Last week I wrote about the experiences my daughter and I had while attending the inauguration of President Barack Obama on the National Mall. I noted that during his inaugural address, Obama pointed out that America's diversity is a strength.
"We are a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus – and non-believers," Obama said. "We are shaped by every language and culture, drawn from every end of this Earth...."
Predictably, some Religious Right activists are whining because Obama included non-believers in the list.
Obama, said Bishop Earl W. Jackson of Exodus Faith Ministries in Chesapeake, Va., "seems to be trying to redefine American culture, which is distinctively Christian. The overwhelming majority of Americans identify as Christians, and what disturbs me is that he seems to be trying to redefine who we are."
I have to wonder if Jackson was listening to the same speech I heard. All Obama said was that some Americans are non-believers. This is a fact. Mentioning this in no way "redefines" anything about America.
Al Mohler, president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, complained that Obama's reference "puzzled" him because there are more Christians in the country than non-believers. (I'm puzzled by Mohler's puzzlement. Does the fact that there are more Christians mean that members of minority views should never be mentioned?)
Another right-wing minister, the Rev. Cecil Blye of More Grace Ministries Church in Louisville, Ky., also criticized the Obama reference.
"It's important to understand the heritage of our country, and it's a Judeo-Christian tradition," Blye said.
I would dispute that claim, but even if it were true, does that mean the president is wrong to acknowledge – even in passing – the many Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, Pagans, etc., that live here?
I know what's going on here. The Religious Right is so desperate to start attacking Obama that it will latch on to any reed, no matter how weak.
Jackson, for example, is a long-time Religious Right operative. Back in the 1990s, he was a fixture at Christian Coalition conferences, where he was charged with expanding the Coalition's outreach to African Americans. (It was a spectacular failure.)
Ironically, the Religious Right said nothing when its hero, George W. Bush, did much more than simply acknowledge non-believers in an interview with Christianity Today in May of 2004. Bush actually said non-religious people can be just as patriotic as religious ones!
"My job is to make sure that, as president, people understand that in this country you can worship any way you choose," Bush said. "And I'll take that a step further. You can be a patriot if you don't believe in the Almighty. You can honor your country and be as patriotic as your neighbor." (The quote appears on page 9 of this lengthy interview.)
It's time for the Religious Right to grow up and realize that Americans believe lots of different things about God, and some don't believe at all. Skepticism of organized religion has a long lineage in America and is sometimes found in surprising places. (Consider what Thomas Jefferson once told his nephew: "Question with boldness even the existence of a God; because, if there is one, he must more approve of the homage of reason, than that of blindfolded fear.")
I think Americans can believe different things about religion and still get along. Some might even say that's healthy.