Faith based social services; Christian language from the presidential bully pulpit; Executive support for Arizona vouchers that divert tax dollars to religious schools … by the stack of evidence mounting up this fall, President Obama’s commitment to Christianity holds greater pull than his years of constitutional scholarship.
In his inauguration speech, Obama acknowledged explicitly that this country includes nonbelievers along with Christians and religious minorities. This might seem obvious, but compare it with Bush’s unapologetic bigotry: “I don't know that atheists should be considered as citizens, nor should they be considered patriots.” Given the contrast, nontheists of all stripes (humanists, rationalists, freethinkers, atheists, agnostics, skeptics, pantheists, etc.) were thrilled--pathetically so in hindsight. They would have done well to heed the broader pattern in Obama’s remarks rather than jumping on an isolated word.
According to Marvin Krantz, an American history expert, even in that inaugural speech "You could hear beneath it all references to God-given promise, God's calls on us, God's grace on us, and the frequent use of 'shall' in that King James-ian English of the Bible and early translations of Jewish prayer books." But perhaps the most telling sign of things to come, the selection of anti-gay Evangelical mega-minister Rick Warren for the invocation. Warren, predictably, used the inaugural invocation to sermonize—to tell the world that there is one way to God—his way.
That is not to accuse Obama of being Evangelical per se. But look, he told us repeatedly in his books and public appearances that his Christian beliefs are at the heart of who he is. Optimistic nontheists ignored him. Unfortunately, actions speak louder than words, and as nontheists have waited eagerly for Jefferson’s church-state wall to be reestablished, they have been repeatedly disappointed.
Early in his presidency, Obama made the decision to continue Bush’s program of faith-based social services, many of which include proselytizing on the public dime. (For Evangelicals the point of social services is winning converts.) Americans United for Separation of Church and State this week issued yet another statement on the topic: “Yesterday, the White House issued an executive order that added stronger beneficiary protections and more transparency about funding recipients. But a George W. Bush rule allowing publicly funded “faith-based” charities to discriminate on religious grounds in hiring remains in place.. . . “Each day that no action is taken,” [Executive Director, Rev. Barry] Lynn said, “applicants for federally funded jobs are subject to blatant religious discrimination and the religious liberty rights of social service beneficiaries are compromised.”
In March, the Arizona Supreme Court ruled that a state voucher system for subsidizing private schools was unconstitutional. The vouchers allow any individual to divert state tax revenues away from public services and into private schools, many of which combine the three ‘r’s with Christian indoctrination of one sort or another. (My extended family used the voucher system to fund Calvinist instruction.) Per the court documents, the state constitution is explicit:
- “[n]o public money . . . shall be appropriated to any religious worship, exercise, or instruction, or to the support of any religious establishment.”
- “[n]o tax shall be laid or appropriation of public money made in aid of any church, or private or sectarian school, or any public service corporation.”
Obama told us repeatedly in his books and public appearances that his Christian beliefs are at the heart of who he is. Optimistic nontheists ignored him.The case was appealed. November 3, the Obama administration came down on the side of the religious instruction, sending Neal Katyal, Obama's solicitor general, to testify before the U.S. Supreme Court in support of the vouchers.
I am a progressive nontheist, a woman who believes that we must take care of each other because there’s no one else out there to do it, who believes that if we want heaven we need to create it together here on Earth, who believes that narrow, shortsighted self-interest must be hard fought in our social structures as well as in each heart; who believes that religious tribalism makes each of these challenges harder. I am a woman who voted for Obama because of these beliefs.
Ironically, my deepest disappointments in our president have been because he is exactly who he said he was on the campaign trail: a deeply committed Christian and a bridge builder, not a guardian of rationality and a fighter. Having experienced Christianity as a powerful force for good in his own life (and by association religion more broadly), he is reluctant to erect protective barricades against its darker manifestations. He is intent on building bridges even when the only people waiting on the other side (political or religious fanatics) are intent on blowing them up. I had counted on him to hold some lines that those of us in the trenches will have to hold ourselves.
Valerie Tarico is a psychologist and writer in Seattle, Washington. She is the author of Trusting Doubt: A Former Evangelical Looks at Old Beliefs in a New Light, (Revised ed of The Dark Side) and the founder of www.WisdomCommons.org. Her articles can be found at awaypoint.wordpress.com.