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The Spirited Atheist, like a great many secularists at this political juncture, is feeling somewhat dispirited. President Obama’s “how-I-came-to-know-Jesus” speech at that sanctimonious annual ritual known as the National Prayer Breakfast might as well have been titled, “How I plan to be a two-term president by convincing loonies I am not a Muslim or atheist.” We’re not hearing much about Obama’s respect for people of no faith these days and the president’s very public embrace of his faith is only one byproduct of the larger resurgence, in the nation’s capital and many states, of those who want religious belief to determine public policy.
Obama’s speech was dismaying but hardly surprising for anyone who read his autobiographical Dreams from My Father. Anyone who ever thought Obama was a secret atheist–a view expressed in comments on this blog on numerous occasions–is as deluded as the birthers who think Obama was sent here by Muslim conspirators to establish sharia in the United States. The theme of Obama’s youth, as expressed in his book and his recent speech, was his struggle with and ultimate acceptance of his identity as a black American. His embrace of Christianity–a key component of African-American identity in the United States–was part of that process. What is dismaying is Obama’s conclusion that in order to remain president, he must parade his religion even more obviously than George W. Bush did.
One of the saddest parts of Obama’s speech was his reference to his mother, who, in his words, “grew up with a certain skepticism about organized religion.” Obama felt obliged to justify his mother’s indifference to religion by indicating that she was “one of the most spiritual people I ever knew…somebody who was instinctively guided by the Golden Rule… .” It is indeed a bad day for secularism when a president feels obliged to tell his audience that even though his mother didn’t take him to church, she was still a good person.
In a political sense, the most nausea-inducing portion of Obama’s speech was his embrace of Oklahoma’s arch-conservative Sen. Tom Coburn (R) as “a brother in Christ.” The president said, “Even though we are on opposite sides of a whole bunch of issues, part of what has bound us together is a shared faith, a recognition that we pray to and serve the same God. And I keep praying that God will show him the light and he will vote with me once in a while.” This remark got a big laugh from the good old boys and gals at the prayer breakfast but Coburn and his views are nothing to laugh about.
The godly Coburn, an obstetrician before he became a politician, is the same Tom Coburn who, in his senatorial campaign in 2004, declared that he supported the death penalty for doctors who perform abortions and “other people who take life.” If I were the president, I’d be careful about claiming anyone like this as a “brother in Christ.” Obama needs Coburn as a brother like Abel needed Cain.
And speaking of abortion, one of the major developments–in Congress and in states where Republicans took over legislatures–is a renewed push to make it as difficult as possible for any woman to get an abortion for any reason. In Nebraska, a law enacted last year would ban all abortions at 20 weeks after conception–allowing no exceptions for severe fetal abnormalities, such as the absence of a brain, that were not detected at earlier stages. Many other states have similar laws under consideration.
In Washington, the “No Taxpayer Funding For Abortion Act” is designed to discourage insurance companies from covering abortion at all. Under the proposed law, introduced by New Jersey Republican Christopher Smith, people with tax-preferred medical savings accounts could not even use their own money to pay for an abortion without losing the tax break. The original language of this law would have narrowed exemptions for rape and incest by limiting any federal funding to oxymoronic cases of “forcible rape.” The provision was dropped after strong protests from women–including some Republican women. In a scathing episode of The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, correspondent Kirsten Schaal distinguished between rape and assaults that are only “rapeish and “rape-esque.”
“By proposing this legislation,” Schaal said, “Republicans are finally closing the glaring rape loophole in our health care system. You’d be surprised how many drugged, underaged, or mentally handicapped young women have been gaming the system. Sorry, ladies, the free abortion ride is over.”
The newly emboldened religious right is also taking on state constitutional provisions that bar organized prayer in schools. On Feb. 1, the Virginia House of Delegates passed a measure that would amend the Virginia constitution so that “the people’s right to pray and to recognize their religious beliefs, heritage and traditions on public property, including public schools, shall not be infringed.” This is particularly Ironic, because Virginia led the way–and provided a template for the federal constitution–by passing a law in 1786 that banned taxation for religious instruction in public schools, The Virginia Act for Establishing Religious Freedom, originally written by Thomas Jefferson and supported by a coalition of Baptists and freethinkers, became the first state law to definitively establish separation between religion and government institutions.
Jacques Berlinerblau, in a commentary on Obama’s speech on On Faith last week, wrote, “The golden age of secularism has passed. The secular movement–if there ever was such a movement in this country–must look at events such as the NPB as an invitation to think secularism afresh….” I don’t know what Berlinblau means by a golden age of secularism. He mentions the 1960s, but the social protest movements of that decade, especially the antiwar movement and the civil rights movement, were as strongly influenced by the religious left as by secularism. Furthermore, the institutions that would turn the religious right into a powerful political force were also organized in the 60s and were largely unknown to and ignored by the national media, which focused on social protest on the left. The kindergarten-through-college network of fundamentalist Christian schools, originally organized as a white southern response to school desegregation, morphed into a response to the pro-secular decisions of the Supreme Court of that era.
John F. Kennedy took a much more secular tone as president than anyone has since the 1970s, but he was able to do so because the chief obstacle to his presidential campaign had been a perception that a Catholic president might take orders from the Vatican. The less tied to his faith Kennedy appeared, the better off he was with Protestant voters. Obama, of course, has precisely the opposite problem, in that he has been demonized by the right both as a “secret Muslim” and as an atheist. There may never have been a golden age of secularism but until Jimmy Carter, presidents did not open their souls to public scrutiny. And their were no national prayer breakfasts presided over by the founding fathers.
That Obama is pandering to religion, and that there is a resurgence of right-wing religious power in the South and the Midwest, does not mean that secularists (who are still the fastest-growing segment of the younger American population) need to think their moral values “afresh.” What secularists lack, and have always lacked, is the kind of political organization that wields any real power. That is the major task facing American secularists today and only one thing is clear: we are wasting our time with internecine quarrels between those who prefer to call themselves “skeptics” and those who answer only to the name “secular humanists,” between so-called hard and soft atheists. We all have much more in common with one another than Obama does with Coburn, but you’d never know it from the disunited front we present. And as long as skeptics are taking swipes at humanists and atheists are calling one another out for being insufficiently caustic (or too caustic) about religion, we will never be able to mount an effective challenge to “sacred,” historically recent “traditions” like this inane prayer breakfast–or to the damaging proposals that various “brothers in Christ” are formulating to make their religious views the law of the land.