A Big Step Forward, a Few Disappointments

January 20, 2009

I don’t have a transcript in front of me, but I can’t help being a bit dismayed by the number of times President Barack Obama mentioned the deity in the course of his inaugural address—including a concluding one-two punch of “God bless you” and ” God bless the United States of America.” (Apparently God will be kept busy during the Obama Administration.)

But far more important—and as far as I know, a first in inaugural history—is Obama’s deliberate mention of unbelievers at the end of a laundry list of world religions. This is a huge first for our movement, and much to be applauded.

And yet, in a speech otherwise distinguished by its graceful cadences and sweeping rhythms, the phrase “—and unbelievers” seemed an aftrethought, the lone caboose at the end of what had been a train of pairs: “Christians and Jews.” “Hindus and Muslims.” A pause: “—and unbelievers.” Thud! There was even a break in Obama’s recitation, as though the greatest orator of our generation hadn’t quite figured out how to deliver that concluding phrase.

 Ah well, at least it was in there. And I look forward to the inevitable news stories that will come out detailing how it came to be there, and how it came to be perhaps the only touch of infelicitous pacing in a speech that I suspect will go down as one of the great moments in American oratory.



#1 mckenzievmd on Tuesday January 20, 2009 at 1:57pm

Such things are naturally quite subjective, but I didn’t get the same sense of stumbling or afterthought from his delivery. If anything, I thought it was a pause that brought emphasis to his deliberate mention of a group which I cannot recall hearing another president refer to in such a recitation of who makes up “Americans.”

#2 Rachel (Guest) on Tuesday January 20, 2009 at 1:59pm

I suppose the other option for the pause was not a break because Obama hadn’t figured out how to deliver the nonbeliever part but because he wanted to call attention to the fact that there are many of us out here. So, the break was for emphasis, not out of embarrassment.

#3 Matthew (Guest) on Tuesday January 20, 2009 at 7:19pm

Agreed mckenzievmd and rachel, He gave us a moment to wonder what could be next, and then he answered our curiosity beautifully.  Well delivered.

#4 DB (Guest) on Tuesday January 20, 2009 at 8:28pm

I think the mention was perfectly placed, and best placed by itself. I thought it stood out and meant just a little bit more than the religions mentioned in pairs. While Obama did venture into the traditional “god bless America” lines, he broke from tradition and recognized those who are hardly ever represented. I respect the effort he made and respect him for having the courage to take such a step where others have not.

#5 r strle (Guest) on Wednesday January 21, 2009 at 8:33am

“and unbelievers” seemed an aftrethought, the lone caboose at the end of what had been a train of pairs: “Christians and Jews.” “Hindus and Muslims.” A pause: “—and unbelievers.”

An afterthought?  I think not.  I think Mr. Obama is a very intelligent man and a skilled rhetorical politician.  Intelligent because he sees clearly the necessity and the benefits of science to the economy and social progress.  Skilled political rhetorician because he knows how and what to say to convince mostly atheistic scientists to pursue their work thinking they are free from attack by the believers (like in the old days) while allying the fears of believers that godless science will destroy their beliefs (and comforting make believe world).  A sort of pragmatic NOMA approach.  I hope he can pull it off because if he can by the time he leaves office the religious trajectory of the U.S. might look more like Europe.  Well I can dream can’t I?

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