but on top of all that I, a non-believer, was welcomed in a whole new way. My group of Americans was mentioned, my kind was allowed out into the sunshine on the steps of the capitol, we were invited to bask along with all the others in the greatness of the day.
Polls show that people like me are a growing portion of the population in America. We are coming out more and more, declaring ourselves as agnostics, atheists, nothings, secularists, humanists and many other tags that describe our state of not believing in a god or gods. Books describing our views catapult onto the best-seller lists, movies are made about us and we are more willing to let people (neighbors or even our own families) know about us. But over the past eight years we never dreamed that our leader, our president might acknowledge our existence. We always figured it would be a tacit nod, a wink or a tiny, almost imperceptible word directed toward us. We got used to George W. Bush and his brand of Christian thinking, his refusal to understand that those who don’t follow a religion can still be Americans, even great Americans. Now all that is over and our new president has made it clear: being religious is not a test one must pass in order to be part of this country.
During the inaugural events preceding the speech I was beginning to feel a little outside of some of the goings on. I am not hostile toward religion, and in fact I help out at my local church and volunteer at a soup kitchen in my neighborhood run by some very wonderful nuns. I knew that there would be prayers offered during the ceremony, and I knew that the oath would include the phrase “so help me God” and would be part of the swearing-in of the 44th President even though it is not mandated in the Constitution. Oh, sure, part of me was hoping that Mr. Obama would leave that part out, but most of me knew he wouldn’t dare. I know that the president has to be religious. I know he has to go to church and close his eyes during prayers and talk about his relationship to Christ, and assure us all that he is not a Muslim even if his middle name is Hussein and his forefathers followed the word of the prophet Muhammed. I may not be religious, but I know I live in a country where a large majority of the population is Christian.
The part of the morning that made me feel most left out was when Pastor Rick Warren got up to deliver the invocation. Again, I was not surprised by his words but I did hope for a little more inclusiveness. Pastor Warren did not speak to me, or to anyone who differs with his views. Many other religious leaders manage to do both, stay true to their beliefs and open themselves up in a way that can allow for other ideas to be included – or at least acknowledged.
It is as simple as somehow stating that they understand the fact that in a crowd of 2 million there would be (statistically speaking) about 280,000 people who would fall into the non-belief category. That is 14 percent of the general population which, according to the 2001 American Religious Identification Survey, is the percent of the American population that has no religion or does not believe in God. Never mind figuring out how to acknowledge all the other religions that would also be represented, all the non-Christians who live in this country and vote and are as American as Mr. Warren. It has become too easy for people like Pastor Warren to think that this is a Christian nation. And during the last eight years it felt as if it was leaning heavily in that direction.
It took our newly minted President to remind us that indeed it is not. Our country has no religion embedded within its government and thanks to the Constitution it never will. It took a man who is part black, part white and whose extended family truly represents the new American family in all it’s mixed up crazy diversity to remind us that the patchwork that is America is what makes this country so special and so great. I am honored to be part of that patchwork. And I thank my new President for thinking to include me, and the 42 million other Americans like me, in it as we face forward and work together to fix problems, celebrate greatness and overcome divisiveness.
Nica Lalli is a writer, educator and former PTA president. Her latest book “Nothing: Something to Believe In” was published in 2007. She is about to launch a blog called Pink Atheists and is working on a young adult fiction book. She lives in Park Slope, Brooklyn.