Is Obama really 'reaching out' to nonbelievers?

[This is a cross-post from my column at]

The potential political ascendancy of atheists is continuing to catch the attention of the mainstream media. Yesterday's Wall Street Journalfeatures a report on that very subject, noting the rise in the numbers of the American nonreligious, the stigma that atheists continue to face, and Obama's inclusion of nonbelievers in the inaugural address. But of course such inclusiveness involves a gamble. Writes WSJ's Laura Meckler:

The outreach toward both ends of the religious spectrum makes for a complicated balancing act, one that runs the risk of alienating one group, the other, or possibly both.
Note the choice of the word "outreach." There is no doubt that Obama has been doing considerable outreach to the conservative religious community. But can his actions regarding the nonreligious truly be considered "outreach"?

Representatives of some of the most rabidly conservative groups were scheduled to meet at the White House only yesterday to discuss the much-loathed (by secularists) faith-based initiative program, and two articleshave emerged of late reporting that the White House commissions and vets prayers to be given before the president takes the stage at public events; a level of religiosity that even George W. Bush did not display. As Ebon Muse writes at Daylight Atheism:

This action of Obama's continues a troubling pattern seen during the campaign and the inauguration: even though his views are generally progressive, he's far too willing to cozy up to the religious right - not just to bring them to the table (I have no objection to them voicing their views), but to grant them special access and special privileges.

So what has he done for us lately?

Other than the much-welcomed mentions in his inaugural address and at the National Prayer Breakfast, not a whole hell of a lot, though this is not to say that Obama has not taken some actions which please atheists and secularists. On science, Obama has been light years ahead of his predecessor, from research on stem cells to facing the hard realities of global warming (if there was a phrase I thought he must have gotten tired of in his campaign stump speech, it was "planet in peril").

But if this is outreach, it is hard to see this as outreach to nonbelievers specifically. But if we're (or I'm) going to complain about a lack of outreach to atheists, we have to know what it is we think he ought to do, because a pro-science, pro-rationalist approach to government is what we purport to want! As long as he governs with secularist principles based on facts and science, what do we care if he also happens to enjoy splashing around in the religious pool? (I'll put aside, for the purposes of this post, my opinion that religious expressions such as prayer at official events are blatantly unconstitutional.)

What we want is a seat at the table that reflects our numbers and the value of our contribution. We want a political environment in which atheists can enter the public debate, have their concerns heeded, and run for public office without the sting of demonization. Can Obama give us all, or any, of that? He can certainly give a seat at the table, and have openly atheistic Americans lend their voice to White House policy -- and not just in church-state separation issues. But he can also appoint avowed atheists to high level positions. More importantly, he can lend support to an atheist Democrat who decides to run for office. (Now, I have no idea whether or not the opportunity has ever arisen for such appointments; these are all hypotheticals.) The Secular Coalition for America has already been able to have a say on faith-based initiatives during the transition, and it remains to be seen if they and groups like them are welcomed back for more dialogue.

But if atheists need a little more encouragement about how Obama really feels about them, another clip from the WSJ should give them some hope:
David Axelrod, a senior adviser to the president, said that Mr. Obama personally inserted the nonbeliever references into his inaugural speech. "He is a person of deep faith and also a person who has a profound belief in the Constitution and the nature of this country," Mr. Axelrod said in an interview.

That's right, doubters, it was the president's idea to give us his now-famous shout-outs. He didn't have to, and has probably caught more flak for it than (sincere) praise. His parents were nonbelievers, or at least nonreligious, so he certainly has no desire to see us further marginalized. But we may still be considered political poison, and if that is so, we may have little else to which we can look forward in terms of identity group outreach. If he continues to embrace both science and public displays of religion, will that be enough for us for now?

Tags: Activism, atheism, atheists, Conservatives, obama, religion (all tags)



Re: Is Obama really 'reaching out'

his shout out in the inaugural address was huge. as Bill Maher notes in Religulous, non-believers make up a larger segment of the population than many groups that have powerful lobbies in Washington. Obama's words are little steps toward destigmatization and ultimately having an influence in the public debate that is consistent with our significant % of population.

by Todd Beeton 2009-03-28 01:09PM | 0 recs
Founding Fathers agreed on one thing.

Ironically, the importance of separation of church and state was one of the ONLY things that ALL of the Founding Fathers agreed on!

by architek 2009-03-28 07:32PM | 0 recs
It may seem like a small step but in reality

it is a giant step for American politicians who generally pander to the religious folks.

by louisprandtl 2009-03-28 06:44PM | 0 recs
Re: It may seem like a small step but in reality

It was no less important than the first time an American politician acknowledged the validity of homosexuality. Though I have to admit I don't know who or when that was.

Still, it's not like there's any real political capital to be gained. Nonbelievers, almost by definition, don't vote on the basis of religion. There are as many Republican atheists as there are Democratic ones.

by vcalzone 2009-03-29 09:50AM | 0 recs


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