"Before we get carried away, let's read our Bibles now," said the young first-term Senator from Illinois in his speech to Call for Renewal, a liberal Christian group. "Folks haven't been reading their Bibles!"
It was June 2006, and it wasn't long before Barack Obama started to draw the wrath of evangelicals like James Dobson for the controversial speech. Earlier, he had asked:
Which passages of Scripture should guide our public policy?
Should we go with Leviticus, which suggests slavery is okay, and that eating shellfish is an abomination?
Or we could go with Deuteronomy, which suggests stoning your child if he strays from the faith.
Or should we just stick with the Sermon on the Mount, a passage that is so radical that it is doubtful that our own Defense Department would survive its application?
Ever since his presidential campaign, Obama's religious beliefs have been the focus of constant, unending speculation. Fox and Friends co-host Steve Doocy has been obsessed with the fact that Obama hasn't yet joined a church since moving to Washington and that he didn't make 2009's National Day of Prayer a formal event. Later in the year, his network duly noted that Obama hadn't even attended church on Christmas.
Bret Baier had had enough. By the time March rolled along, the issue of the Obamas' churchlessness resurfaced on his show, this time accompanied by a graphic showing Barack and Michelle Obama in front of a cross, with a caption reading "Commitment Issues." Fair and balanced indeed.
And then the poll came. Now that we know that almost one in five Americans believes Obama is a Muslim, with only a third saying he's a Christian, the president's religion is in the headlines again.
The 2008 campaign had some unabashed religio-political undertones. A pandering John McCain had declared the United States a "Christian nation." There was a presidential debate held by Saddleback Church pastor Rick Warren, where Obama and McCain were asked in detail about their religious beliefs. And a Jesus-freak hockey mom who had said that the Iraq war was "God's plan" got pretty close to becoming vice president.
That election season had followed eight years of progressively increasing "religionization" of America under a president who, during a debate in his 2004 re-election campaign, had said, "God wants everyone to be free, and that is part of my foreign policy."
As evidenced by the wide attention paid to the poll on Obama's religion (conducted before his remarks on the Park51 mosque controversy) and his swift rebuttal to the allegations of his non-Christianity, the religionization process is well, alive and thriving.
Obama isn't the first president to have to deal with this. Abraham Lincoln, who never joined a church and was notoriously ambiguous and secretive about his religious beliefs, famously said, "The Bible is not my book nor Christianity my profession." In his later years, despite denouncing those who were "enemies of" or "scoffed at" religion, he reiterated, "My earlier views of the unsoundness of the Christian scheme of salvation and the human origin of the scriptures, have become clearer and stronger with advancing years and I see no reason for thinking I shall ever change them."
And Lincoln wasn't alone, either. In fact, the United States was created by a very skeptical group of Founding Fathers.
The Treaty of Tripoli, ratified by the Senate and signed by President John Adams in 1797, stated clearly in Article 11 that the US government is "not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion."
Thomas Jefferson, who famously wrote to Joseph Priestley in 1801 that Christianity was "the most perverted system that has ever shone on man," constructed his own version of the Bible, the Jefferson Bible, by snipping out the supernatural aspects of Christianity like angels and the Trinity, and including only the aspects relating to the life and morality of Jesus Christ.
Benjamin Franklin, also famously suspicious of organized religion, penned a dissertation detailing his criticism of Christian principles, and openly questioned the divinity of Jesus Christ.
And even though George H. W. Bush declared in 1987, "I don't know that atheists should be considered as citizens, nor should they be considered as patriots," another George -- George Washington -- said of the workmen he sought to employ at Mount Vernon, over two hundred years earlier in 1784, "If they are good workmen, they may be of Asia, Africa, or Europe. They may be Mohometans, Jews or Christians of any Sect, or they may be Atheists."
The words "under God" weren't added to the Pledge of Allegiance until 1954, and America's current "In God We Trust" motto didn't appear on coins until 1864, although it only became the official US motto in 1956, when the country was undergoing a religious revival buoyed by the likes of then Secretary of State John Foster Dulles' belief that opposition to communism was justified not because of the Soviet Union's totalitarian regime, but because of it being run by atheists.
Ever since, there has been an unofficial religious litmus test for presidential candidates, and the effects have never been more blatantly in-your-face than they are now: at a time when the country may be headed for a double-dip recession and the unemployment rate still lingers close to 10 percent, the hottest stories in the media have to do with an Islamic cultural center near Ground Zero and what religion the president adheres to.
For those of us who value the principle of separation of religion and state, it's like watching a public argument about whether the president believes in Santa Claus or the Tooth Fairy.
We are encouraged, however, by the fact that based on much of what Barack Obama has written and said before running for office, including his speech to Call for Renewal and others like it, America may have the most secular president that the Oval Office has seen in decades. Secularism is not about hostility towards religion but neutrality towards it. Like Lincoln, Obama keeps his beliefs to himself, and apart from the occasional re-affirmation of his supposed Christianity -- triggered by the odd, sporadic, acute need for damage control as in the aftermath of the poll -- he doesn't wear them on his sleeve.
