Not normal Bench Memos fare, but there’s a tangential connection here to First Amendment norms about religion in American politics . . .
Maurice O’Sullivan, a literature prof at Rollins College, writes “How I Learned Not to Fear the Anti-God Squad” in today’s Wall Street Journal. His argument’s okay—the Christopher Hitchenses and Richard Dawkinses of the world help us religious people sharpen our arguments—but his history is awful:
Back in the States, the closet door on adamant disbelief may not yet be open, but President Barack Obama’s inaugural address certainly began turning the doorknob. For the first time in history, a president publicly acknowledged atheists by including “nonbelievers” in our “patchwork heritage” of “Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus.” To make sure no one missed his point, he spoke admiringly of “humanists” and “those who subscribe to no faith” in his comments a few weeks later at, of all places, the National Prayer Breakfast.
If O’Sullivan’s “first time in history” is restricted to inaugural addresses, he might have a point. But it looks like he really believes Obama is the first president in any setting to “publicly acknowledge” people with no religious faith as full participants in the American project. And that’s preposterous. Here’s just a sample from President George W. Bush:
“An American President serves people of every faith, and serves some of no faith at all.”–National Prayer Breakfast, Feb. 1, 2001
“Americans practice different faiths in churches, synagogues, mosques and temples. And many good people practice no faith at all.”–Easter weekend radio address, March 30, 2002
“In this country we’re great because we’ve got many faiths, and we’re great because you can choose whatever faith you choose, or if you choose no faith at all, you’re still equally American.”–Remarks to leadership conference on faith-based initiative, March 1, 2005
“In our country, we recognize our fellow citizens are free to profess any faith they choose, or no faith at all. You are equally American if you’re a Jew or a Christian or Muslim. You’re equally American if you choose not to have faith. It is important America never forgets the great freedom to worship as you so choose.”–National Prayer Breakfast, February 2, 2006
“On this day, we also remember that we are a people united by our love for freedom, even when we differ in our personal beliefs. In America, we are free to profess any faith we choose, or no faith at all. What brings us together is our shared desire to answer the call to serve something greater than ourselves.”–Remarks on National Day of Prayer, May 4, 2006
You get the idea. And Bush wasn’t even the first. Here’s Ronald Reagan (who probably wasn’t the first either) at an ecumenical prayer breakfast in Dallas on August 23, 1984: “We establish no religion in this country, nor will we ever. We command no worship. We mandate no belief. But we poison our society when we remove its theological underpinnings. We court corruption when we leave it bereft of belief. All are free to believe or not believe; all are free to practice a faith or not. But those who believe must be free to speak of and act on their belief, to apply moral teaching to public questions.”
In the blazing light of Barack Obama’s general wonderfulness, I suppose all prior history becomes dim to our sight. Even the names of once-famous atheists from those dark days escape us: it’s Madalyn Murray O’Hair, professor, not O’Hare.