Obama’s nod to nonbelievers sets accepting tone

By Thomas Pardee

President Barack Obama was elected on the premise that he would bring a fresh outlook to the White House, and so far he’s doing just that. But after his first speech as president, he’s already drawn criticism for being a little too fresh.

During his inaugural speech on Jan. 20, Obama did something unprecedented. As he listed some of the United States’ most prominent religions, he finished with a nod to Americans who don’t worship any deity: “We are a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus, and nonbelievers. We are shaped by every language and culture, drawn from every end of this earth,” he said.

This mention of nonbelievers, which isn’t Obama’s first, serves to include more than 16 percent of the U.S. population, according to a 2007 Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life survey. This inclusion has alienated several high-profile Christian leaders who say this departure from the norm is, in fact, a misrepresentation of America’s cultural makeup.

Bishop E.W. Jackson of the Exodus Faith Ministries in Chesapeake, Va., called Obama’s nod an attempt to single-handedly redefine America’s culture, which he said is founded on Judeo-Christian values. Jackson told AOL News, “Obviously, Jewish heritage is very much a part of Christianity; the Jewish Bible is part of our Bible. But Hindu, Muslim and nonbelievers? I don’t think so. We are not a Muslim nation or a nonbelieving nation.” Jackson is one of many who have criticized Obama for his remark.

Certainly the president’s inclusion of this black sheep demographic was unexpected. In fact, it hasn’t been done in an inaugural address before. But one isolated word in the midst of a 20-minute speech, preceded by a non-denominational Christian prayer and followed by a slew of other religious allusions, can hardly be qualified as an attempt to redefine anything. At best, it felt like an afterthought-a final attempt to cast Obama’s net of appeal just a little further-but it’s definitely a great first step toward shaking up the norm in Washington, D.C.

It seems that Jackson and others who said they took offense to the president’s choice have forgotten what Obama is supposed to stand for in the first place-change. Americans not only expect him to bring decency, tolerance and reason to his position, but they also expect him to be an innovator and help set a new moral and ethical benchmark. For him to make this gesture, regardless of how small, helps validate my collective hope that he won’t only fulfill his promises through his policy, but also allow this ideal to seep into his own personal constitution.

In this new post-Bush America, I’m looking for a president who isn’t afraid to break the old rules in favor of uniting Americans under a common battle cry. Taking offense to Obama’s acknowledgement of nonbelievers is an example of the ignorance and arrogance that Bush left in his wake.

The truth is, we are a Muslim nation, as there are more than two million Muslims living here. We’re a Hindu nation, as evidenced by another 800,000 people who follow that faith. We’re also a Jewish nation, and not only because of Judaism’s close relationship with Christianity; there are almost three million Jewish Americans.

These numbers may be small compared to the dominance of Christianity in the U.S., but in a nation that prides itself on its separation of faith and government, no one has the right to belittle these citizens’ importance to the fabric of American culture.

Obama understands something that Jackson and others like him are clearly too Bush-minded to see: For the United States to regain its unity and respect in the eyes of the world, its citizens need to at least acknowledge their own diversity and use it to become a stronger people.

“… Our patchwork heritage is a strength, not a weakness,” Obama said. It’s an idea as old as America itself, but somehow it still tastes fresh.