A few days ago, I took note of Jacques Berlinerblau’s somewhat dyspeptic reaction to President Obama’s remarks at the National Prayer Breakfast.  It turns out that his reaction was mild by comparison with some of his secularist and atheistic colleagues.

Consider this , from Rachel Ben-Avi:

Our president has, of late, been referencing God and Jesus more than usual. Even one such reference proves excessive. That his assuring us of both his Christianity and his deep beliefs in popular deities is pandering to the devout, reassuring the suspicious, not so subtly pleading with the electorate in our seemingly increasingly religious nation would appear obvious and depressing. Even mildly nauseating . . . .

Our president seems, in his religious protestations, actually to forget that there are worthy people in this country who are not Christian. (There are many who are not even religious, but it seems these days to be an unspoken rule that we Americans, with the exception of Bill Maher, do not acknowledge that fact when waxing patriotic.) . . .

Thomas Jefferson,  for The Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, wrote, in 1777: “ . . . all men shall be free to profess, and by argument to maintain, their opinions in matters of religion, and that the same shall in no wise diminish, enlarge, or affect their civil capacities.” The statute became state law in 1786. Surely our president has read this.

The Constitution makes it clear that none of this fervency, devotion, belief or, certainly, affirmation of religious sect is either necessary or relevant in Mr. Obama’s role as our leader. And it is to our credit as a nation that it is not. Now, Mr. Obama is a constitutional scholar, if I am not mistaken. He is a smart man, smarter than most of the population of this country. I assume he is smarter than I am, yet this irrelevance, his spirituality, on which he repeatedly insists, is obvious to me as just that: irrelevant. How can it not be obvious to him? How can he mindlessly (I give him credit here) undermine one of our nation’s great virtues, kicking out of sight, behind him, into a black hole, a treasure of our democracy, every time he tells us he is Christian.

The only place in the Constitution of the United States in which there is a reference to religion at all is at the end of Article Six, which reads: “[N]o religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States.”

In notes for a speech introducing the Bill of Rights, (June 8, 1789), James Madison  wrote: “The civil rights of none shall be abridged on account of religious belief or worship, nor shall any national religion be established, nor shall the full and equal rights of conscience be in any manner, or on any pretext, infringed.”


This poor woman does not understand the Constitution.  A President giving testimony to his faith—and some people taking note of that testimony, or preferring to vote for someone of whose religious beliefs they approve or regard as a sign of good character—does not amount to a religious test for officeholding or an establishment of religion or a violation of the proverbial separation of church and state.  Indeed, the free exercise of religion applies even to the President; he can pray when he wants to and testify to his faith when he wants to.  He can even pray for guidance before he signs a law, urges a policy, or commits the nation either to war with one nation or to peace with another.  Ben-Avi is free, if she wishes, to regard such prayer as delusional or a sign of mental weakness.  I’m free to regard it as some indication of an appropriate modesty (something of which the President all too infrequently gives evidence).  Ben-Avi would clearly prefer to have Christians or other believers seen, but not heard, least of all in the Oval Office.  Her view seems to constitute a certain kind of informal religious test, or, if you will, a kind of (anti-)religious prejudice.  She’s entitled to her opinions; she’s even entitled to vote for or against people because they agree or disagree with her.  Again, that’s what freedom of religion means.  I disagree with her.  I wouldn’t vote for her if she were running for office.  But if she won and wanted to testify to her lack of faith, I wouldn’t be offended, so long as she did not call me (or rather, people like me) stupid or credulous.  President Obama, like President Bush before him, has bent over backward to decouple religion and morality, at least in his public statements.  By testifying as to who he is, he shouldn’t be offending anyone.

Then there’s this spirited atheist :

In a political sense, the most nausea-inducing portion of Obama’s speech was his embrace of Oklahoma’s arch-conservative Sen. Tom Coburn (R) as “a brother in Christ.” The president said, “Even though we are on opposite sides of a whole bunch of issues, part of what has bound us together is a shared faith, a recognition that we pray to and serve the same God. And I keep praying that God will show him the light and he will vote with me once in a while.” This remark got a big laugh from the good old boys and gals at the prayer breakfast but Coburn and his views are nothing to laugh about.

