In his speech last week at the memorial service for the victims of the shooting in Tucson, Barack Obama implored Americans "to expand our moral imaginations, to listen to each other more carefully, to sharpen our instincts for empathy and remind ourselves of all the ways that our hopes and dreams are bound together." It was a welcome message.
In the days since, we've had conversations about whether we're cultivating that empathy, whether we're being respectful toward each other, and how we avoid reverting to our prior state of vituperation and acrimony. One has to be awfully optimistic to think that will happen, but we can nevertheless seize this brief moment of comity to contemplate some issues that may have lain silent for some time.
As I watched Obama's speech, I was struck by how religious it was, with quotations from the Old Testament and numerous mentions of God and heaven. Before we proceed, let me be clear: It was neither surprising nor inappropriate for the setting and the moment. Indeed, it would have been surprising had he not brought up God. All American presidents have and will continue to (and since Ronald Reagan, it has been considered mandatory for presidents to end every speech with "God bless America," meaning nothing more than "This speech is now over"). But at a time when America is becoming more religiously diverse -- and the fastest-growing religious identification is no religion at all -- it's worth noting how public discussion of religion can build walls at the same time it tries to bring them down.
Religious talk in politics, and in our culture more generally, has become less sectarian in recent years. Animosity between Catholics and Protestants is a shadow of what it once was, anti-Semitism is immediately condemned by all when it occurs, and the typical politician will pay tribute to our "Judeo-Christian heritage." The last is a recent development and interesting in that it redefines the American "we" to include a group that has not always been a part.
The border around what religious identities are considered truly American is constantly being redrawn by the ways we discuss religion. When God is invoked with the unspoken assumption that we all believe he/she/it is up there, it draws that circle around most -- but not all -- Americans and says to the others, "You are outside." That doesn't mean it's reprehensible or even necessarily objectionable, but it should be done with full awareness. Just as an invocation of "Judeo-Christian values" sends a message to American Muslims that they are perhaps not quite fully a part of the American family, so too do invocations of God and scripture define non-theists of all stripes as outsiders.
But those of us who don't believe in a Supreme Being are used to it, so we seldom complain. Growing up in a religious country like ours means that you will be told in ways blunt and subtle that in this respect, you are not part of the dominant culture. You will hear this message thousands upon thousands of times. It seldom rises to a level most anyone would consider oppressive, and the perspective of the outsider has its benefits. But the reminders are unceasing.
It's hard to describe how absurd the annual war on the war on Christmas waged by culture warriors like Bill O'Reilly and Glenn Beck seems to those who hold that outsider status, either because they aren't religious or because they aren't Christian. O'Reilly in particular is outraged by the use of "Happy Holidays," which he considers deeply offensive to Christians (seriously). That may be among the goofiest claims made, but in some corners of the conservative movement, discussion of religion quickly produces howls that in America today, Christians are on the run, victimized by a secular elite. "The question that comes back to me again and again when I hear people attack religion and religious expression is, Why?" writes Sarah Palin in her latest book. "Why do they have to attack peaceful expressions of faith? What is so offensive about a baby in a manger?" She literally cannot comprehend why some people might not want the government embracing one particular religion by placing nativity scenes on government property or hanging the Ten Commandments in government offices.
But that blindness is a hazard of being in the majority. When O'Reilly and Palin complain about their religious oppression, their problem isn't that their beliefs have been excluded but rather that everyone else isn't being subjected to their beliefs to a sufficient degree. It's not as though the government is issuing proclamations saying that Jesus is a false god or Macy's is banning Christians from shopping. But saying "Happy Holidays" instead of "Merry Christmas" does undermine their monopoly. In other words, what has them riled up is not that the circle of inclusion has been drawn without them in it but that the circle includes everyone. That's the thing about being in the majority -- privileges you alone enjoy begin to seem like rights whose diminishment is a crime against justice.
We've come a long way from the time when a candidate for the presidency, asked whether he acknowledged "the equal citizenship and patriotism of Americans who are atheists," would reply, "I don't know that atheists should be considered citizens, nor should they be considered patriots. This is one nation under God." (It was 1988, and the candidate was George H.W. Bush.) Not even Palin would say such a thing today. That's not least because people who adhere to no religion are a much larger group than they used to be -- around one in six Americans, according to multiple surveys. And the younger you are, the less likely you are to identify with a religion; in a recent poll from the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, 25 percent of those under 30 said they didn't affiliate with any religion, compared to only 8 percent of those over 70.
Nevertheless, most Americans still believe in God, and most of those who do are Christian (the United States is the exception to the rest of the world -- generally it is the less developed countries that have high levels of religiosity). That makes it more urgent for those in the comfortable majority to consider those who don't share their beliefs, even if there is little political cost to neglecting to do so. It's far from impossible, when dealing with questions of government policy or pondering the meaning of grief and joy and our place in the universe, to draw that circle around everyone. Obama has done it before, and even George W. Bush, in some ways the most sectarian president in memory, would on occasion mention that the nonreligious are part of America, too.
It does take a bit of empathy, though. Which is something we all could work harder to cultivate.