After skiing and before dropping off L. at work, I turned on the tv and watched Barack Obama’s Inaugural Address. For all it’s grandiosity, and for setting the right tones of collaboration and debate, there was something about it that struck me as off-key and missing a note of inclusiveness.
Obama parroted the piety and religiosity of so many previous presidents, from Kennedy’s ‘Hand of God’ comments to Reagan’s blatant evangelism. I was disappointed by the frequency and intent of Obama’s use of religious terms.
I was not at all disappointed by the larger messages of his speech: seeking common ground and discussion rather than confrontation and war; signaling a willingness to talk with adversaries if they’ll ‘unclench their fist,’ measuring government for its effectiveness rather than stale old ‘big government’ versus ‘small government’ ideas, and also his statements linking economic and energy policy with national security, finding ways to help poor countries feed the starving. These of course are good commentaries. They were for my tastes at time too generalized, for example:
“On this day, we gather because we have chosen hope over fear, unity of purpose over conflict and discord.”
Not exactly, not really. What I admire and participate with in the US is democracy, where we encourage diversity, varied interpretations, and their peaceful resolution via voting. For compromises to occur, we must have some level of discord, dissent, disharmony, disagreement and open debate. If what Obama had said was that we’ve chosen democracy over violence, then I’d concur. But nonviolent conflict and discord, I’m all for both, and occasional harmonies too. In his article ‘Is Dissent Still Patriotic?’ David Harsanyi puts this dilemma more eloquently than I could:
“And there must be someone out there who considers partisanship a healthy organic reflection of our differences rather than something to be surrendered in the name of so-called unity — which is, after all, untenable, subjective and utterly counterproductive.”
Or perhaps Obama’s never read Solzhenitsyn’s Nobel Lecture on the arts, imploring us to maintain our natural diversity… what I mean to link here is the importance of dissent and peaceful disharmony, disunity… that we don’t, won’t, and shouldn’t all believe the same things. The same applies to being religious, or choosing not to be religious at all. And as a representive of all of us (believers and nonbelievers), Obama loses out on creating some sense of unity by calling us to action with religious terms.
Here I began to be annoyed at Obama’s religious references:
“We remain a young nation, but in the words of Scripture, the time has come to set aside childish things. The time has come to reaffirm our enduring spirit; to choose our better history; to carry forward that precious gift, that noble idea, passed on from generation to generation: the God-given promise that all are equal, all are free, and all deserve a chance to pursue their full measure of happiness.”
I’m not setting aside childish things. I like Legos, crayons, Star Wars and playful imaginations. And maybe we’re going to need child-like and even childish ways of looking at the world anew if we’re going to find innovations, creativity, and sometimes fun.
More importantly, the US Constitution is not any sort of ‘God-given’ promise. It’s a secular document that doesn’t mention God at all. [For a very brief overview of this topic, see 'Is America a Christian Nation?'] The constitution was written by a group of people, many who were not religious. It is indeed a noble and good set of ideas, and worth supporting, that we are equal under the law, free, etc. But these ideals coincide with and predate the U.S., dating back to revolutionary moves against monarchy in France and England. It was then that the secular battle-cry was for fraternity, equality, and liberty for all. The idea that we are equal under the law, free, and deserving of the pursuit of happiness is simply not a religious idea. In contrast, a religious idea is that we are all sinners (Original Sin). Another religious idea is that we are not free in the sense that our choices lead irrevocably to eternal supernatural torment or bliss. And another religious ideal is that far more important than happiness is self-sacrifice; which unnecessarily pits doing what is good for yourself against doing what is good for other people, when certainly is possible to serve one’s community and serve it well while also meeting your own needs.
