Sunday, April 24, 2011
April 23-24, 2011: Reasons to Believe
If there’s one way in which I have occasionally been made to feel like an American minority, left out of many of our national narratives—don’t worry, I’m not going to go into one of those routines about how tough it’s getting for a white male these days; I have long since instructed friends and family that if I ever come within a million miles of that utterly nonsensical perspective, they should have me euthanized immediately—it’s as an atheist. In my Intro to American Studies class we watched a portion of Ronald Reagan’s 1983 “evil empire” speech last week, and as part of that speech’s intro he approvingly quotes an anonymous entertainer who had said that he would rather his two young girls die as children, believing in God, then grow old and die non-believers in the USSR. Despite the Cold War-specific context, Reagan absolutely and unequivocally endorses the broader themes of the anecdote, making clear, at least to this atheist, that the man who was president for eight of my first eleven years of life feels I would have been better off dying as a child then living a full life with my particular spiritual point of view. (And yes, the speech was delivered to an evangelical organization, but the president is still the American president, regardless of where or to whom he’s speaking, so I still take that sentiment pretty personally.)
That was more than twenty-five years ago, of course, and I suppose there have been signs that this particular limit of our national definitions is broadening slightly. Certainly I was deeply gratified when Barack Obama, in his 2009 Inaugural address, argued (and the Reagan speech proves just how much it is an argument, not a given) that “we are a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus, and non-believers”; moreover, while that line and various other meaningless moments and details have contributed to the deeply sleazy line of right-wing attacks on Obama as a closet atheist (and/or Muslim) who only professes a Christian faith, for the most part Obama’s inclusion of non-believers in the national community went unremarked upon. Yet no one can listen to the president end every speech with “God Bless America,” or listen to both my son’s preschool class and my university’s honors convocation still including “under God” in our Pledge of Allegiance, or witness the number of ballparks at which “God Bless America” has permanently replaced “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” for the 7th inning stretch, among many other daily and constant reminders, and argue that we do not still define ourselves as a religious people in ways that implicitly but unquestionably render us atheist Americans slightly less fully part of the national community. Again, I hasten to add that this kind of exclusion is far, far less weighty than the others on which I have focused in recent posts—but nonetheless, until we can imagine an avowed atheist successfully winning the presidency, exclusion it very much is.
With it being Easter Sunday (and Passover) and all, this post might seem unnecessarily provocative or argumentative. But I actually am thinking about this issue for reasons that are, I hope, more about community and connection than division or exclusion: it’s a beautiful spring day here in Massachusetts, and we did a little outdoor Easter Egg hunt with the boys. My younger son has his issues with sharing, but today, for whatever reason, he was on his very best behavior—every time he saw two eggs he would grab one and then direct his older (and significantly less aggressive) brother to the other one. It was a beautiful thing, done by two beautiful boys (I’m biased, but you can judge for yourself on that picture up there), on a beautiful day, and it made me feel a profound faith—not in God, but in the soul, in the world, in the best of who we people and Americans can be and of what links us into one national and human family. And I know it runs counter to some of the pessimisms about our national community I’ve articulated in this space (and elsewhere) lately, but I have to feel that many other Americans, of every faith and every political perspective and every community, were doing and feeling the same today.
Happy Easter, Passover, Egg Hunts, April 24th, and whatever else today might mean to you! More tomorrow,
PS. Three links to start with:
1) Reagan’s speech: http://millercenter.org/scripps/archive/speeches/detail/3409
2) Obama’s speech: http://www.whitehouse.gov/blog/inaugural-address/
3) OPEN: What do you think (or believe, although I do like the bumper sticker that asks us not to believe everything we think)?