How much faith should the faithless put in Barack Obama?
The president said in his inaugural address that the United States is “a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus and nonbelievers.” And in his commencement speech at the University of Notre Dame, he said that the Golden Rule binds “people of all faiths and no faith together.”
While the atheist community appreciates the shout-outs, George W. Bush offered similar acknowledgements of nonbelievers during his presidency. And like Bush, Obama has repeatedly invoked religion in his speeches. The latest dose came Thursday in Cairo, in his speech to the Muslim world, during which Obama talked of the “Holy Quran” and invoked this Quranic supplication: “Be conscious of God, and speak always the truth.”
But while atheist advocates railed against Bush, they seem willing to give Obama a pass on his God talk — at least for now.
Nathan Bupp, director of communications for the Center for Inquiry, says that many nonbelievers view Obama’s invocations of faith as nothing more than a “symbolic gesture” used to aid his quest for social justice.
“There is a sense where secularists are politically savvy enough to do this,” says Bupp. “They realize [Obama] is not doing what he’s doing for Pat Robertson-type reasons.”
Over the past several years, in large part in response to the Sept. 11 attacks and the Bush presidency, the American atheist movement reached its rabble-rousing zenith, underscored by the publishing success of anti-God manifestos like Sam Harris’ “End of Faith,” Christopher Hitchens’ “God Is Not Great” and Richard Dawkins’ “The God Delusion.”
In Obama, the community saw a prospect for change.
But now, Ed Buckner, president of the American Atheists, wonders whether advocates and activists may witness a one-step-forward, two-steps-backward phenomenon with Obama.
While grateful for the new president’s cap-tipping, Buckner says, “The fact that our best shot of making things better still goes around saying God stuff all the time in some ways maybe makes it worse.”
Rep. Pete Stark (D-Calif.), the highest-ranking U.S. politician to claim unbelief in a higher power, cautions atheists not to put too much faith in a religious politician — even one raised by a secular humanist mother.
“Underneath it all, he is a pretty standard Christian, go-by-the-book kind of person,” Stark says of the president. “Look at all the stuff he is trying to do in the White House. I mean, come on. I think that is probably not constitutional.”
Stark is referring to Obama’s White House office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships, a continuation of a Bush initiative that troubled a number of freedom-from-religion types. Like Bush’s, Obama’s faith-based office has yet to make a practice of disallowing organizations that engage in religious hiring discrimination from being eligible for funds. The administration has simply said it will evaluate each organization on a case-by-case basis.