Nonetheless there is some constancy throughout the last century, when politicians claim we are on a special Godly mission of sorts. I for one am not interested in replacing old god-king monarchies with new god-king democracies. And, for those of you who are religious, don’t you take offense when a bunch of politicians hijack your most treasured beliefs and turn them into bubblegum generalities in their speeches? There’s no better reason to be in favor of the strict separation of church and state than that your most treasured and sacred beliefs are most likely belittled and misunderstood by political engines, smeared by a war you may not have voted for (or is it that your religion really is in favor of violence, bloodshed, and military command structures?) If you believe in a personal God, then it is certainly ironic when politicians turn God into a public spectacle, turning the tables on your inward experience and attempting to rally your personal beliefs to their outward agendas. As an atheist, when politicians invoke scripture or God, they simply rule me out of the equation. That’s not particularly inclusive, nor a good way to find common ground about which we can all agree. Believer and nonbeliever alike, we all lose when politicians claim godliness in their speeches.
Obama contradicted his god-driven statements somewhat later in his speech when he said:
“For we know that our patchwork heritage is a strength, not a weakness. We are a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus – and non-believers. We are shaped by every language and culture, drawn from every end of this Earth; and because we have tasted the bitter swill of civil war and segregation, and emerged from that dark chapter stronger and more united, we cannot help but believe that the old hatreds shall someday pass; that the lines of tribe shall soon dissolve; that as the world grows smaller, our common humanity shall reveal itself; and that America must play its role in ushering in a new era of peace.”
At least that was inclusive of non-believers. As for our common humanity, there are many brilliantly inventive, reasoned, evidence-driven ways to understand it. We are, in point of fact, 99.9% genetically the same as each other. Our common humanity is not our faith or lack of it, but rather, our biology. We all share a physics that requires clean air, clean water, and reliable food sources – and that too implies a kind of environmental stance that leads to understanding how collaboration, judicious compromise and compassion are far better choices than violence or wanton disregard for other’s needs.
My favorite part of Obama’s speech was this:
“What the cynics fail to understand is that the ground has shifted beneath them – that the stale political arguments that have consumed us for so long no longer apply. The question we ask today is not whether our government is too big or too small, but whether it works – whether it helps families find jobs at a decent wage, care they can afford, a retirement that is dignified. Where the answer is yes, we intend to move forward. Where the answer is no, programs will end. And those of us who manage the public’s dollars will be held to account – to spend wisely, reform bad habits, and do our business in the light of day – because only then can we restore the vital trust between a people and their government.”
“To the people of poor nations, we pledge to work alongside you to make your farms flourish and let clean waters flow; to nourish starved bodies and feed hungry minds. And to those nations like ours that enjoy relative plenty, we say we can no longer afford indifference to suffering outside our borders; nor can we consume the world’s resources without regard to effect. For the world has changed, and we must change with it.”
And I was so, so ready to cheer at the ending of the speech when Obama quoted Washington:
“”Let it be told to the future world…that in the depth of winter, when nothing but hope and virtue could survive…that the city and the country, alarmed at one common danger, came forth to meet [it].”
America. In the face of our common dangers, in this winter of our hardship, let us remember these timeless words. With hope and virtue, let us brave once more the icy currents, and endure what storms may come. Let it be said by our children’s children that when we were tested we refused to let this journey end, that we did not turn back nor did we falter; and with eyes fixed on the horizon and God’s grace upon us, we carried forth that great gift of freedom and delivered it safely to future generations.”
And that was great, except for Obama’s inevitably American return to religiosity and being ‘tested’ and ‘God’s grace’, which is sheer supernatural nonsense. It also unnecessarily divides one religion (Christian monotheism) against the non-Christian world (Hindu, other polytheist faiths, etc.).
It would’ve been much better if Obama had instead simply had this little rewrite:
Let it be said by our children’s children that when we were tested
challenged we refused to let this journey end, that we did not turn back nor did we falter; and with eyes fixed on the horizon and God’s grace upon us
our mutual compassion, we carried forth that great gift of freedom and delivered it safely to future generations.
And that’s better simply because anyone from any religious belief or non-belief could’ve easily cheered it on. He would’ve ended his speech without dividing us into monotheistic believers and nonbelievers, and thus would’ve added fuel to Obama’s basic stance that now is the time to find common ground.
Should you like to read the entire transcript of Obama’s speech, it can be found here.
[UPDATE: a friend said today Kristol of the NYTimes wrote that the Washington quote actually comes from Thomas Payne -- not Washington. I'll check on this.]