On January 20th, 2009 the United States inaugurated its 44th President. The proceedings included an invocation by controversial Pastor Rick Warren, rather notorious for his exclusionary views on gays and lesbians. This religious invocation sat in stark contrast with the notable inclusion of a group that oft finds itself on the outside. In his inaugural address, President Obama described the U.S. as “a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus — and non-believers.” A simple recognition of non-believers left some wondering how things might change for another excluded group.
The President’s passing reference in his inaugural speech may be characterized by some as passing. On Thursday, February 5th, the President announced the new White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships. While the President identifies as Christian, he made it a point to say that the “goal of this office will not be to favor one religious group over another — or even religious groups over secular groups.” Only time will tell whether this is an indication of policy or merely lip service to non-believers.
A recent Pew study compared the religious makeup of the United States with the makeup of the representation in Congress, finding a large disparity in representation for “unaffiliated” people. This group includes athiests (1.6%), agnostics (2.4%) and “nothing in particular”. There is no member of Congress that self-describes as unaffiliated, yet 16.1% of the U.S. population falls into this category. Why such a stark disparity? An argument can be made that religion is a de facto test for electability, bolstered by Gallup results that 45% of those polled would not vote for an atheist. The results indicate the belief that at least, non-believers do not reflect the majority belief system and at worst, non-believers are amoral.
Do the President’s remarks presage wider political acceptance for non-believers? Reactions that assert that the U.S. is indeed a Christian nation inevitably volleyed forth after the inaugural address. The President of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention has this to say: “If Obama is setting an agenda of tolerance, let’s make sure that the tolerance extends to the majority as well as the minority. The Baptists have an old saying – “Let the minority have their say, let the majority have their way.’” Regardless of what the future holds, everyone can be sure that when a passing nod represents progress, much room is left for improvement.
Photo courtesy of Flickr user unlistedsightings.