US President Barack Obama takes the oath of office in front of First Lady Michelle Obama during the 57th Presidential Inauguration ceremonial swearing-in at the US Capitol on January 21, 2013 in Washington, DC. US Chief Justice John Roberts administered the oath.
At Monday’s moving inauguration ceremony, President Barack Obama repeated the constitutionally prescribed oath to “preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution of the United States.”
Like most but not all presidents before him, he also placed his hand on a Bible and recited the words “So help me God,” which is not constitutionally required. This atheist was, of course, disappointed but not surprised at the addition.
To understand how many atheists feel about this, consider substituting “Zeus” or “Shiva” or “Allah” for “God.” Like the other approximately twenty million non-religious Americans, I wish President Obama had taken his oath on the Constitution under which our nation is governed, rather than on a divisive sectarian book under which we are not governed-thanks be to Thor.
Inauguration festivities often send symbolic messages to the country, and I give two cheers to President Obama because he talked about treating people equally regardless of race, creed, gender, national origin, or sexual orientation. I liked his message, but not the justification for it-which was God. What would we think if our president had said “Freedom is a gift from Odin” or we must preserve our planet because it is “commanded by Gaia, the goddess of the Earth?”
And despite the relative inclusiveness of this inaugural, Obama took a step back from his first inaugural address, during which he gave a token nod to atheists: “We are a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus-and non-believers.” At Monday’s inaugural, atheists and their millions of non-religious friends were as invisible as deities.
During the many debates I’ve participated in about whether the United States is a Christian nation, I always referred to the authority of our godless Constitution, which makes no mention of God or Jesus. My opponents usually countered with the preamble to the Declaration of Independence, as did President Obama on Monday, stating that all men are “endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights.” However, the Declaration of Independence does not govern us. It was a call for rebellion against the British Crown. By emphasizing our unalienable rights, the founders distinguished us from an empire that asserted the divine right of kings.
President Obama paid tribute to Abraham Lincoln during his inaugural festivities, taking the oath with his hand on Lincoln’s Bible. A chorus sang “The Battle Hymn of the Republic”-a Christian hymn that exults in “the coming of the Lord” and “the fateful lightning of His terrible swift sword.” Lincoln turned this song into an anti-slavery message. I wish President Obama had included one of my favorite Lincoln quotes: “When I do good, I feel good; when I do bad, I feel bad. That’s my religion.”
Although President Obama tried to deliver a bi-partisan message for Democrats and Republicans, I wish he had also included a bi-theological message for theists and nontheists. We who live responsible, lawful and creative lives without supernatural beliefs are the fastest growing segment of our country. We voted overwhelmingly for Obama. And as with African-Americans, women, and gays, whose rights we have long supported, atheists will continue to insist on inclusion.
An invocation or closing comments by a humanist or atheist could have sent the country and the world a message that nontheist citizens are also valued. We do not ask for special treatment. Instead, we look for opportunities where religious and secular people in our community can gather for common purpose in a country with a constitution whose first three words are “We the people,” not “Thou the deity.” Unfortunately, President Obama’s second inauguration ceremony was a missed opportunity for us.
Herb Silverman is founder and President Emeritus of the Secular Coalition for America and author of “Candidate Without a Prayer: An Autobiography of a Jewish Atheist in the Bible Belt.”