I was sort of stunned when he said it. No, I'm not talking about Dr. Joseph Lowery's humorous end to his profound benediction, or Chief Justice John Roberts's flubbing of the oath of office, or Obama's miscounting when he said, "44 Americans have now taken the presidential oath" (43 have). Nor am I talking about Obama's bluntness when speaking about our nation's dire situation or our role in its fixing. The inauguration moment that stunned me, instead, was an innocent after-thought, tacked onto a sentence easily passed by.
Speaking of our country's heritage, President Obama 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." After he said that, I immediately turned around to see if anyone else who had packed into Collis to watch the live feed had caught that last word: "non-believers."
National politicians rarely miss an opportunity to acknowledge the deity, often to the exclusion of those who don't. Each of the last 27 consecutive State of the Union speeches, delivered by four different presidents, ended with the invocation of God or asking for his blessing. Obama's single, tacked-on word was remarkable because it was perhaps the first time I've ever heard an American leader include the identity of "atheist" within the concept of the American "nation." He acknowledged that the tens of millions of productive, law-abiding, taxpaying, yet non-believing citizens of this country are "American" -- and it filled me with pride.
Even amidst America's slow but continuing embrace of diversity, atheists in particular have been singled out for sustained social stigma. Americans see atheists -- more than gays, immigrants or Muslims -- as the minority group that least shares American values, and that they are least willing to let their children marry, a study published in The American Sociological Review in 2006 reported. While 94 percent of Americans say that they would elect a black president (and 53 percent of the electorate just did), more than half say that they would never elect an atheist, according to a recent Gallup poll.
Unlike other groups who are gradually being accepted and incorporated into American culture -- homosexuals and religious minorities -- atheists exist as a boundary marker: the definition of what America is not. America's competition with the "atheistic" Soviet Union helped solidify a contrasting religious social narrative for America. But way before, and ever since, politicians have used the idea of a theistic America in bigoted ways. Then-Vice President George H. W. Bush is rumored to have commented, while running for the presidency in 1987: "No, I don't know that atheists should be considered as citizens, nor should they be considered patriots. This is one nation under God." And he won.
Certainly it is acceptable for people to criticize each other for their opinions , and extrapolate from those opinions to make character judgments. I can disapprove of parents who don't believe in vaccinations for endangering their children, and I can choose not to associate with someone who describes herself as a "white supremacist," by virtue of her beliefs alone.
But what of atheism? Non-believers represent a growing percentage of the American population, but make up a disproportionally small portion of the prison population. They have a lower divorce rate than Jews and Christians, both born again and otherwise. And, unlike some religious subscribers who are asked to suspend reason and act on "faith" in matters of the supernatural -- sometimes leading to dangerous outcomes -- atheists simply continue to use reason in these areas as well. Unlike certain radical religious fundamentalists, they do not believe that virgins are waiting for them in paradise should they bomb a bus-load of civilians. they do not believe believe in a deity that has privileged them to rule over and convert all others, and they do not believe that all the suffering in the world is the result of a god too uncaring or impotent to stop it, but rather of something in their own power to correct.
President Obama was elected in large part because he reached out to all cross-sections of society, and in doing so affirmed their worth as equal participants in the American story. Perhaps this was a result of the discrimination he faced from those who suspected him of Muslim ties. But if I read correctly into that one simple word, the time when the political leadership of the nation will help to seat non-believers with believers as equals at Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s rhetorical "table of brotherhood" may be soon.