There’s a line in President Obama’s inauguration speech which has been troubling me, although ostensibly it doesn’t seem like the sort of thing which should bother someone. But it did bother me, and I have been mulling it over. Here it is:
“We are a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus, and nonbelievers.”
The whole speech had a lot of religious and specifically Christian themes and overtones, which I get, because the President is a devout Christian and he is obviously aware that many Americans identify as Christian. He talked about scripture and God kind of a lot, and some of that sort of grated on me as an avowed agnostic, but I wouldn’t say I was particularly riled up about it, given all of the other religious overtones of the event.
So he threw this line into the speech to be inclusive, except that it didn’t read that way to me. He left out a few key religions (Buddhism, anyone?). And “nonbelievers” almost sounded like a sneer, rather than a legitimate recognition of atheists and agnostics. There was also no nod to the fact that atheists and agnostics are different, and should not be lumped together as nonbelievers.
Atheism involves a fundamental lack of belief in a higher power. There is no God, Goddess, whatever. Nothing doing. Life is what you make it, you live, you die, sometimes bad shit happens and that is just the way it goes. Agnosticism involves a lack of faith in a particular religion, but a belief in the possibility that a higher power may exist, that there is perhaps a higher purpose to what is going on. One could say that agnostics are hedging their bets, but I prefer to think of it as an admission that some things just can’t be known. For everything else, there’s science.
I would have preferred to see “We are a nation of many creeds,” or something along those lines, because there is just no way that you can do justice to all of the shades of religious faith and non-faith in this country, just like “LGBQT” is a lip-service term which does not even begin to encompass the huge range of sexual orientations and gender identities which are possible.
I get where he was trying to go with it. The President wanted to suggest that Christianity doesn’t have a monopoly here (although it totally does), and he wanted people to feel included. He wanted non-Christian viewers to go “this guy is my President too,” and yet his examples of religious diversity included three religions which are more similar than they are different, along with one major Eastern religion, and “non-believers.” My father is a non-believer, so I guess Barack Obama is his President, but I’m an agnostic (and a queer) and neither of those identities got any respect in that speech. My Chinese mother (a US citizen) is a Buddhist, so I guess she’s excluded too.
Look. I know that picking over semantics is kind of trivial, and there are way more important things to worry about. But, at the same time, semantics are important, and there were a few things about that speech which bothered and even borderline offended me. Now, I’m easy to rile up, but I suspect that other people came away from that speech feeling rubbed the wrong way, and this is something which needs to be addressed and explored.
Don’t get me wrong, it’s exciting to have a President who is literate and a good orator, who makes strong speeches with clear language that are, for the most part, delightful to hear. It’s just that when you step it up intellectually, my standards go up to, and that means that I am going to start nitpicking. Believe me, I would rather be nitpicking semantics and taking offense where none is intended that staring in slackjawed horror at someone who should never have ascended to the highest office in the land, which is what I spent the last eight years doing.