His thoughts on religion can be gleaned much more easily from his books, where he describes his biological father as a "confirmed atheist" and his mother as an "agnostic"; about his stepfather, whom he describes as a "nominal Muslim," he writes, in The Audacity of Hope:
When my mother remarried, it was to an Indonesian with an equally skeptical bent, a man who saw religion as not particularly useful in the practical business of making one's way in the world, and who had grown up in a country that easily blended its Islamic faith with remnants of Hinduism, Buddhism, and ancient animist traditions.
In Obama's own words:
I was not raised in a religious household.
My maternal grandparents, who hailed from Kansas, had been steeped in Baptist and Methodist teachings as children, but religious faith never really took root in their hearts. My mother's own experiences as a bookish, sensitive child growing up in small towns in Kansas, Oklahoma and Texas only reinforced this inherited skepticism. Her memories of the Christians who populated her youth were not fond ones.
Occasionally, for my benefit, she would recall the sanctimonious preachers who would dismiss three-quarters of the world's people as ignorant heathens doomed to spend the afterlife in eternal damnation -- and who in the same breath would insist that the earth and the heavens had been created in seven days, all geologic and astrophysical evidence to the contrary.
She remembered the respectable church ladies who were always so quick to shun those unable to meet their standards of propriety, even as they desperately concealed their own dirty little secrets; the church fathers who uttered racial epithets and chiseled their workers out of any nickel that they could ...
... For my mother, organized religion too often dressed up closed-mindedness in the garb of piety, cruelty and oppression in the cloak of righteousness.
... I was made to understand that such religious samplings required no sustained commitment on my part -- no introspective exertion or self-flagellation.
Religion was an expression of human culture, she would explain, not its wellspring, just one of the many ways -- and not necessarily the best way -- that man attempted to control the unknowable and understand the deeper truths about our lives.
... [I]t was a phenomenon to be treated with a suitable respect, but with a suitable detachment as well.
... [A]lthough my father had been raised a Muslim, by the time he met my mother he was a confirmed atheist, thinking religion to be so much superstition.
Later, Obama talks about embracing Christianity in his 20s, implying that it was more about gaining a sense of belonging to a community than anything supernatural:
My work with the pastors and laypeople [in Chicago] deepened my resolve to lead a public life, but it also forced me to confront a dilemma that my mother never fully resolved in her own life: the fact that I had no community or shared traditions in which to ground my most deeply held beliefs. The Christians with whom I worked recognized themselves in me ... but they sensed that a part of me remained removed, detached, an observer among them. I came to realize that without an unequivocal commitment to a particular community of faith, I would be consigned at some level to always remain apart, free in the way that my mother was free, but also alone in the same ways she was ultimately alone.
In such a life I, too, might have contented myself had it not been for the particular attributes of the historically black church, attributes that helped me shed some of my skepticism and embrace the Christian faith.
This dynamic is a win for reason and rationality. Even in embracing Christianity the way he said he did, Obama is still selective: he claims to have shed "some" of his skepticism, and where his skepticism stays, it's in the right place, as evidenced by his skepticism about Scripture.
Obama may be a functional Christian, but as a man born into and raised by a family of non-religious rationalists with a healthy skepticism about religious faith, he is unlikely to govern as one.
He is also unlikely to make statements like the one Bush 41 made about atheists not being citizens or patriots. In his 2006 speech, Obama said:
Democracy demands that the religiously motivated translate their concerns into universal -- rather than religion-specific -- values.
It requires that their proposals be subject to argument, and amenable to reason.
I may be opposed to abortion for religious reasons, but if I seek to pass a law banning the practice, I cannot simply point to the teachings of my church or evoke God's will. I have to explain why abortion violates some principle that is accessible to people of all faiths -- including those with no faith at all.
So why the constant reaffirmations of his Christian faith? Well, it's quite possible, even likely, that Obama lied about his religious beliefs in order to be elected.
In his 2002 TED talk, renowned evolutionary biologist and atheist activist Richard Dawkins cited Paul G. Bell's meta-analysis of 43 studies from 1927 onwards showing that highly intelligent people, with high IQs and education levels, were significantly less likely to be religious. Dawkins also mentioned a 1998 study by Larson and Witham, who found that of the American scientists in the prestigious National Academy of Sciences, only 7 percent believed in a personal God.
"So, we've reached a truly remarkable situation, a grotesque mismatch between the American intelligentsia and the American electorate," said Dawkins. "If I'm right, this means that high office in the greatest country in the world is barred to the very people best qualified to hold it, the intelligentsia, unless they are prepared to lie about their beliefs." He added, "To put it bluntly, American political opportunities are heavily loaded against those who are simultaneously intelligent and honest."
In light of this unfortunate scenario, most rationalists around the world who believe that Obama is a closeted non-believer are willing to give Obama a pass on this. They do hope, though, that he comes out of the closet in his second term -- while also realizing that he may not actually make it that far if he comes out of the closet now.
Currently, agnostics, atheists, and those with no religious affiliation constitute 16 percent of the US population. That's more than Hispanics (15 percent), blacks (12 percent), or Jews (2 percent). In one of the most stark turnarounds in decades, the United States seems to have a president, raised by agnostic skeptics, who has an approach of inclusion not only towards those of all religions ("No regrets"), but also of no religion.
It's irrelevant whether Barack Obama is a Christian or a Muslim -- as long as he governs like he's neither.