With God On Our Side?

We know that Barack Obama is all about inclusion. Still, it was a little surprising to hear him give a nod in his Inaugural Address to a group that has been one of America's most disdained, particularly when it comes to politics. "We are a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus -- and nonbelievers," he said, no doubt bringing a smile to millions of faces around the country, and a scowl to millions more.

It may be that this is the last we'll hear from President Obama on the topic, or it may be that he'll actually take steps to dial back the efforts some have made over the last few years to make the federal government as Christian as possible. Either way, the inclusion of nonbelievers didn't represent all that much of a political risk. But it was noteworthy nonetheless, particularly coming at the conclusion of what was in some ways the most sectarian administration in our history. George W. Bush not only talked frequently about his Christianity (much more often than our first born-again president, Jimmy Carter), he also funneled millions of tax dollars to groups that used social services as a tool for evangelizing. Recall that David Frum, a former Bush speechwriter, wrote in his book The Right Man: The Surprise Presidency of George W. Bush that the first words he heard on his first day in the Bush White House were "Missed you at bible study" (though the reproach was actually directed at fellow speechwriter Michael Gerson, not Frum).

But we should give a bit of credit where it's due. Despite his own personal religious fervor, the former president made efforts to be ecumenical in his comments on the topic of faith (including what for my money is the greatest Bush quotation of all time: "I couldn't imagine somebody like Osama bin Laden understanding the joy of Hanukkah"). He even, on occasion, reached out to people who don't believe in a supreme being, acknowledging that they too exist, and are real Americans to boot. It was a step up from his father, who got asked in August 1988, as a candidate for the presidency, whether he acknowledged "the equal citizenship and patriotism of Americans who are atheists." Bush's reply was quite remarkable: "I don't know that atheists should be considered citizens, nor should they be considered patriots. This is one nation under God."

In the intervening years, it didn't exactly become a career killer to give the back of the hand to nonreligious voters. When I spoke last week to Lori Lipman Brown, the director of the Secular Coalition for America, she was cautiously optimistic about the Obama administration. Brown, often called "the atheists' lobbyist," noted that the group has been included in meetings about the transition, and "just the fact that he's conscious of including us" is a step up.

Obama has already said he wants to expand the Office of Faith-Based Initiatives, which under Bush had become something of a slush fund for politically connected religious groups. But he also made clear, in a speech he gave in July, that in his administration, the office will "follow a few basic principles. First, if you get a federal grant, you can't use that grant money to proselytize to the people you help and you can't discriminate against them -- or against the people you hire -- on the basis of their religion. Second, federal dollars that go directly to churches, temples, and mosques can only be used on secular programs." Though the Secular Coalition doesn't think there should even be such an office, "it will not look like a carbon copy of what it has been for the last eight years," says Brown. As for the people staffing the office -- who will actually make the decisions about which organizations get grants -- they have yet to be chosen. But Brown says, "Whoever it is, I can't imagine it being half as bad as it was under President Bush."

That's the good news. You can get a heavy dose of the bad news from Mikey Weinstein, who runs the Military Religious Freedom Foundation (MRFF). Weinstein -- an Air Force Academy graduate, former JAG officer, and former Reagan administration official -- is the leading opponent of the expanding influence of not just evangelical Christianity but fundamentalist Christianity in the armed forces. Weinstein's organization has over 11,000 active-duty members who are troubled by what they've seen and experienced. They tell stories of commanders proselytizing to their troops, of forced participation in religious services, and of harassment, beatings, and death threats for those who question whether it's appropriate for the military to be a subsidiary of Team Jesus (though Weinstein says 96 percent of his active-duty members are Christian, it's usually the atheists and Jews who are willing to take their stories public).

