Considering their left-of-center views on a plethora of issues, many atheist activists saw President Barack Obama as the lesser of two evils this election season. But their disdain for Mitt Romney wasn’t only limited to policy. When juxtaposed against Obama, the former Massachusetts governor is overwhelmingly more devout in his faith and its practice — something that served as a turnoff to many non-believers. Consider, as one anecdotal example, the anti-Mormon rhetoric that famed non-theist Richard Dawkins recently spewed on Twitter.
Now, in the wake of Obama’s victory, atheists are setting their sights on a popular American tradition — the inclusion of the Almighty in the official presidential oath. The Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF), an atheist activist non-profit, sent a letter to Obama on Friday, urging the president to remove “God” from the proclamation.
“I write to respectfully ask you to re-examine the use of religion as a political tool in your second term as president,” wrote Andrew L. Seidel, an attorney with the group.
The FFRF lawyer went on to cite the increase in the proportion of Americans who do not embrace a higher power, noting that one in five are now “nones,” meaning that they are not attached to any particular faith. Seidel described these individuals — and most notably, the nation’s younger cohort of “nones” — as a group that is “tired of leaders injecting religion into politics.”
“For secular America, religious rhetoric is empty. Religious justifications for government action are hollow arguments invoking an authority that we reject,” Seidel continued. “Politicians often use religion to pander to their base, but we find such rhetoric exclusionary and distasteful.”
The letter goes on to note that, since Obama isn’t planning to run for future office, now is the time to court secular Americans, while giving them some apparently much-needed preferential treatment. The FFRF lawyer provided the president with the opportunity to “do something that no president in recent memory has done: reach out to secular Americans.” But rather than leaving the method through which Obama could do such a thing to the imagination, Seidel suggested that the president make a monumental move on January 21.
“When you stand to reaffirm your oath, do so using the language of the Founders. Eliminate the religious verbiage,” he wrote. “While you’re at it, why not place your hand on the Constitution instead of a bible?”
The FFRF maintains that the current practices of using the Christian holy book and invoking God’s name are violations of the Constitution. However, history shows that religious themes have been very much a part of the inauguration process. Consider the following description of George Washington’s first proclamation (and the faith-themed events that characterized it):
At Federal Hall, Vice President John Adams, the Senate, and the House of Representatives awaited the President’s arrival in the Senate Chamber. After being received by Congress, Washington stepped from the chamber onto the balcony, where he was followed by the Senators and Representatives. Before the assembled crowd of spectators, Robert Livingston, Chancellor of the State of New York, administered the oath of office prescribed by the Constitution: “I do solemnly swear that I will faithfully execute the office of President of the United States, and will, to the best of my ability, preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution of the United States.” After repeating this oath, Washington kissed the Bible held for him by the Chancellor, who called out, “Long live George Washington, President of the United States,” and a salvo of 13 cannons was discharged. Except for taking the oath, the law required no further inaugural ceremonies. But, upon reentering the Senate Chamber, the President read the address that is featured here. After this address, he and the members of Congress proceeded to St. Paul’s Church for divine service. A brilliant fireworks display in the evening ended the official program for this historic day.
While it is true that Washington did not use the word “God” in the oath, he kissed the Bible and a church service followed his speech. So, clearly, the FFRF’s characterization of a religious-free procession is not entirely accurate. You can read the organization’s full letter to Obama here.
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