The godly Coburn, an obstetrician before he became a politician, is the same Tom Coburn who, in his senatorial campaign in 2004, declared that he supported the death penalty for doctors who perform abortions and “other people who take life.” If I were the president, I’d be careful about claiming anyone like this as a “brother in Christ.” Obama needs Coburn as a brother like Abel needed Cain . . . .

What secularists lack, and have always lacked, is the kind of political organization that wields any real power. That is the major task facing American secularists today and only one thing is clear: we are wasting our time with internecine quarrels between those who prefer to call themselves “skeptics” and those who answer only to the name “secular humanists,” between so-called hard and soft atheists. We all have much more in common with one another than Obama does with Coburn, but you’d never know it from the disunited front we present. And as long as skeptics are taking swipes at humanists and atheists are calling one another out for being insufficiently caustic (or too caustic) about religion, we will never be able to mount an effective challenge to “sacred,” historically recent “traditions” like this inane prayer breakfast—or to the damaging proposals that various “brothers in Christ” are formulating to make their religious views the law of the land.


Like Jacques Berlinerblau, Susan Jacoby thinks that community flows from political agreement.  Barack Obama and Tom Coburn can’t be brothers in Christ because they disagree about things like abortion.  Or, more precisely, being a so-called “brother in Christ” must be meaningless if it’s accompanied by disagreement about something as momentous as abortion.  Well, that’s interesting.  If I don’t agree with Jacoby, are we entitled to disrespect or indeed hate one another?  Do we belong to different nations or communities?  (“Jesusland” and “the United States of Canada” ?)

My own view is that if “brother in Christ” means anything in this context, it offers the President a ground for loving and respecting the Senator despite their disagreements.  It holds out the possibility of agreement down the road.  How far down the road, given our fallenness and fallibility,  is another question.  Indeed, I’d argue, following St. Augustine, that the only perfect community is the City of God or, if you will, brotherhood in Christ.  I don’t know that Barack Obama and I mean quite the same thing by this; he has spoken, after all, about creating the Kingdom here on earth .  I prefer to regard this sort of language as an indicator of the limits of politics and of any contingent community based solely upon political agreement.  Barack Obama and Tom Coburn are larger than the roles they play as President and Senator.  And that’s a good thing.

Lastly, I can’t resist commenting on this, also from Jacoby:

The newly emboldened religious right is also taking on state constitutional provisions that bar organized prayer in schools. On Feb. 1, the Virginia House of Delegates passed a measure that would amend the Virginia constitution so that “the people’s right to pray and to recognize their religious beliefs, heritage and traditions on public property, including public schools, shall not be infringed.” This is particularly Ironic, because Virginia led the way—and provided a template for the federal constitution—by passing a law in 1786 that banned taxation for religious instruction in public schools, The Virginia Act for Establishing Religious Freedom, originally written by Thomas Jefferson and supported by a coalition of Baptists and freethinkers, became the first state law to definitively establish separation between religion and government institutions.

Like Ben-Avi, she seems to misunderstand religious freedom.  The Virginia House of Delegates has approved an amendment that would protect prayer on public property, but not require that anyone pray.  Indeed, she conveniently forgot to quote this part of the amendment: “however, the Commonwealth and its political subdivisions, including public school divisions, shall not compose school prayers, nor require any person to join in prayer or other religious activity.”  Permitting people to pray, but not requiring them to do so, would seem to be the very essence of religious liberty.  It’s freedom of religion, not freedom from religion.

I was accustomed to this sort of criticism directed against George W. Bush.  That Barack Obama is also on the receiving end of this kind of vitriol bespeaks a certain disappointment in him on the part of his (erstwhile?) supporters.  They can’t believe that he would stoop to such pandering (as they have to understand it).

I know that conservative Christians have often been accused (sometimes rightly) of being ungenerous to their political opponents.  But they can, one hopes and prays, be called to the better angels of their natures.  How do you address those who are ungenerous, but don’t believe that there can be better angels of their natures?

Articles by Joseph Knippenberg

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