The problem is pervasive and multifaceted. The typical military chaplain isn't a friendly Father Mulcahy, there with a reassuring hand on anyone's shoulder; the chaplaincy has become dominated by those who see their role as winning converts to evangelical Christianity. U.S. military installations around the world have chapters of the Officers' Christian Fellowship, whose goals could fairly be described as turning the U.S. military into the Army of God. In Iraq and Afghanistan, soldiers are not just trying to convert their fellow warriors to a particular brand of Christianity, they're aiming their evangelism at the local population (including handing out translated copies of the New Testament). For his work exposing and combating religious influence in the military, Weinstein has had his windows shot at and swastikas written on the side of his house. He says he gets eight to 12 death threats a week.

Though Robert Gates, whom Barack Obama asked to stay on as secretary of defense, is a defendant in a lawsuit filed by the MRFF, Weinstein thought that if nothing else, he could get the Obama administration to hear him out on the scope of the problem. Although he reached out to the Obama team through a multitude of sources, "we have found them to be unbelievably unapproachable and incredibly disinterested." Weinstein says he was hopeful that Obama would be willing to take steps to change the military's culture around religion. But so far, he has been unable to even get anyone to talk to him about the issue, much less pledge that something will be done.

Perhaps the administration sees this as far down on the list of priorities it needs to address. The unfortunate reality is that you don't pay much of a political price for turning a cold shoulder to those who want to reduce the influence of religion on government, or to the nonreligious themselves. (Incidentally, the Secular Coalition wasn't too excited about Obama using the term "nonbelievers," since people who don't believe in God do believe in lots of things, just not God. They prefer the term "nontheist.") Americans are unabashed about their dislike of the godless. A 2007 Gallup poll found that while 88 percent of respondents said they would vote for a woman, 72 percent would vote for a Mormon, and 55 percent would vote for a homosexual, only 45 percent would vote for an atheist.

Nonetheless, as a group, the nonreligious are growing faster than Catholics, Protestants, Muslims, or any other religious group. A recent large survey by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life found that 16 percent of the population is either atheist, agnostic, or doesn't affiliate with any religion. According to the General Social Survey, the number of people who answer "none" when asked which religion they identify with has grown from 6.9 percent in 1986, to 11.9 percent in 1996, to 15.9 percent in 2006. These numbers are even higher among the young; in the Pew survey, fully one-quarter of adults under 30 don't affiliate with any religion.

Despite these numbers, those who want complete acceptance for those who don't believe that their fates are controlled from above the clouds are facing a long battle. Lori Lipman Brown says that 21 members of Congress have privately told her group that they don't believe in God, yet the number of "out" secular members stands at a grand total of one -- California's Pete Stark.

Some of the Bush policies Obama has already undone or might reverse in the future -- like the "global gag rule" (already taken care of) or the federal mandate for "abstinence only" sex education (that one will take some doing) -- have their origins in a particular religious viewpoint. Obama will almost certainly justify his policies on these issues by citing something other than a desire to purge the government of undue religious influence. Obama mentioned his Christian faith often during the campaign -- in part to counter rumors that he was a Muslim but also to assure the majority of Americans who are religious that he was one of them (and let's be honest -- he didn't have to work too hard to secure the secular vote).

And there's the rub. There are some things Obama can do that will be easy, like reversing the global gag rule (pro-lifers squawked, but everyone understood that they were just going through the motions). His real test will be on the things that will be hard, that will bring fevered opposition and threaten a wide backlash.

In 1943, the Supreme Court heard the case of West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette, in which a group of young Jehovah's Witnesses was suspended from public school for refusing to salute the American flag, which would have violated their religious beliefs. Writing for an 8-1 majority, Justice Robert Jackson made clear that the foundation of America is the idea that we all are free to believe what we wish, and even if our beliefs are not widely shared, it makes us no less American. "If there is any fixed star in our constitutional constellation," Jackson wrote, "it is that no official, high or petty, can prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion, or other matters of opinion or force citizens to confess by word or act their faith therein." That is the American creed. We don't yet know how hard the new administration will work to make it a reality.

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