Look Back: Obama Moves in the Right Direction In Favor of Secularism at Prayer Breakfast?

May 7, 2009

Is Obama the secularist’s best friend?

In his remarks at the National Prayer Breakfast a few months ago, Obama spoke out in favor of a more robust civil secularism, and in many ways foreshadowed what became a major negative message he sent to the religious right during the National Day of Prayer. (See my previous post on this


.) But at the Prayer Breakfast he said some things that merit our renewed attention, because of the contrasting implications for church-state separation. On the plus side, he said of his new White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships:

The goal of this office will not be to favor one religious group over another – or even religious groups over secular groups.

With Tony Blair, who is increasingly becoming more ardent in advancing his brand of


, in attendance, Obama emphasized how one can read into various world religions and derive the civil society virtues of collective responsibility and mutual respect and civic engagement. If a religionist becomes a better citizen and wants to credit his faith, I have no objection. (But there are better reasons to be a good citizen than you can find in any holy book.)

He also talked about his atheistic father and mother who was a religious skeptic:

I was not raised in a particularly religious household. I had a father who was born a Muslim but became an atheist, grandparents who were non-practicing Methodists and Baptists, and a mother who was skeptical of organized religion, even as she was the kindest, most spiritual person I’ve ever known. She was the one who taught me as a child to love, and to understand, and to do unto others as I would want done.

All of this is good. But is it good enough?

Because the President has such a bully pulpit—has such a megaphone that make his pronouncements echo far and wide—the above quotes can ultimately only be seen as mere lip-service. (Yes, I would favor getting lip-service over what the humanist and atheist community has received in previous administrations). But when he ends his remarks talking about being called to be a servant of God and that everyone should work hand in hand so that “we fulfill our highest purpose as beloved children of God,” how can this be anything but the explicit governmental advancement of religious belief?

Good, Obama, you gave another nod to those people who lack your religious faith but share your secular values. But not good enough: you end by calling on every citizen to serve a God that almost certainly doesn’t actually exist.

At times like this, I pray that your faith is a facade, something you fake just to placate the more credulous in our society. If only I could really believe that.

Here is the full text of his remarks at the

National Prayer Breakfast